Monday, March 19, 2012


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Penjing in root-over-rock style on display at the Chinese Penjing Collection of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C.

Penjing (Chinese: 盆景; pinyin: pén jǐng; literally "tray scenery"), also known as penzai (Chinese: 盆栽; pinyin: pén zāi; literally "tray plant"), tray landscape, potted scenery, potted landscape, and miniature trees and rockery is the ancient Chinese art of growing trees and plants, kept small by skilled pruning and formed to create an aesthetic shape and the complex illusion of age. Penjing generally fall into one of three categories classified by subject matter: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Japan's bonsai tradition (bonsai being the Japanese pronunciation of penzai) is derived from penjing.

Generally speaking, the primary visual differences between the two forms is that bonsai traditionally tend to be more simplified in shape (more "refined" in appearance) with larger-in-proportion trunks and planted in containers whose lines are basic with muted, earth-tone colors. In contrast, penjing tend to be designed in a wider range of shapes (more "wild-looking") and can be planted in brighter colored and more creatively-shaped pots. Distinctions between the two forms have been blurred by some practitioners of these arts outside of Asia as the enthusiasts explore the local potentials of both plant and pot materials with less strict adherence to traditional styling and display guidelines.


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Penjing at the Rock and Penjing Museum in Wuhan, China

Classical Chinese gardens often contain arrangements of miniature trees and rockeries known as Penjing. These creations of carefully pruned trees and rocks are small-scale renditions of the natural landscape. They are often referred to as living sculptures or as three-dimensional poetry. Their artistic composition captures the spirit of nature and distinguishes them from ordinary potted plants.

Origin of the Components

The container known as the pen originated in Neolithic China in the Yangshao culture as an earthenware shallow dish with a foot. It was later one of the vessels manufactured in bronze for use in court ceremonies and religious rituals during the Shang dynasty and Zhou dynasty.[1]

When foreign trade introduced into China new herbal aromatics in the 2nd century BCE, a unique incense burner was designed.[2] The boshanlu stemmed cup was topped by a perforated lid in the shape of one of the sacred mountains/islands, such as Mount Penglai – a strong contemporary belief—often with the images of mythical persons and beasts throughout the hillsides. Smaller versions of the pen dish were sometimes used as bottom pieces either to catch hot embers or to be filled with water to represent the ocean out of which the sacred mountains/islands arose. Originally made out of bronze, ceramic, or talc stone, it is believed that some later versions were actual interesting-shaped stones which occasionally were partly covered with moss and lichens to further heighten the miniature representation.[3]

Since at least the 1st century CE, Daoist mysticism included the recreating of magical sites in miniature to focus and increase the properties found in the full-size sites. The introduction of various schools of Buddhism from India after the mid-2nd century included the meditative dhyana sect whose translations sometimes used Daoist terminology to convey non-physical concepts. Also, floral altar decorations were introduced and floral designs started to become a dominant force in Chinese art. Five centuries later the Chán school of Buddhism was established when renewed Indian dhyana Buddhist teachings were merged with native Chinese Daoism. Chán maintained its more active, vital spirit even as other Buddhist sects were becoming more rigidly formalized.[4]

Earliest Versions

While there were legends dating from at least the 3rd and 4th centuries of Daoist persons said to have had the power to shrink whole landscapes down to small vessel size,[5] written descriptions of miniature landscapes are not known until Tang Dynasty times. As the information at that point shows a somewhat developed craft, (than called "punsai")[6] the making of dwarfed tree landscapes had to have been taking place for a while, either in China or possibly based on a form brought in from outside.[7] (As an example of possible general foreign influence around this time, the first major influx of foreigners into the rebuilt capital city of Chang'an occurred in 630 when Eastern Turks (Göktürks) were defeated by the Tang dynasty army and thousands of Turkish families moved to live in the city).[8] The exact jump from the sometimes use of a pen tray to hold rock and plant landscape to the creation of distinct penjing is unknown.

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Tang Dynasty prince Zhang Huai tomb mural(706 AD), with tray of pebbles and miniature fruit trees

The earliest-known graphic dates from c.706 and is found in a wall mural on a corridor leading to the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai at the Qianling Mausoleum site. Excavated in 1972, the frescoes show two maid servants carrying penjing with miniature rockeries and fruit trees.[9]

The first highly-prized trees are believed to have been collected in the wild and were full of twists, knots, and deformities. These were seen as sacred, of no practical profane value for timber or other ordinary purpose. These naturally dwarfed plants were held to be endowed with special concentrated energies due to age and origin away from human influence. The viewpoint of Chán Buddhism would continue to impact the creation of miniature landscapes. Smaller and younger plants which could be collected closer to civilization but still bore a resemblance to the rugged old treasures from the mountains would also have been chosen. Horticultural techniques to increase the appearance of age by emphasizing trunk, root, and branch size, texture, and shapes would eventually be employed with these specimens.[10]

From Tang times onward, various poets and essayists praised dwarf potted landscapes. A decorative tree guild from around 1276 is known to have supplied dwarf specimens for use in Suzhou restaurants in the province of Jiangsu.[11]

In Japan

Although imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan had returned from the mainland with miniature landscape souvenirs since the 6th century, the oldest known depiction of a dwarfed tray landscape in Japan dates from 1309. The fifth of the twenty-scroll Kasuga-gongen-genki masterpiece depicts the household of a wealthy Japanese individual who has an outdoors slatted-workbench holding a shallow wooden tray and ceramic dish of Chinese origin with dwarf trees, grasses, and stones.[12] By this time Chán Buddhism had been developed in Japan as Zen. Its influence of "beauty in severe austerity" led native Japanese dwarf potted landscapes to be distilled into single, ideal trees being representatives of the universe. What is termed bonsai derives from this.

Middle Years

Since at least the 16th century, shops of the name "Garden of Dragon Flowers," to the southwest of Shanghai, were engaged in cultivating miniature trees in containers. (These would continue to the present day.) Meanwhile, Suzhou was still considered at century's end to be the source of the finest exponents of the art of penjing.[13][14]

The earliest-known English observation of penjing in China/Macau dates from 1637.[15]

During the end of the 18th century, Yangzhou in central Jiangsu province boasted landscape penjing that contained water and soil.[16]

19th Century

In 1806, a very old dwarf tree from Canton (now Guangzhou) was gifted to Sir Joseph Banks and eventually presented to Queen Charlotte for Her Majesty's inspection.[17] This tree and most others seen by Westerners in southeast China probably originated at the celebrated Fa Ti gardens near Canton.[18]

By the first half of the 19th century, according to various Western accounts, air layering was the primary propagation method for penjing, which were then generally between a foot and two in height after two to twenty years of work. Elms were the main specimens, along with pines, junipers, cypresses, and bamboos; plums were the favored fruit trees, along with peaches and oranges. The branches could be bent and shaped with various forms of bamboo scaffolding, twisted lead strips, and iron or brass wire; they could be cut, burnt, or grafted; the bark was sometimes lacerated at places or smeared with sugary substance to induce termites ("white ants") to roughen it or even to eat the similarly sweetened heartwood. Rocks with moss or lichens were often also a feature of these compositions.[19][20][21][22][23][24]

The earliest known photograph from China which included penjing was made c.1868 by John Thomson (photographer).[25] A collection of dwarf trees and plants from China was also exhibited that year in Brooklyn, New York.[26] Socio-political attitudes, especially in America with laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, favored the Japanese people and culture over the Chinese. This led to the subsequent initial acceptance during the next several decades of the Japanese forms of dwarf potted trees before those of the Chinese.[27]

Near the end of the 19th century, the Lingnan or Cantonese school of "Clip and Grow" styling was developed at a monastery in southeast China. Fast-growing tropical trees and shrubs could more easily and quickly be shaped using these techniques.[28]

20th Century

Established in 1954, the Longhua nursery in Shanghai included the teaching of classical theory and all aspects of the practice of penjing, a process which could take student-gardeners ten years.[29]

As late as the early 1960s it is reported that some 60 characteristic regional forms of penjing could be distinguished by the expert eye.[30] A few of these forms dated back to at least the 16th century.[31]

During the upheaval of the misguided Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (May 1966-April 1969+), one relatively small effect was that many collections of penjing in Mainland China—especially around Beijing—were destroyed or neglected because they were seen as a bourgeois pastime. After their trees were gone, some Chinese penjing masters, men in their sixties and seventies, were forced to do something considered socially redemptive—many were sent to fields to plant rice. However, in some cities further to the south and east, some penjing had been collected for safe keeping.[32][33][34]

Wu Yee-sun (1905–2005), third generation penjing master and grandson of a Lingnan school founder, held the first exhibition of artistic pot plants jointly with Mr. Liu Fei Yat in Hong Kong in 1968. This was a display of traditional aristocratic penjing which had survived the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution by leaving/being protected from Mainland China. The two editions of Wu's Chinese/English book, Man Lung Garden Artistic Pot Plants, helped develop interest in this older form of what the West only knew as the later-refined Japanese art of bonsai.[35]

The Yuk Sui Yuen Penzai Exhibition was held in Canton in 1978. This was the first public show in ten years with approximately 250 penjing from private collections displayed in a public park. Antique pots were also shown.[36] The Shanghai Botanical Garden opened that year and permanently displays 3,000 bonsai.[37] The First National Penjing Show was held the following year in Beijing with over 1,100 exhibits from 13 provinces, towns, and autonomies.[38]

One division of the Hangzhou Flower Nursery by 1981 specialized in penjing, including over fifteen hundred once abandoned older specimens being maintained and in the initial stages of being retrained. The art of penjing would again become vastly popular in China, in part due to stability returning to most people's lives and the significantly improved economic conditions; growth would be most pronounced particularly in coastal provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong as well as Shanghai. There would be increasing numbers of good public and private collections, the latter with anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pieces. Small earthenware figurines and ornaments are commonly used in compositions to define scale or theme.[39]

By the end of 1981, the China Flower and Penjing Association was formed, and seven years later the China Penjing Artists Association was likewise established.[37]

The Hong Kong Baptist University opened the Man Lung Garden in 2000 to promote the Chinese heritage of penjing. Temporarily located on the University's Shaw Campus, in February 2005 a permanent site was set up at the Kam Shing Road Entrance of its Ho Sin Hang Campus.[40]

Penjing aesthetics

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This juniper makes extensive use of both jin (deadwood branches) and shari (trunk deadwood)

Penjing seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts. Philosophically, this craft is influenced by the principles of Taoism, specifically the concept of Yin and Yang: the conceptualization of the universe as governed by two primal opposing but complementary forces. Inspiration is not limited to nature, but also from poetry and visual art, of which factor similar aesthetic considerations. Common themes include dragons and the strokes of fortuitous characters. At its highest level, the artistic value of penjing is on par with that of poetry, calligraphy, brush painting and garden art.[41] Quite small in size, these miniature landscapes include trees which are frequently over a hundred years old. Like the plants in the Chinese garden, they have been carefully selected and tended so that they develop into twisted and gnarled shapes reminiscent of their full-size counterparts in the wild.

As an art form, penjing is an extension of the garden, since it enables an artist to recreate in miniature parts of the natural landscape. Using artificially dwarfed trees and shrubs, these arrangements are created in special trays or pots which are placed on ornately carved wooden stands. Often, rocks and porcelain figurines are added to give the proper scales as part of the natural scenery.

Like the chinese gardens, these miniature landscapes are designed to convey landscapes experienced from various viewpoints - a close-up view, a medium range view or a panorama.

Penjing is also often used indoors as part of a garden's overall design, since it reiterates the landscape features found outside. Penjing pots grace pavilions, private studies and living rooms, as well as public buildings. They are either free-standing elements within the gardens or are placed on furniture such as a table or bookshelf. Sometimes a lattice display stand is built which adds particular prominence to the penjing specimen and exemplifies the interplay between architecture and nature.


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Bamboo penjing in Chengdu, China
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Penjing in the US National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

Tree Penjing (also called shumu penjing in Chinese) are classified just like bonsai, with an emphasis on the layout of the trunk. The usual styles such as straight trunk, slanted trunk and forest prevail. Due to this similarity, only one category of Tree Penjing will be discussed here. This interesting part of the tradition of Tree Penjing is the Literati style (called wenren mu in Chinese), and was originally created by the scholars of China as a method of self-expression. Literati generally have long, thin, tapering trunks and sparse branching. This is a contrast to other Tree Penjing which generally have a more "bushy" quality. Literati generally display four principles that reflect the feelings and ideals of the educated scholars who began the tradition.

  • The first is Gugao (aloofness), which is evident in the long trunk line of the literati and is considered to symbolize the lonely elitist spirit of the scholar. This trunk is typically unusually thin for the height of the tree.
  • The second is Jianjie (sparseness), and this principle is basically a lesson in "less is more" and the idea is to create a statement with the smallest number of branches. In this way some Penjing artists equate this principle with calligraphy, because the sparseness of the tree reduces it to lines, but the lines still have deep meaning despite their lack of depth and variety.
  • The third principle is Ya (refined elegance) in which the scholars attempted to create a sense of gracefulness and poise within their tree.
  • The fourth principle is Pingdan (plainness), in which a plain, subtle, and sometimes austere quality is pursued in order to create a more unpretentious kind of beauty. Essentially the scholars were trying to contrast their "no frills" naturalistic beauty with the more highly decorated and ornate art objects that they saw as inferior because they were considered impediments to the search for true understanding.
  • It is also important to bear in mind that Literati are not supposed to be grotesque or deformed, but should simply show a tree that has struggled to overcome obstacles in its lifetime.
  • Other qualities that some believe to have influenced the creation of this form are a painful yearning for the past, a perception of being misunderstood, intense loneliness, and a bitter sense of rejection combined with the already elitist attitude of the Chinese scholar community.

Stone is the main medium of Landscape Penjing which seeks to invoke a sense of massive panoramic views within the limited confines of the water tray.


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Ginkgo penjing

Styles of the traditional Penjing in China are mainly classified by the most representative (dominant) plants used, and named after the regions of their origin. Since different plants require different techniques to handle, different styles thus formed. There are more than a dozen styles of traditional Penjing:

Guangdong Style
Guangdong Style Penjing (粤派盆景) is also called southern ridge penjing (嶺南派盆景), because Guangdong is located south of Nanling. The main characteristic of this style is its natural appeal and the appeal of easy and smooth.
Jiangsu Style
Like the culinary art of the Jiangsu cuisine, the art of Jiangsu Penjing (苏派盆景) is also complicated, with the crowns of the trees often being shaped like clouds.
Sichuan Style
Sichuan Penjing (川派盆景) tends to be well-knit, simple and unsophisticated.
Yangzhou Style
Yangzhou Penjing (揚派盆景) is also called northern Jiangsu style (苏北派),[42] it is distinct from Jiangsu style The three twists of tree trunks is the most distinctive characteristic of this style.
Shanghai Style
Shanghai Penjing (海派盆景) has influenced the Japanese bonsai, but at the same time, has kept its original artistic origin, which is from the traditional Chinese painting.
Guangxi Style
Guangxi Penjing (桂派盆景) reflect the beautiful natural landscape such as that of Guilin. This style utilizes different type of stones considerably more frequent than other styles.
Anhui Style
Anhui Penjing (徽派盆景) is most famous for its utilization of ume.
Zhejiang Style
Zhejiang Penjing (浙派盆景) specializes in utilization of pine and cypress, often have three to five plants in one tray.
Fujian Style
Fujian Penjing (閩派盆景) specializes in utilization of banyan.
Beijing Style
Beijing Penjing (京派盆景) reflects its artistic origin from the ancient traditional Chinese architecture in Beijing. The branches are often horizontal and the crowns of the trees are often in hemisphere or in the form of traditional folding fan.
Taiwan Style
Taiwan Penjing (台灣盆景) is a cross of Japanese bonsai and traditional Chinese Penjing.
Hubei Style
Hubei Penjing (湖北盆景) enphasizes on the producing the sense of dynamic feelings by the static plants and rocks, and thus also called Dynamic Penjing (动势盆景).
Xuzhou Style
Xuzhou Penjing (徐州盆景) is a branch of Jiangsu style, but it is distinct enough to be listed separately for hundreds of years for its utilization of fruit trees.
Zhongzhou Style
Zhongzhou Penjing (中州盆景) specializes in utilizing Tamarix.
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