Fujian Tea Penjing (C) Qingquan ZhaoWe look at an ant and consider it tiny. Millions of years ago, a T-Rex would have looked at us and considered us diminutive and an easy catch for dinner. Perhaps the ancient Chinese just wanted to see the world from a T-Rex perspective when they created the art of penjing, the arranging of miniature trees and landscapes in shallow dishes called “pens.”

Though pen pottery has been dated back to the Yangshao culture in Neolithic China (5000 to 3000 BC), the creation of the penjing miniature gardens was rumoured to have started in the third or forth centuries. No written proof has been found earlier than the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The earliest drawing, discovered in 1972, dates back to 706 AD and shows servants carrying pots with miniature trees surrounded by small rocks and greenery. These tiny tree landscaped gardens were also called “penzai.”

Originally the dwarf trees were collected from the wild. Artists would seek out trees with the most twisted, asymmetrical and deformed branches. The belief was that these naturally tiny plants that grew wild, away from civilization, were sacred. They were too small to be used as timber or for any other project, so why else would they exist? Eventually Chan Buddhism would influence the collecting and eventual shaping of the trees, using techniques to manipulate the size and shape of the trunks and branches. Though younger plants were being collected and cultivated closer to home, they were made to appear like the wizened specimens found in the mountain wilderness.

It is suspected that Buddhist students returning to Japan from China brought back some penjing during the sixth century. The first visual proof was found in the Kasuga-gongen-genki scrolls dating from 1309 AD. On the fifth scroll was a drawing of a wealthy gentleman with two penjings, one in a flat wooden tray and the other in a Chinese style ceramic container. Once Zen Buddhism became established in Japan, the art form was refined to where one single tree planted in a container with or without the rocks and greenery defined the universe. This is the origin of the Japanese bonsai tree we know today.

Though the Japanese bonsai is derived from the Chinese penjing, each art form has its own style. The Japanese bonsai defines beauty by its simplicity. A single tree is trimmed, sometimes one leaf or needle at a time until the never-quite-finished project appears to mimic a full sized tree. That tree is placed in a monochromatic pot, usually flat and usually earth toned, so that the tree is the focal point.

The penjing art form is just as often placed in colorful ceramic or brass pots. The tiny trees are also coaxed into shapes that mimic their full grown cousins, but the results are often wilder, more rugged and anything but symmetrical. Trunks are gnarled and branches twist in every direction suggesting barely controlled chaos.

Think of a Japanese bonsai as a sleek lined Porsche. If one were to draw that car, it would only take a few fluid brush strokes to convey the suggestion of moving while standing still. The Chinese penjing, on the other hand would perhaps be represented by a vintage MG. More angles, headlights that crest the hood and bumpers that have a definitive curve. Perhaps not as sleek as the fluidic Porsche, but just as cherished and just as capable of delivering an enjoyable driving experience.

Just as we look at the tiny ant and the T-Rex eye-balls us as a potential dino-snack, the Japanese and Chinese cultures look at the natural world from their own perspective. It is this difference in viewpoint that has helped create these two similar, yet distinct miniature landscape art forms.

Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature
within potted worlds
tiny trees are giants made
size is relative

Image courtesy of the NABF (North American Bonsai Society)

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