While many are aware of the art of Japanese bonsai, very few realize that bonsai originated in China where it was called penjing. Penjing has three different forms. One of these forms is tree penjing, and this is where bonsai began. Another form is landscape penjing, which uses rocks instead of trees. Water and land penjing blends the other two into a third form, styling miniature trees in beautiful, natural-looking landscapes.
It is said that penjing originated in the 1st century AD. Taoist mystics would recreate areas thought to be high in energy to concentrate the focus of that energy. Very little proof, however, exists to conclusively prove these stories. Verified written descriptions of penjing have only been found dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). These writings describe the craft in such detail that it is apparent penjing was developed much early, but the exact time and place is unknown.
The art of penjing was adopted by Chan Buddhists. Just as bonsai originated from penjing, the Japanese Zen Buddhism originated from Chan. The first penjing trees were twisted and knotted, not of use for any other purpose. Over the years, the Chan Buddhists found new wild specimens, naturally dwarfed, that were further styled through horticultural techniques.
The earliest known miniature landscape in Japan was from 1309, although evidence suggests that Japanese Buddhist students brought penjing souvenirs back home with them from China as far back as the 6th century. By the year 1309, Zen Buddhists had already developed penjing with Japanese-inspired landscapes. This was the beginning of bonsai.
Westerners were also introduced to penjing much earlier than bonsai. The first examples of penjing to reach Western eyes were in 1637. It would not be until much later when penjing became more rigidly classified and popularized as a hobby for common people. In fact, modern penjing was very rare in the United States until Qingquan “Brook” Zhou published his book Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment in the 1970s. Zhao’s penjing was inspired by the famous gardens of Yangzhou, where Zhou was born. Since, then, thousands of students have learned the art of penjing from Zhou’s teachings.
Qingquan “Brook” Zhou:
Born and raised in Yangzhou, China’s ancient center of learning and the arts situated at the confluence of the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River, Qingquan Zhao grew up in an environment where the penjing tradition was very much alive. At a young age, Zhao became intrigued by the miniature trees and landscapes in his father’s and grandfather’s collections. He is a third-generation bonsai and penjing artist.