Written by Karen Martin
The essence of penjing, a living art, is to recreate the beauty of nature without eliminating its imperfections.
Often confused as simply the Chinese form of bonsai, penjing is actually the ancient traditional Chinese art form from which Japanese bonsai is derived. While their similarities do outweigh their differences, they are two separate practices.
Bonsai in Japanese means ‘plant in a pot’, while penjing in Chinese means ‘landscape in a pot’. Bonsai artists only work with trees, presenting and maintaining them in a container to portray a natural scene. Penjing is a much wider concept, encompassing a similar theme. Natural stones or rocks might accompany or enhance one or several trees in a display, or an entire composition may be created with rocks as the main component.
In addition, the rigid regulations of bonsai don’t apply in penjing, allowing for a greater freedom of expression and artistic experimentation. There is less emphasis on following specific rules and more on bringing out the ‘spirit’ of the tree.
Even in tree (shumu) penjing, Chinese creations often look very different from their Japanese counterparts. Bonsai can look more formal, whereas penjing designs can appear bolder, livelier, and sometimes even quite strange.
Artists are not as concerned with the final result as with the slow process of revealing the character of the tree, and in doing so, capturing their understanding of nature and their unique perception of the world around them. One of the most beautiful aspects of penjing is its variety, displaying as much variation as the regions in which it has developed and is practised.
In Imperial China, penjing was an art of the scholar, and modern artists still take their inspiration from the literati arts that the scholars enjoyed, particularly painting, poetry, calligraphy, and garden art.
Penjing artists often use small miniatures like figurines, bridges, pagodas, and boats in their designs because they are things often found in Chinese landscape painting. They’re used sparingly and tastefully to enhance the scene or to establish a sense of proportion.
Like literati ink paintings, literati-style penjing has a refined elegance and simplicity, distinguished by a lone trunk with sparse foliage. The literati style is a favourite of Zhao Qingquan, one of the penjing artists best known to Western audiences.
A leader in the renaissance of penjing, Zhao is a pioneer in the water-and-land (shuihan) form of penjing, which he likens to a three-dimensional painting or a wordless poem: simple, symbolic, and resonant with feeling.
Zhao doesn’t restrict himself to shuihan penjing; he also creates expansive landscape (shanshui) penjing and graceful tree (shumu) penjing.
His work transcends boundaries, borrowing from various schools of penjing and techniques from abroad to develop his own personal style that has earned him global critical acclaim in his field.
Another pioneer of the art form was Yee-sun Wu (1905–2005), a Hong Kong entrepreneur and billionaire who founded the Wing Lung Bank. He had a keen interest in penjing from an early age, inspired by his father and grandfather, and was particularly captivated by the lingnan style of penjing.
Lingnanis a ‘grow and clip’ method of penjing: instead of bending the branches with wires, the branches are clipped as they grow, creating tapered branches full of twists and turns. This method requires patience, dedication, careful attention to detail, and a more natural approach.
Yee-sun Wu’s accomplishments in this art form won him the accolade of the ‘Sage of Penjing’, and he dedicated much of his life to promoting the poetic beauty of penjing outside of China.
Types of Penjing
Tree penjing (shumu penjing)
This form is most similar to the Japanese concept of bonsai. The composition consists of one or several trees as the dominant element; rocks may or may not be used as supportive design elements.
Landscape penjing (shanshui penjing)
A landscape is created using rock as the main artistic medium. Small trees or accent plants may or may not be incorporated into the design; if they are included, they play a minor role in the overall composition.
Water-and-land penjing (shuihan penjing)
This relatively new form combines the former two types of penjing and uses both trees and rocks to represent a landscape, as well as a water feature, which could be a river, a creek, or the shoreline of a lake.
CHINA: Guangzhou Liuhua Western Garden
Located in Liuhua Lake Park in Guangdong, is a special research and promotion site for the Lingnan School of Penjing.
CHINA: Shenzhen Qu Yi Garden
Found in Guangdong Province, this garden has more than 2,000 penjing, ancient pots, and art stones.
CHINA: Beijing Botanical Garden
This garden in Haidian District, Beijing, also has a notable penjing collection.
USA: The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
Located at the US National Arboretum in Washington DC, has one of the largest collections in North America.