Fiona Sheng

Artist | Creator | Educator

The life of an ink brush

The oriental calligraphy and painting both depend on ink brushes, 毛笔 in Chinese (毛筆 in traditional writing), meaning “hair pen” literally. A brush is composed of a rounded hairy head and a long stem. You have seen a brush being used, but do you know when it came into being, which hairs are involved, how complex is the making of one brush, or how to select brushes? Let us make an attempt to finding these answers here!

The Origin of Ink Brushes

Creator: Qin Dynasty General Meng Tian?

Early Brushes, War State

Many records attributed the Qin Dynasty General Meng Tian (250 BC – 210 BC) as the creator of the ink brushes as we know today. However, according to the archeological discoveries, with the discovery of some War State (475 BC -221 BC) brushes, the previous conclusion is directly contradicted, pushing the creation of ink brushes a few hundred years earlier.

Some scientists believe that after carefully studying the lines made on some clay objects dating back to as early as 6000 years ago, the patterns were drawn using hair brushes.

Coloured Clay (Ban Po Culture, around 4000 BC)

These scientists also concluded that the use of brushes preceded the use of characters, the brushes may have been invented to facilitate painting and to help apply makeup.

Therefore, I believe what can be more realistically analysed is that the ink brushes have been with us for at least 3000 years, and the very first brushes may not have been created to help us write.

Which Hairs Are Used?

Oriental Ink Brush

The most common painting brushes are made from either “goat hair” “羊毫” or “weasel hair” “狼毫”.

The latter is not to be confused with “wolf hair” – quite some mistakes have been made from the character “狼” which generally refers to “wolf”, but it also appears in the names of many other animals, including weasels, “黄鼠狼”. Notice also in the name of weasel, there is a character “鼠”, meaning “rat”, which is another point of confusion, as we also have a brush type called “rat whiskers”, “鼠须”, which may still have more to do with weasels than actual rats. I will explain why in a bit.

The goat and weasel hair brushes have been proven to be the best throughout history, however, in the attempt to make nice and useful brushes, people have had many tries, including using more locally available animal hairs, such as the hairs of rabbits, chicken, horses, dogs, etc.

Calligraphy by Emperor Shun Zhi (1638-1661), Qing Dynasty

Among these various hairs, two general categorisation can be drawn: soft hair brushes vs. tough hair brushes. Goat hair brush is the perfect example of the soft hair category. In using these soft hairs, one can load the brush with lots of liquid (ink or color) in the character writing or painting, creating shapes or lines that are typically with great strength but can be “beefy” – therefore larger characters can require such brushes, and such characters appear a lot in the main halls of old temples or palaces.

On the other hand, the tough category involve many hairs, typically weasel hair or rabbit hair. These brushes can contain less liquid in comparison, but the brush lines are finer, sharper, and therefore more suitable for details. The issues involving these brushes would be that they are generally smaller, more expensive than the goat hair brushes, and they are worn much more quickly. If you hold a brush to the light, at the very tip of it the hairs appear to be half transparent, and these are important in determining whether a brush a of high quality, and such tips exist in both soft and tough brush categories. However, in the tougher hair brushes, such tips are more prone to fray.

It is also common to mix the soft and tough hairs in one brush, with the soft hairs surrounding the tough core of the brush head, so that the brush contain the best quality of both categories. These brushes may also have synthetic hairs at the core for strengthening purposes. Skilled painters often have their preferences when it comes to brushes, but beginners may find these mixed hair brushes easier to use in general.

Lan Ting Xu, Jin Dynasty, Wang Xi Zhi (353)

Because of the need of certain characteristics of hairs in a brush, the selection of the animal hair becomes all the more crucial. The season, geographic location, region on the animal body, the weight of the animal, the length of the hair and more all effect the quality of the hair, they all play a key role in determining whether a brush is a good one. For instance, the rabbit back hairs along the spine are more acceptable, because these areas have fewer nature wear; Goat hair can only be taken from certain species of goats, the various locations of the body produce different strength and length of the hair, so for different purposes, we need to choose different part of the body to collect hair; Weasel hair typically come from the weasels native to the Northeastern China, and it is on the top side of their tails that the hairs are the top quality.

Rat whiskers on the other hand may not obtain the tip required for brush making, so even though it is widely believed that such brushes were invented in the Han Dynasty, its actual use may be rather limited, and the brushes may have very little percentage of rat hair inside. In addition, whiskers of animals do not even make good brushes, so either way, despite the stories and tales of certain calligraphers in the past (such as the famous Lan Ting Xu partially shown in the photo above), rat whiskers are unlikely the material for any brush making, especially today.

This blog is becoming long, so let us break it down to two parts, and in the coming blog let us continue exploring the life of a brush – we will find out about the making of a brush, and the selection of a brush! Stay tuned!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Purple, the new black

In the previous blog there was one unanswered question regarding the Forbidden City – why is it called “purple” forbidden city in Chinese when it is in fact red? Today let us continue our journey through colors and take a look at the color purple.

The question from the previous blog:

Forbidden City in the dusk

The name of Forbidden City is in fact “purple” forbidden city. Do you know why there is “purple” in its name?

In Chinese, purple or violet is written as “紫” which has the upper side that means “here” or “foothold”, and the bottom that symbolizes silk. It is a character that has been associated with long robes that sweeps the floor and worn by the royalties since the creation. However if you still remember, there are five primary colors in the oriental societies, and purple is not one of them. And if you recall, the so called primary colors in the oriental society are much more than mere colors, the “primary” gives them legitimacy, they are considered pure and in a sense, correct. This in turn also means that all the other colors are much less right, much less legitimate. So it makes sense that the Forbidden City, a royal palace, was decorated mainly in red walls and yellow roofs – its significance can be seen directly with the color impact – in the name though, there has to be a “purple”, why?

purple abstract art

“Yesterday and tomorrow cross and mix on the skyline. The two are lost in a purple haze. One forgets, one waits.”

– Carl Sandburg

It is because “purple” is considered an auspicious celestial color! In the ancient time, “purple clouds” were used to describe fortunate aura, and “purple residences” were meant to describe the locations where gods and goddesses lived. The legendary Laozi, the founding father of Taoiasm, was seen to have emerged from the east riding on the back of a blue cow a few days after the auspicious sighting of purple clouds rising from that direction. In the later period, “purple books” were taken to refer to Taoism classics. There are many slangs including the character “purple” that refer to great fortune, and these slangs are still in use today. Therefore it is possible to conclude that since ancient time, people have been rather in awe towards this color, even though it has never been considered primary.

The origin story of the holy purple color was similar between the East and the West. One of the main reasons for this sentiment was that purple fabric around 3000 years ago cost about five times the same quantity of ordinary colored fabric in the oriental world.

Illustration from the internet

Duke Huan of Qi (?-643BC)

Illustration from the internet

The Duke Huan of Qi (齐桓公) loved purple color, and it was because of him that the price of purple fabric became that expensive about 3000 years ago. He was one of the rulers in the Spring and Autumn period, and there have been many stories or legends recorded about him. One of them that stood out was his preference towards purple. Little did he know that his preference set a trend in the nation, and before he knew it, every citizen was trying to buy purple clothes, which drove the price into the sky. He then decided to take the advice of his consultant and ceased wearing purple, the nation quickly followed and the price dropped back to normal.

In the later Dynasties, perhaps under the influence of the Duke Huan of Qi, the governments set a rigid rule about who were allowed to wear certain colors, and for the majority of the empirical time, only the highest ranking officials were honored with this color. Even so, this color remained rather expensive.

Illustration from the internet

Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye (1636)

Illustration from the internet

This painting by Peter Paul Rubens was one of him later creations. In here the dog of Hercules ripped through a sea snail, which dyed its mouth and nose purple. This captured a mythical origin story of the Phoenician discovery of the purple dye, in the city of Tyre.

The sourcing of the purple dye between the East and West was quite different. The purple dye obtained from the mollusks (as illustrated in the painting) was so small in quantity that resulted in the extremely high market price. One statistics recorded that over 9000 such mollusks were needed to produce 1 gram of the purple dye – a very rare commodity indeed! What this means is that not even all European royalties could afford such color. But it also associated purple directly with royalty, wealth and power.

In the East, it is the purple gromwell plants that contributed to the purple color on fabrics. The process of dyeing from such plant was complex, because it takes several times of dyeing before the fabric can take on the right shade, and this dye only shines over silk – other common fabric such as flax does not display its true beauty. This plant also has very low production, and it is afraid of heat, so only in autumn or winter could beautifully colored purple silk be produced.

Illustration from the internet

Purple gromwell

Illustration from the internet

These purple plants were the main contributor to the purple dye in the oriental world.

With the explanation above, we can safely conclude that the color purple was not only rare but also expensive – it could only be used by the most powerful and the most wealthy people in the world. It is also therefore heavily connected with the concept of royalty, the gods, an existence beyond human world. So back to our original question, it was because the Forbidden City was home to the “son of heaven” that it in fact, should be called the “purple” Forbidden City. Did you get it right?

Today is May 20th, in Chinese the numbers 520 sounds like “I love you”, so in this blog I also want to express my love towards all of you – your love and support keep me going! Thank you ❤️❤️❤️

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Culture in FIVE colors

In the western painting classes, one of the first things to learn about would be the primary colors, the secondary colors and the tertiary colors, unless it is a sketching class. In the oriental painting class however, the first few lessons might be focused on the use of brush and ink, you would learn about the properties of your painting tools, a good teacher would also talk about the philosophies of the oriental art, and finally, you will be shown how to express these ink lines using colors instead. It almost feels that colors are negligible.

It is true that the oriental brush art can be called the “水墨”, the “water-ink” art, but it also has a name, “丹青”, which literally means “red-blue” art. In here, the words “red” and “blue” are expressed in a more poetic way, they are essentially “red-blue” nonetheless. So the use of colors is definitely a key aspect of the oriental art expression, and today let us take a look at five main colors.

close up photo of rainbow colors

Life is like a box of crayons. Most people are the 8 color boxes, but what you’re really looking for are the 64 color boxes with the sharpeners on the back. I fancy myself to be a 64 color box, though I’ve got a few missing. It’s okay though, because I’ve got some more vibrant colors like periwinkle at my disposal. I have a bit of a problem though in that I can only meet the 8 color boxes. Does anyone else have that problem? I mean there are so many different colors of life, of feeling, of articulation. So when I meet someone who’s an 8 color type… I’m like, hey girl, Magenta! and she’s like, oh, you mean purple! and she goes off on her purple thing, and I’m like, no I want Magenta!”

– John Mayer

When talking about colors, you may have the mental image of sunlight passing through a prism, the different wavelengths appear as rainbow colors. This is the scientific way of seeing the world, the Western way. The science went on to determine the properties of colors more in detail, coordinating all colors according to their brightness, saturation and hue, therefore all colors can be arranged, all of them have a place in the wheel. In the East, especially in the art world, the “scientific facts” are always secondary to our cognitive system, instead it is our subjective view of the world that comes first. In the painting specifically, it is even encouraged. The guiding philosophy of applying colors is to use them as a more detailed means of expression, in order to transmit our minds. The only categorization of color would be the primary and all the other colors.

The primary colors are similar in their use as the western ones, they are seen as the original colors, colors that could not be made. The difference is that there are five of them: black, white, red, turquoise, and yellow. These colors are chosen from the five elements in the traditional mythology.

The Four-Winds of the traditional mythology

Illustration from the internet

On the left is a graph of the “four-winds” of the oriental mythology, one ruling a quarter of the heavens, each represented by an animal, and each having its own color. The mythology was based on the star systems, and with some imaginations, these constellation became beautiful and mighty animals in the sky. In the North we have Xuan Wu, a turtle and a serpent combined; in the South we have Zhu Que, a phoenix; in the West there is Bai Hu, a tiger, and in the East we have Qing Long, the dragon.

The North governs water, black is the color; the South governs fire, red is the color; the West rules metal, white is the color; the East controls wood, turquoise blue is the color. They surround and protect the middle, the Earth, yellow is the color.

There are also five virtues assigned to each of these elements, wood means benevolence (“仁”), fire means propriety (“理”), earth means fidelity (“信”), metal means righteousness (“义”), and water means wisdom (“智”). And various empirical periods in the oriental history takes a virtue as their guiding value system, especially before and around the Han Dynasty (202BC-220), so you may see a dominant color from a specific period of time in the oriental history. Since the Sui Dynasty (581-619) a color system was also established for the outfits of governmental officials, the pure colors only appeared in the higher up officials, the lower the rank, the less pure the color in the general sense. Some the five colors can only be used by the royal families only, or be awarded to the outstanding officials.

Han Dynasty, Han Wu Di (156BC-87BC)

Han Dynasty changed their value system from water to fire, but in the outfit of the Emperor, both value systems are clearly visible.

Civilians wore natural colors mostly, and green was a great color option.

Tang Dynasty, Tang Tai Zong (598-649)

Tang Dynasty took the bright yellow as a royal color, which became the general rule for the rest of the empirical history. The use of yellow has been limited in the civilian world ever since. There are exceptions of course, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) also loved red for its royal color, for example.

But in general, the Tang Dynasty colors were similar to its vibrant culture, beautiful variations of red, green, purple, and blue could all be seen, demonstrating its overall prosperity.

It was after the Ming Dynasty that the more colorful civilian outfit became more popular, this perhaps also has to do with the advancements of the dyeing technology. The civilians for a very long time were referred to as the “cloth outfits”, so their outfits mostly appeared brown. People who were from different social status wore their assigned colors normally, but let us keep all these color varieties for the topic of another time!

A question for you…

Forbidden City in the dusk

The name of Forbidden City is in fact “purple” forbidden city. Do you know why there is “purple” in its name? Let us find out in the coming blog!

Among the five primary colors however, in the oriental painting, black and white stand out as the two dominant colors, if they can be considered as such. This comes down to black in fact, as the white is normally the paper or left blank. The black here is not one pure dark color, there are many degrees and shades of the ink. Nevertheless, it is still the black and white eventually that rule them all, why is that?

The oriental painting is more of a philosophy than a painting, it takes root in the Taoist ideology – men and nature are in harmony, and in this world Yin and Yang coexist, the world turns and the cycle of life never ends. Black becomes white, white turns to black, exist and not exist becomes the same in the end. In a piece of painting, it all boils down to an atmosphere, a life energy, with it the painting is alive. The painting resonates with us on an emotional level, so extremely put, in reality the symmetry, perspective or color matter no more.

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Have you heard of these animal spirits?

Fennec Fox – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 40cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

In the oriental belief, everything in the world can be sentient, animals, flowers, trees, even rocks! You may have heard of the story of the Monkey King, he was born right out of a piece of rock that had been blessed over the thousands of the years by the sunlight, the moonlight, the air, and all the amazing essences of the various elements in the world. The moment he was born, the Monkey King’s eyes shot golden rays all the way into the heavens. The Jade Emperor was astonished, but was greatly relieved when he saw that the golden rays disappeared after monkey ate human food and drank human water.

This of course was the origin story of one of the most popular super heroes in the Eastern world. However, in the civilian world, there are more of such animal spirits that are part of the traditional belief system. Different from the birth of the Monkey King though, the most recognised five animal spirits achieved immortality via practice, during the thousands of years of hard work, they found the way, the Tao, and became immortal. They are the fox spirit, the weasel spirit, the hedgehog spirit, the snake spirit, and the rat spirit. These animal spirits are neither demons nor angels, their attitude towards human depends largely on how they have been treated. All these animal spirits could conjure human shapes, and they are very powerful. Therefore in the ordinary lives, people tend to treat these animals with great respect, so that they could enjoy the protection or at least not be harmed by them. Let us take a look at each individually.

Fox Spirit

The fox spirit is probably the most well known of the five, and the story was more popular in Japan. Since the Tang Dynasty, the fantasy stories of fox spirits have been rather wide spread, and the fox spirits often appeared as beautiful women, who usually were believed to seduce young men. However, many of the fox spirits who took female shape also fell in love, and they remained loyal to their family and devoted completely to their loved ones, and were seen as the most virtuous non-human human.

Among the various stories of the fox spirit that has been in circulation for over 1000 years in China, there was one about a “nine-tailed fox”. This was a special fox, who gained one tail every 100 years of painstaking practice, eventually receiving the most lives represented by nine tails. “9” is the heavenly number, it is also seen as the biggest number. The countries around China also have tales of the fox spirits, such as in Japan, foxes are worshipped, because they are considered the protecters of rice and crops. There are quite a few various fox spirits in Japan, some good and some bad as well. Korea and Vietnam also has similar stories involving the fox spirits.

Weasel Spirit

The weasel spirit is linked with people’s mental world according to the common belief. The people who have offended the weasel spirit would experience a malady similar to epilepsy in the physical form but would cry, mumble or sing insanely too. They would not recognise their family or friends, and there is no real cure.

Hedgehog Spirit

The hedgehog spirit is recognised to have healing powers, but it can also be harmful if offended. There are temples for them too, just like temples for any other animal spirits in this list, but the hedgehog spirit does not require complicated rituals, as long as the house owners remember to always present her with steamed buns or meat, they are satisfied. I say “her” because this spirit is often associated with the image of an older lady, who is quite often seen as a witch.

Snake Spirit

The snake spirit is ancient, and the snakes also became the models that lead to the creation of dragons. People believe that snakes are sensitive animals, they have special shapes, and they are more powerful than the fox spirits. There are many folktales involving snake spirits, and I believe that the oriental culture is rather favourable towards them instead of the neutral attitude towards the other animal spirits. One of the supporting examples would be that the two ancient ancestors who have created the world according to the oriental mythology are half human, half snake.

Rat Spirit

Finally we have the rat spirit. Rats have always been considered smart animals, they have the ability to move in the dark, making them more mysterious, and some even believed that they could predict the future, and increase the wealth.

The Chinese names of each of the animal spirits mostly are based on their colour, such as yellow spirit, white spirit and grey spirit, referring to weasel, hedgehog and rat respectively. The fox spirit uses the word fox, but the snake spirit calls it willow, as in the willow tree, perhaps because of the shape of a snake. The worship towards these spirits are no longer in practice in the general sense, but as a tradition that existed, I think it is worth mentioning.

What do you think of such folk belief though? I find it generally beautiful because the people who created them were genuine and fair – they tried to do the right things so that they could expect the right rewards. Also, there was no prejudice towards any animals, flower or plants, everything in the world had a chance to become something more if they worked hard. It reminds me of what chief Seattle once said “All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man. The air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.”

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

White wolf, an auspicious animal

White Wolf – Oriental Ink Brush Painting

Rice Paper, 40cm x 50cm

By Fiona Sheng

@InkDifferent Studio | Brussels

Today in our live stream we focused on the wolf freehand brush painting. This was the first attempt from me, and even though the painting is not mounted yet, which makes it much flatter and more suitable for photographs, I believe this freehand wolf turned out quite alright! This is a painting of a white wolf, or arctic wolf, a subspecies of the grey wolf that lives in the high arctic tundra in North America. Such white animals in the ancient oriental culture are symbols of fortune, they are considered auspicious signs.

close up photo of white wolf in the forest

“A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf.”

– George R. R. Martin

In fact, there are quite a few auspicious signs in the oriental culture, and there are five levels of them: the five spirits, the grand auspicious sign, the high auspicious sign, the medium auspicious sign, and the low auspicious sign. These names are easier in Chinese, two characters describing each level (五灵、大瑞、上瑞、中瑞、下瑞). Our white wolf belongs to the third level, it is a high auspicious sign.

The five spirits include Qilin, Phoenix, Turtle, Dragon, and White Tiger (some say Pi Xiu, a bear-tiger physical shape).

The Qilin is a mystical creature, known to have the head of goat, body of a deer, feet of a wolf, with scales, antlers, and the tail resembling a dragon. It is around two meters tall, lives about 2000 years, and is often associated with the bringer of children. A Qinlin is benevolent, gentle creature, but it can be rather scary when angry, and only the very virtuous people can be compared to a Qilin.

The other four auspicious signs in this level are also the four winds, the protectors of the Norther, Southern, Western and Eastern heavens.

QinLin 麒麟

The second level involves mostly natural phenomenon, especially four virtuous stars and fortunate clouds. But the natural phenomenon also includes timely snow fall, timely rain, sunlight, moonlight, northern light, frost, solar and lunar eclipses, springs, calm ocean, ancient trees blooming etc. Some emperors take such natural occurrences as a sign of blessing and recognition from the heavens. Other emperors use such signs to reinforce their status as a ruler, after all, the people generally are very impressed by these unexplainable signs!

The next level includes many white animals, and the white wolf is high on the list of being an auspicious sign, because they can only been seen by the people ruled by the most benevolent and kind emperor. On this list there is also the white deer, white fox, white bear, white ape, and white and RED rabbit – I do not suppose there were many records of it.

The second to last level includes birds. Eagle, red wild goose, white swallow, white chicken, and many more are on this list. The final level involve all kinds of plants and stones.

Auspicious Cranes

Song Dynasty, Zhao Ji, Liaoning Museum

This painting was created by the last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty. Story has it that on the 16th day after the Spring Festival of 1112, a large flock of cranes came lingering around the palace, it was a magnificent and extremely auspicious sight. The emperor Zhao Ji, who was also a wonderful artist, excitedly recorded this image in the form of a detailed painting and complimented it with a poetry.

Artistically this painting is truly elegant, unfortunately for the nation however, merely 15 years after the creation of this painting the nation was lost to the Jin invasion, Zhao Ji (Song Hui Zong) became the very last emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty. This painting was also lost during the war and chaos. 600 years later it turned up magically – I cannot imagine what it must have been through, but auspicious signs and all their blessings presented us with an emperor who was a much better artist in the end.

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Shoes, crazy shoes

I must admit that I am not that passionate about shoes, but I cannot resist sharing some of the fascinating or insane shoes stories. Speaking of the shoe culture in the world, one may think of those stilt-like high heels. One kind of the entertainment news that everyone hears about but refuse to admit would be those celebrities tripping on stage. Records generally attributed the invention of the high heels to le roi soleil – Louis XIV (1638-1815), however there are in fact some earlier records in the eastern world that worth some digging too about high heels!

Han Dynasty (202BC-220BC) Clog

In the archaeological findings China discovered that wooden clogs have been used since very early periods, normally to be used to walk in the muddy fields, and this tradition started some 3000 years ago. In the ancient poetry during the Spring and Autumn period (770BC-221BC) there were also mentions of beautify ladies dancing in clogs, and how the sound resonates in the halls. So it is both men and women who wore these clogs.

In the Han Dynasty, wooden clogs were also an essential object to accompany girls when they get married. A famous poet, Buddhist, and explorer, Xie Lingyun (358-433) was acknowledged to have invented the wooden clogs with removable teeth. His invention was rather interesting, because it allows one to remove one of the two teeth of the clogs to assist maintaining balance either when climbing up the mountain or descending from it.

What followed was the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the wooden clogs started to look like the modern Japanese kinds. This was also the period where the two countries were extremely active in cultural exchange. In the more recent history, wooden clogs were used often in tropical regions to protect the splashing of mud onto the pants, and to prevent “Hong Kong feet”. Have you heard of this term? In Chinese it refers to the smell arising from the shoes after walking a full day in them – I think you get the gist. But the wooden clogs are one of the many “high heels” that ever existed in the oriental world, there are many more, and some rather strange and even disturbing.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Shoes

The Song Dynasty and Ming Dynasty gave birth to some disturbing traditions, including foot-binding. A decent lady must have super tiny (around 10cm / 4”) and arching feet, so young girls sustained great pain to fold their toes down under their feet, until they were useless. These feet were called the golden lotus, and the women walking with such feet could never be fast.

Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) Shoes

This picture shows a pair of the typical Qing Dynasty Manchu aristocrat shoes. Luckily ladies no longer needed to suffer from the foot-binding pains, but I suspect walking on these may invoke other pains if not careful. The heels of these can range from 5-10cm / 2”-4” to as high as 25cm / 10”! Probably no high heels of modern world could match those! If you have watched some Qing Dynasty TV shows, you most likely have seen these.

One of the possible reason for the invention of such crazy high heels was to hide the large feet ladies have under the bottom of their skirts. Another says that the Manchu ladies invented these shoes to protect their feet from bug bites in the mountains when picking mushrooms or fruits.

Either way, the relentless struggle seems to continue between us and our feet. Who knows, perhaps when the lady feet are no long the popular torture subjects, the high heels for men would regain popularity. However, I do feel very lucky to have been born in our modern world!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

Mindful Art, Zen Home | InkDifferent Studio

Anything up your sleeve?

Have you been in a situation where you are about to leave the house, you already put on the outfit, selected the right shoes, and you know exactly which purse to take, but you do not feel like taking it? It happens to me constantly! When this happens in the winter I find it easier, because many of my jackets have lots of pockets that allows me to put in my phone and keys, but if it happens in the summer, I would have no choice but bring a bag. I have seen many girls going shopping with their boyfriends, and it is their boyfriends who end up carrying their pretty purses… In the ancient oriental world, such problems do not have to exist, it is because the people wear outfits that have great capacity for carrying things, and such “pockets” are not even visible from the outside. Now how do you think they manage to hide all their belongings?

Solution: sleeves!

Sleeves are the best place where anything can be held without attracting any attention, and this location would not interfere with the integrity of the outfit. An even better result is that hiding anything in sleeves make it so much harder for thieves to pick pockets.

Other than sleeves, the belts can also fold in some tiny objects, or if this person is wealthy enough, servants will be following around, and they can carry as many things as possible.

Now that you know that the sleeves hide a small world, are you wondering about the technicality of it too, such as how to keep things from falling? You are asking the right questions, the design is rather practical, and the pockets’ openings are in the opposite directly from the opening of the sleeves! I also suspect by keeping stuff in the sleeves, the sleeves can look nicer too, with the weight added. Keep in mind though in the various Dynasties these sleeve styles look different, also between male and female they also have differences in style. However, in general, whenever possible, it is in the sleeves that all the treasures hide. What about these treasures, what do people normally carry around?

Solution: money, letters, handkerchief, and sometimes a few small sticks

The most common things found in a sleeve would be money, which is why we even have a slang describing the governmental officials who are clean with integrity to have “breezes in their sleeves”, clearly, no money found there! Letters and handkerchiefs are common, they are also useful daily things. What about these small sticks?

Solution: early calculator!

Believe it or not, these rather unremarkable sticks served as the early version of calculators. They can be made of wood, bamboo, ivory or jade for fancier people. We no longer know the exact time of their invention, but in the Spring and Autumn period (770BC-476BC) they were already well in use. Do you know how they work? It is certainly not “1 stick = 1 –> 1000 sticks = 1000”, what math would that be! Give us Asians some credit 😉

Solution: see the chart on the left!

Their use is something that follows either the top or the bottom line, so there are two ways to use them, and to make calculation it is rather simple. I will not go into how to use them to do addition, subtraction or multiply here, but enjoy the exploration!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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What makes a beautiful lady?

In the previous blog we discussed one particular measurement of “beauty” in men, and today, let us talk about beauty of a lady. In the oriental world, there has always been some rather tangible aspects against which a beautiful lady is measured. The looks of a lady is a consideration: the hair shall be abundant, the forehead shall be wide, the eyes shall be clear, the mouth shall be apricot-shaped… the face shall be flower-like, the graceful waist shall resemble the willow tree, the body fat shall be sufficient. These are well-written in the ancient texts, guiding the aesthetics for generations, but these only refer to the physical appearance of a lady so far.

Song Dynasty Painting

Ladies worked hard to preserve their beauty since the ancient time. There were quite some toxins involved to make their faces white, because being white has always been a standard girls of today still follow! The most lethal of them all would be lead, arsenic, and cinnabar.

A beautiful lady has to be educated, because the inner beauty and the external beauty support each other. Women have always been able to receive education, and in the early periods, they were always able to move about rather with ease. In the later dynasties however, the feudal society tightened its fists and squeezed away quite some rights of female – this aspect aside, in general, girls were able to receive education, and some were able to obtain official status in the governments. The four most elegant subjects are: music, chess, calligraphy and painting. These are the advanced skills to acquire in addition to knitting, and the ability to read. The skills of music, chess, calligraphy and painting are considered graceful abilities, these are also places where emotions could be expressed freely.

Qing Dynasty Painting

This painting shows a lady playing a musical instrument called Guqin. It is a plucked instrument of seven strings, both ladies and gentlemen in the older days would take pride in playing Guqin, which is considered an instrument of “great subtlety and refinement”, and it is not to be confused with a popular modern instrument called Guzheng. I personally believe that string instruments pair the best with the oriental art, Guqin from the eastern world, and cello from the western world.

Qualities of a beautiful lady.

Tang Dynasty Painting

Chess or game of go, both are called “Qi”, and they are both enjoyed by people in the older days, male and female. This nice pass time allows for the practice of strategy as well as socialisation.

Ming Dynasty Painting

Another elegant pass time of a lady would be practicing Chinese calligraphy. Slowly grind some ink on the ink plate, light a stick of incense, and then spend the entire afternoon perfecting the character that contain so much emotion in every single line, what a life!

Qing Dynasty Painting

Painting is a most elegant activity for a lady also. The poetry that lingers the mind needs materialisation, and the painting brushes would help to extract these lines of poetry and write them down on a piece of paper or silk. Yes, it is writing, these paintings are just like visual journals, they are written with our hearts.

Qing Dynasty Painting

The life of a beautiful lady is busy but at a leisurely pace. She takes great care of herself, her family, and her life. She notices the flowers blooming in her garden, she greets small animals that come her way. She is always patient and kind, she becomes a cup of tea that exudes long lasting fragrance.

A beautiful lady makes everything in her life beautiful. So what makes a beautiful lady? The looks will disappear one day, but the confidence, the experience, the most comforting quality shall always remain.

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Back in time, are you still a beauty?

Our appreciation of what is “beautiful” has evolved over time – “evolve” may be inaccurate – it surely has changed. A common knowledge of the Han Dynasty was that there was once a magnificent dancer who was slim and elegant, and she captured the heart of the emperor, so civilians started to starve themselves in order to be beautiful just like her; In the Tang Dynasty, people enjoyed the wealthy and luxurious life, and therefore being full-figured became the measurement of beauty. It seems that girls have long been conscious about our curves. But what about men? Throughout the Oriental history there have been two major considerations of beauty amongst men: eyebrows and beard. The international sentiments towards keeping beard is profound, so this time let us only focus on the oriental tradition.

In fact, there may have been more practical reasons for keeping a moustache or a beard, most likely to keep warm and perhaps to show off masculinity. These facial hairs may even serve to intimidate enemies during battles. It is believed that in the Qin Dynasty people believed so, which is why on the faces of the Terracotta warriors beards are often present.

The word for beard or moustache in Chinese used to be “须”, “髭”, or “髯”. The distinctive three parallel strokes consistently present in each character represented the drawing of facial hair. Depending on the location of such facial hair, the names are different. It seems the most important one has been over the lips, “髭”, which determines whether a person is beautiful. The presence of facial hair was also crucial for emperors, in which case, they are called the dragon hair, “龙须”. Today, we can still find noodles named the “dragon hair” to represent their fine quality.

In the beginning, images of Buddha has beard too!

In order to maintain high quality facial hair, men in the older days did quite a lot. In the book of an ancient pharmacist named Sun Si Miao from the Tang Dynasty, there were quite a few recipes on how to maintain dark and quality facial hair, and then about how to dye the hair dark, perhaps as a desperate final resort. People also worked hard at pulling out the white hairs, so that the moustache or beard always looked neat. Good facial hair was a sign of intelligence, making the bearer trustworthy and capable. The dates dedicated to maintaining the facial hair has to be carefully selected, the remaining facial hair cannot be too much or too little, because ladies would pass judgements on them, sometimes a male may be deemed unfit as the marriage material due to their facial hair. This is quite serious indeed!

Han Dynasty Emperor, Han Wudi (156BC-87BC)

Tang Dynasty, Tang Tai Zong (598-649)

So there are three kinds of facial hair that matters, the kind between the nose and the upper lip, the kind on the chin, and the sideburns. Exactly how the combinations worked changed over time, but in general, one notable change was that the upward facing hairs above the lips went downwards, you can see the trend by comparing the illustrations of the various emperors.

Qing Dynasty, Qian Long (1711-1799)

There were some historical discontinuation on the long love for facial hairs, before the Han Dynasty, people generally considered facial hairs came from parents, and therefore shall not be harmed, so there was no shaving at all; In the North Kingdom (386-581), some young men shaved it all off and even used face powder, but they were quickly despised by the following generations; The Buddhism followers after the Song Dynasty generally shaved all the hair on the head, believing that it was the way to cut all ties with the mundane life, without such ties, they could focus on what really matters in the spiritual world. Perhaps moustache and beard also have this function, to create links with our world, and if that is the case, perhaps they are not so bad? But do you find facial attractive?

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What Animal Lives on Your Roof?

What animals have you got on your roof? Have you got stray kitties? Various birdies? What about mosquitoes? Well, let’s hope that you do not have the last one. In the ancient Oriental land, the emperors have quite some interesting animals on their roofs, did you know about them? So today let’s talk about these special cultural icons, the ridge animals. They are the permanent residents of the rooftop of some magnificent buildings in China, they replaced the regular tiles, adding aesthetic and function to these architectures.

If you have visited some oriental buildings from China, Japan, Korea, etc., you may have seen some rather curious shapes on the rooftops, they resemble animals, and sometimes people. These are very unique decorations that exists in the Eastern world, and they not only secure the structure of the roof, functions as lighting rods in some situations, but also demonstrate the level of authority in this very building.

This illustration describes the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing

There are usually odd numbers 3, 5, 7 or 9 animals on the each side of the ridges, the higher the level, the more animals there are. The fairy riding phoenix at the front only appears on high-level buildings. The Hall of Supreme Harmony is the only one in existence that has 10 animals.

Have you ever wondered what these animals are? Let’s take a look one by one.

Fairy riding phoenix

This marks the beginning of the ridge animals, legend says that the phoenix saved the life of an emperor in the Qi Dynasty, and since then this tradition was kept to seek blessing, protection and fortune.


The dragon is an ancient magical creature, it controls rainfall and brings great fortune.


The creature of virtue, bringer of harmony and happiness.


The symbol of authority, justice, and bravery.

Sky Horse

Capable of chasing the sun, can bring light to the earth.

Ocean Horse

Can turn a situation into an auspicious one, together the sky horse, they demonstrate the virtue and authority of the emperor can reach the heaven and the ocean.

Suan Ni

Magical creature, can eat tigers and lions, leader of all animals. It has a dragon head, love fire.

Xia Yu

Magical ocean creature, bringer of water, protects structures from fire damage.

Xie Zhi

Magical Unicorn, known to come from the Northeast, very loyal, strong, and just.

Ox (Dou Niu)

One type of dragon, ox head with scales. They are known to control water, they also create clouds when it rains.

Xing Shi

Unique to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the image resembles that of the god of thunder in China, with the bird beak and wings. Perhaps it protects the building from thunder strikes.

Now you have great trivia knowledge, if you win the next pub game, remember to give me a thank 😉

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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