Tag Archives: penjing

What is Penjing

Penjing gets its name from the Chinese word penzai which means tray plant. This art is also known in other terms such as potted landscapes, tray landscapes and potted scenery. It is an age old Chinese craft of growing miniature trees and plants. By skilled pruning these trees are then shaped to depict landscapes and beautiful scenery.

Penjing has been there for thousands of years much before the advent of Japanese Bonsai. It is divided in to three broad categories.

  • The first category is Tree Penjing (also known as Shumu), which is very similar to the Japanese Bonsai and depicts images of trees.
  • The second is Landscape Penjing (also known as Shansui) depicts distant landscapes of mountains using trees and rocks.
  • The third category is Water and Land Penjing, where trees, water and rocks are used to recreate a natural landscape.

The history of Penjing is a mix of myth and facts. Penjing was invented by Buddhist monks travelling from India. In fact a legend even says that Daoist persons possessed power to shrink landscapes and seal it in a vessel. The very first literature on Penjing was a scroll which was written 1200 years ago. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the practice of Penjing art, was at its peak. Also many scrolls and Penjing manuals were found during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). The container which holds the tree is called pen (an earthen dish with a foot) and its origins can be traced to the Yangshao culture.
Many cultural and religious ideas have been brought from China to Japan. And it is widely believed that travelling Buddhist monks introduced the art of miniature plants to the Japanese people. So in a way Penjing gave birth to Bonsai. For many years, this art was known as hachi-no-ki (meaning tree in pot) in Japan. Only during the 19th century the word Bonsai was used in the famous Bonsai centre of “Azakusa Park”. Though the Chinese found the art of growing miniature plants it was the Japanese who spread this to the rest of the world.
The initial trees used for Penjing were age old, got from the wild and full of twists and knots and were considered sacred and believed to possess special energies. Later even younger plants were used but even to them special horticultural techniques were employed to increase the age.
The Penjing art is said to be influenced by the principles of Taoism and tries to depict natural beauty through contrasts. It specifically depends on the popular theory of Yin and Yang (two opposing yet complementary forces). The Chinese artists try to capture in Penjing the contrasting variations inherent in nature like upright and curved, dense and sparse etc. Initially the Chinese considered Penjing as an art of the scholar. The Penjing was believed to depict the taste, emotion and education of the creator. Penjing tries to recapture the spirit and moods of natural landscapes.

Since Penjing is practiced in China from time unknown there are various regional styles and schools. These styles vary based on climatic conditions, trees availability and appearance and regional practices. Also the style is dependent on the artist’s skill, philosophy and education.

The northern Yangzhou style in Penjing uses neat, distinctive foliage layers. The Guangdong style is known for its natural appeal. The Sichuan style is simple and well-knit. The Sichuan style is known for its flowering curves and upward spirals. The Liaoning style uses petrified wood and depicts steep mountain sceneries. The Shandong style uses tortoise vein rock and green Laoshan rock. The Shanghai style is based on traditional Chinese painting and this style gave birth to Bonsai. In the Beijing style the branches are horizontal and the crowns of the trees resemble a folding fan. The Zhejiang style is a little contemporary. It is inspired by the Shanghai style but with foliage shaped into, distinctly shaped layers.

You cannot find any classical Chinese garden without Penjing. In fact these are considered as a three dimensional poetry. The artistic value in Penjing is equivalent to poetry, painting and garden art. This art is in fact an innovation in gardening and uses miniature plants to portray landscapes. In fact it is beautiful tribute to mother nature and an excellent example for the Chinese artistic skills.


penjing-bookAnyone interested in reading more about Penjing should take a look at the forthcoming book by the Penjing master Zhao Qingquan. Penjing, The Chinese art of Bonsai. (A Pictorial Exploration of Its History, Aesthetics, Styles and Preservation)

This book is due to be released in April 2012 and will be published by Shanghai Press (ISBN-13 9781602200098)

Penjing, Landscapes in Miniature

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)

Bonsai and the Chinese Penjing

bonsai-gardenWhile 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.