General Meng Tian and the invention of the Hu Brush

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peaceful section of the Great Wall

Meng Tian and the writing problem

Meng Tian (蒙恬) was a famous general of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of Qin dynasty who united China by 221BC.  His most famous legacy is the construction of large sections of the great wall and highways to control the northern borders.  (Qin Shi Huang is the Emperor fictionalized in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”.)

In 223 BC Meng Tian led the army in a war against the Chu kingdom in Zhongshan region.  The conflict was intense on both sides and the war dragged on for a long time.  Meng Tian had to deliver regular battle reports to the Qin ruler to keep him up to date with the battlefield situation.

According to legend, in those days people wrote on silk with a kind of stick pen. As the pen had no reservoir of ink, the writer had to constantly dip the pen back into the ink for every stroke, making the writing very slow.  Also, it was very easy to get too much ink on the pen resulting in ink drops and smears on the expensive silk.  So, as Meng Tian had to write a lot of urgent reports, he was increasingly frustrated with the difficulty of writing.

Rabbit tail brush experiment

Brush

One day Meng Tian was out hunting in the wild and caught a few wild rabbits.  He carried the rabbits back to the barracks, with the tails trailing on the ground. On the way, he noticed traces of blood painted on the ground by the rabbit tails.  Then it occurred to him: “What if the rabbit’s tail works better for writing, instead of the ordinary pen?”

After returning to the barracks, Meng Tian immediately cut a rabbit tail, stuck it on a piece of bamboo, and tried to use it to write.  However the rabbit hair was oily, and did not hold the ink, so the words written on the silk were patchy and unreadable. Meng Tian tried it a few times, and still it didn’t work, it ended up being a waste of valuable silk. Infuriated, he threw the rabbit tail brush out into a pit in the rocks.

Still, Meng Tian couldn’t accept failure and continued to spend time wondering how to improve the brush.  But for days, he couldn’t think of a workable solution.

 

Solution to the problem

A few days later, he walked out of the barracks for some fresh air.  Passing the pit, he found again the first rabbit hair brush that he had thrown away.  Picking it up again he found it had changed and was now softer and wet – holding water.   Immediately Meng Tian was inspired and went back to the barracks.  He dipped the brush back in the ink and found the rabbit tail became very “obedient”, absorbed the ink, and permitted very smooth, rounded writing.  It turns out that the pit in the rocks contained water that was alkaline from the limestone rocks.  Soaking a few days in this water made the rabbit hair becomes soft.

Because of stem of the brush was made of bamboo and rabbit hair, Meng Tian added a “bamboo” radical ⺮ to the brush character to the brush radical 聿 (yù) to make a new character 筆 (bǐ).  Now in modern simplified chinese written as笔 (the bamboo radical above a hair radical)。  This is normally written as 毛笔 (máobǐ) for hair brush or 湖笔 (húbǐ) for the Huzhou brush.

Brushes are made from a wide variety of hair types
Brushes are made from a wide variety of hair types

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