Penjing: The Chinese Art of Bonsai' - Ho Penjing: The Chinese Art of Bonsai Wu-Zhong Zhou 1 and Xiao-Bai Xu2 Additional index words. history of bonsai, bonsai schools, bonsai patterns,

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    Penjing: The Chinese Art ofB o n s a i

    Wu-Zhong Zhou1 and Xiao-Bai Xu2

    Additional index words. history ofbonsai, bonsai schools, bonsaipatterns, bonsai plants, penjing,potted landscape

    Summary. More and more peoplehave become very interested in bonsai,a unique art of gardening that orig-inated in China. However, mostpeople know about Japanese bonsaiand have only scant knowledge ofChinese bonsai. This paper gives abrief introduction to the history, localschools, and patterns of the bonsai artin the Chinese tradition, as well as alist of plants used for bonsai in China.

    S ome misconceptions in horticul-tural history are very interesting,such as Prunus mume Sieb etZucc., one of the famous 10 tradi-tional flowers in China. Although itoriginated in China, it was given thecommon name Japanese Apricot byWesterners because they obtained theplant from Japan, and thought it na-tive there. Similarly, most Westernersmistakenly credited bonsai to Japan.

    The history of bonsaiBonsai originated in China. It

    dates back to ancient times in thehistory of China. As early as the Yinand Zhou Dynasties, more than 3000years ago, the Chinese began to culti-vate ornamental plants and to patterngardens after natural scenery. Accord-ing to archaeological findings, pottedflowers found in a mural in an EasternHan Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) tomb inWangdu County, Hebei Province, havebeen recognized as the embryonic formof bonsai by most experts in China.

    1Associate Professor of Horticulture and Dean of Studiesof China Training Center of Potted Landscape Arts;Vice-President and Chief Engineer of Qiong-Hua Insti-tute of Landscape Horticulture, Jiangsu AgriculturalCollege, 12 Su Nong Road, Yangzhou, 225001, PeoplesRepublic China. Currently visiting scholar in the Hu-man Resources Dept. (TAESHORT), Texas A&MUniv., College Station.

    2Professor of Horticulture, President of Chinese NationalAssociation for Potted Landscape Artists, and Presidentof Qiong-Hua Institute of Landscape Horticulture.

    The formative stage of bonsai tookplace during the Wei and Jin Dynasties(A.D. 220-420), when the strong in-fluence of Confucianism, Taoism, andBuddhism resulted in the social modeof upholding simplicity and elegance,and expressing sentiment in landscape.Confucius said, The wise find plea-sure in water, the virtuous find plea-sure in hills (Analects). Thus, likelandscape painting and poems in China,summarized as Shan Shui, or moun-tains and water, Chinese bonsai ismade of not only plants, but also ofrocks and water, because it attempts toapproach and display in symbolic formthe essence ofnature. This is not a real-istic or naturalistic presentation, butone that seeks to find the nature ofnature. It is for this reason that bonsaiwas given a precise name penjing(potted landscape) by Chinese experts.

    Bonsai matured in the early TangDynasty (A.D. 618-907). A mural viv-idly depicting a maid of honor holdinga potted landscape in her hands hasbeen found in the tomb of CrownPrince Zhang Huai of the early TangDynasty, which was built in 706 inQianxian County, Shanxi Province.We can learn a great deal from thepoems of the Tang Dynasty; the artis-tic forms of potted landscape werestressed and various styles had alreadyemerged.

    The Northern Song Dynasty(A.D. 960-1279) saw unprecedenteddevelopment in the art of painting,which, in turn, fostered the penjingart. Enjoying fantastic trees and gro-tesque stones became a common fad atthat time. The famous Song paintingsof Eighteen Scholars, together withmany poems and writings, indicatethat the penjing art was well on its waytoward perfection, and that two majorkinds of penjing had evolved: moun-tain-and-water penjing and treepenjing. The latter was quite similar tothat of modern penjing.

    Chinese penjing flourished in theMing and Qing Dynasties (A.D. 1368-1911). A study of relevant documentsand extant penjing works shows that

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  • various artistic features were evidentduring that period, and that penjingworks tended to embody pictorial con-ception and poetic flavor.

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    In the late years of the Qing Dy-nasty and thereafter, Chinese penjingdeclined for a time, but, in recent dec-ades, it has rejuvenated and has been

    developing considerably. Many newideas and technical innovations basedon the old traditions have found vividexpressions in the penjing art of today.


  • As mentioned previously, we cansee that penjing, as a particular kind ofgardening, is closely tied with land-scape painting and poetry in China.Indeed, the three arts of poetry, land-scape painting, and penjing are thoughtof as interdependent, each requiringan understanding of the others, withproficiency in each necessary to achieveproficiency in any one. Thus, penjingart is called silent poetry, three-di-mensional painting in China. It hasalready become an integral part of theChinese peoples leisure cultures.

    It was during the Tang Dynasty(A.D. 1127-1279) that Chinese bon-sai art found its way to Japan, where itwas then introduced into the conti-nents of Europe, America, and Austra-lia at the beginning of the 20th cen-tury. So far, it has become a worldwideart with different styles, such as Japa-nese, English, and American (e.g.,Pompon), etc. Plants used in Chi-nese bonsai are listed in Table 1.


    The local schools of bonsaiar t in ch ina

    The bonsai art is now spreadingthroughout the whole country, espe-cially in eastern, central, and southernChina, where the climate is mild andwet. China has vast territories, distin-guished and varied local scenery, andmaterial resources (plants and rocks)for bonsai, all of which, along withdifferent aesthetic standards and tech-niques of bonsai-making, make it readyfor forming various local schools ofbonsai art. The main local schools ofbonsai in China are as follows:

    Yangzhou Penjing. Represen-tative trees of this genre are pine (PinusL.), cypress (Cupressus L.), Chineseelm (Ulmus parvifolia Jacq.), andChinese littleleaf box (Buxus micro-phylla Siebold & Zucc. var. sinca Rehd.& E.H. Wils.), which are meticulouslywired with palm fibers and carefully

    pruned in the shape of layers of clouds(Fig. 1). Yangzhou tree penjing bestexpresses sobriety and elegance. Moun-tain-and-water penjing as well as wa-ter-and-land penjing has many formsthat appear to give both poetic andpicturesque effects.

    Suzhou penjing. Known for itsclassic beauty, Suzhou tree penjingemploys Chinese elm, hedge sageretia[Sageretia theezans (L.) Brongn.], tri-dent maple (Acer buergeranum Miq.),and plum (Prunus L.) for themes.Training methods are mostly roughwiring with meticulous pruning toshape branches like clusters of clouds.

    Sichuan penjing. Trees such asBuddhist pine [Podocarpus macro-phyllus (Thunb.) D. Don], maidenhairtree (Ginkgo biloba L.) (Fig. 2), spinypers immon (D iospyros a rma taHemsl.), snow-in-summer [Serissa foe-tida (L.F.) Lam.], and flowering quince

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  • [Chaenomeles lagenaria (Loisel.) G.Koidz.] often are seen in Sichuan treepenjing. Wiring with palm fibers andtrimming shapes the branches andleaves into plates and makes thetrunks expressively sinuous. Sichuanmountain-and-water penjing, as wellas water-and-land penjing, is noted forserenity, grace, steepness, and majesty.

    Lingnan penjing. Hedge sager-etia, Chinese elm, orange jasmine(Murraya paniculata L. Jack), andPhilippine tea (Ehretia microphyllaLam.) are typical penjing trees in thisregion. The chief method of training isto retain the branches, but cut thetrunks so that the trees look old andhardy, natural, and graceful. The beau-tiful and fantastic mountain-and-wa-ter penjing is also very attractive.

    Shanghai penjing. This me-tropolis boasts a large variety of trees(Fig. 3) for making penjing. They aretied with wires and pruned. Shanghaitree penjing is considered sprightlyand vigorous. Miniature penjing is ex-quisite and mountain-and-water pen-

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    jing is a unique blend of grace andvigor.

    Huizhou tree penjing. Plum,common juniper (Juniperus communisL.) and formosa pine (Pinus taiwan-ensis Hayata) are representative ofHuizhou penjing trees. Rough wiringand rough pruning are typical Huizhoutechniques for making tree penjing,which is known for its rusticity andgrotesqueness.

    Zhejang tree penjing. Pine andcypress usually are collected, tied witheither palm fibers or metal wires, andpruned to make Zhejang tree penjinghighly natural and picturesque in bothform and spirit.

    Nantong tree penjing. The treemostly used for penjing is shrubby yewpodocarpus [Podocarpus macrophyllus(Thunb.) D. Donvar. maki Endl.] Itstrunk is wired with palm fibers into anS shape (two curves and a half) withbranches pruned into clear-cut pieces.

    Apart from those mentioned pre-viously, schools of penjing in Fujian,Henan, Hubei, Nanjing, Hunan,Guizhou, and Xuzhou either have al-

    ready developed or are still undergo-ing development with their own re-spective local characteristics.

    The patterns of Chinesebonsai

    Bonsai (tree potted landscape) inthe Chinese tradition are divided intothe following patterns according totheir shapes:

    A) Straight Trunk (Fig. 4). Thetree trunk grows erect and the branchesspread in gradations, resembling ahuge, towering tree in its natural set-ting. This pattern, in turn, can be di-vided into three subpatterns: 1) singletrunk, 2) double trunk, and 3) multi-trunk (three or more).

    B) Slanting Trunk (Fig. 5). Thetree trunk inclines to one side. Severalbranches spread naturally on the top ofthe tree and look elegant.

    C) Twisted Trunk (Fig. 6). Thetree trunk is twisted to the left andright. The branches spread to bothsides in clear gradations.

    D) Recumbent Trunk (Fi