Beijingers enjoy a reputation of being thrill seekers. The culture is reflected in every aspect: Liulichang Cultural Street's four treasures of the study (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper), ancient books, calligraphy and paintings blend with traditional culture and modern civilisation; Beijing-style fans and archaised porcelains speak of a time of elegance and luxury.
Located south of Hepingmen (Gate of Peace) in Xicheng District, Liulichang Cultural Street is bordered by Nanliu and Beiliu alleys on the west and Yanshou Street on the east, and has a total length of about 800 metres. During the reign of Emperor Shunzhi (1644–1662), the Han and Man ethnic people were ordered to live apart from each other in Beijing.
Because of its location, Liulichang was home to many Han ethnic officials. Guildhalls were built nearby. Government officials and candidates who were coming to Beijing for imperial examinations frequent book fairs.
Many time-honoured shops along Liulichang Cultural Street include Qingmige (paper shop), Yidege (ink shop), Daiyuexuan (Chinese writing brush shop), and Cathay Bookshop (China's largest store for ancient and second-hand books). The most well- known is Rongbaozhai (Studio of Glorious Treasures), the so-called “Folk Forbidden City.”
Ancient Chinese Books, Calligraphy and Paintings
Ancient writings, calligraphy and paintings of successive dynasties are historical evidence of the 5,000-year Chinese culture. Written Chinese characters developed into a special art form known as calligraphy, closely connected to Chinese painting, because the same calligraphy techniques are employed.
Chinese writing brushes and brush-
wielding techniques are used in the creation of Chinese calligraphy and paintings, both of which have become intertwined in Chinese visual arts.
To date, the restoration of ancient books has a history of over 100 years. Yiyatang is a store in Beijing well known for its picturemounting techniques. Since its affiliation began with Cathay Bookshop in the 1950s, Yiyatang has restored more than 300,000 worn-out Chinese books. With the arrival of the information age, Cathay Bookshop, with a strong business background dealing in old books, has launched an online store.
Reputed as the “Folk Forbidden City,” Rongbaozhai has always had the tradition of collecting calligraphy and paintings. Its collections embrace ancient treasures and the works of renowned calligraphers and artists from ancient and contemporary China. It also has a rich collection of four treasures of the study. In particular, Rongbaozhai possesses a Tianhuang stone weighing 4,275 grams, regarded as the largest of its kind in the world.
Rongbaozhai's watercolour block printing is reputed as a “living cultural relic.” The painting “Han Xizai's Evening Banquet” is recognised as a representative work that utilises a watercolour block printing technique.
Four Treasures of the Study
The four treasures of the study are tools for writing, all unique to China, which symbolise precious world materials as well as spiritual and cultural legacies. They embody China's long- standing cultural history, illustrate creation, development, and continual tradition of writing tools from different places, and reflect the scholarly wisdom of writers drawn from nature.
For thousands of years, Chinese calligraphy and painting have relied on this set of traditional writing materials to convey people's thoughts and feelings. In the eyes of ancient Chinese people, writing materials and instruments were more like spiritual companions rather than practical tools.
Referring to the writing brush among the “four treasures of the study,” Daiyuexuan first comes to mind. Established in 1916, Daiyuexuan sells brushes produced in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province. It was named after its founder, Dai Bin, who called himself “Yuexuan,” and is over a century old. Writing brushes from Daiyuexuan display exquisite workmanship and come in three different types.
In recent years, Daiyuexuan has also branched into other fields. The Hui-style ink stick made by Daiyuexuan is popular with calligraphers and artists because it has a rich and delicate texture and glossy finish. Xuan paper, made with traditional workmanship, is as pliable as foil. Duanxi ink slabs have a high quality with exquisite workmanship.
Qingmige is a time-honoured shop on Liulichang Cultural Street. Qingmige has a history of more than 600 years. As a shop that deals in paper from South China, Qingmige provided “four treasures of the study” to the imperial families and government authorities, including the most important six ministries during the Qing Dynasty. Qingmige sells Xuan paper, writing paper and Chinese vermilion seal paste. The “eight-treasure” Chinese vermilion seal paste is handmade with eight raw materials such as cinnabar and gold leaf.
Another time-honoured shop on Liulichang Cultural Street is “Yidege,” established in 1865 and is well known for its ink. The two characters “Yide” are the first two characters in the verse that constitute the couplet on its entrance door. Since the establishment of the Yidege Ink Factory in the 1950s, technicians have developed Yidege ink, Zhonghua ink, and the “eighttreasure” Chinese vermillion seal paste based on traditional skills acclaimed by calligraphers, artists and other ink users.
“Yidege ink” is a traditional product developed with the Yidege Shop in 1865. High-quality black carbon ink, animal glue and high-grade aromatic spices are used, and fine traditional workmanship is applied to produce the “Yidege ink.” The product features bright ink marks, facilitates smooth writing, and leaves behind thick markings with a rich fragrance. It also dries easily, is suitable for mounted calligraphy and paintings, water-resistant, doesn't fade, and usable during all four seasons.
Beijing-style Folding Fans
As the saying goes, “Get your fan rack for summer.” Fans, which can be waved to relieve the heat or lifted to create shade, enjoy a long history in China.
Folding fans were extremely popular in Beijing during the Ming and Qing dynasties, when playing and collecting fans was common. Fans became essential to writers. In Beijing, fan shops specialised in repairing, making and selling fans decorated with calligraphy, poems or coloured paintings appeared. Fan shops mainly sold paper fans. But they also sold paper and four treasures of the study, as fans are used seasonally.
At that time, in addition to Rongbaozhai, Qingmige and Songguzhai sold fans with plain coverings and glue-based golden paint, or invited well-known calligraphers and artists to paint on their fan coverings. Other well-known fan shops included Qinghanzhai on Liulichang East Street and Dailianzeng at the eastern mouth of Damochang in the old Chongwen (present- day Dongcheng) District.
In modern times, the Rongbaozhai and Hongbaotang fans at Liulichang Cultural Street have the most abundant rendering of calligraphy and paintings. They depict historical stories, local opera figures, landscapes and different kinds of calligraphy. Xuan paper or Yunmu letter paper is mostly used as fan covers.
The fan combines various traditional Chinese handicrafts including carving, inlaying and lacquering techniques used to make fan slats, and to render calligraphy and paints on fan coverings. The fan has become a precious treasure of China.
Today, in addition to the timehonoured shops on Liulichang Cultural Street, the Guyun Fan Shop and Zhenggao Fan Shop located at Shilihe are the most well-known for fans in the Beijing style. Zheng Gao, a fan craftsman from Beijing, makes innovative fan designs based on inherited traditions.
Beijing Archaised Porcelain
Beijing archaised porcelain or “Beijing fanggu (antique-style) ci (porcelain)” seems to be a kind of imitation. Beijing archaised porcelain is a traditional art that dates back to the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1723) in the Qing Dynasty. It refers to porcelain making and painting techniques inherited from the imperial porcelain workshop during the reigns of Emperor Kangxi, Yongzheng (1723–1736) and Qianlong (1736–1795).
Beijing's archaised porcelain has been developed and passed down among the people. In the early 20th century, porcelain-making techniques became more enriched, and the completed porcelains had an exquisite quality in body texture, glaze colour, with fine picture quality.
In 1900, Zhan Yuanguang, a porcelain master adept at drawing, colour-filling, glazing and firing, came to Liulichang from Jingdezhen, launching the history of manufacturing Beijing archaised porcelains.
Beijing archaised porcelains are decorated with patterns and various themes: vivid human figures, mountain stones, and lifelike flowers, birds, fish and insects. Porcelains modelled after those made with “wucai (five colours),” a porcelain-making technique prevalent during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, feature notable strokes and strong redgreen contrast, highlighting a distinct ethnic style.
Jurentang Beijing Archaised Porcelain is a time-honoured shop in Beijing with a history of more than 100 years, dating back to the palace workshop of the Qing Dynasty. The Beijing archaised porcelains produced by Jurentang come in various shapes, such as arrow carriers, garden seats and porcelain pearls.
Jurentang adheres to traditions of porcelain-making by using purely natural mineral substances such as pigments. Before the pigments are used, they're put into a grinding miller for about 30 days. Then they are given to craftspeople and grinded manually for another 15 days, ensuring that the pigments are refined and durable.
Nowadays, modern arts and crafts masters absorb the strong points of others in an effort to be innovative while inheriting traditions of their predecessors. They are developing hand-made porcelains with decorative patterns to appeal to people's desires and tastes. These efforts allow Beijing's archaised porcelains to better reflect the charm of a bygone age.
Liulichang Cultural Street
Four treasures of the study
A fan with calligraphy