Penjing, the ancient Chinese art of creating landscaped scenes with miniature gnarled trees and mindfully arranged rocks can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty of the seventh century. Miniature stands of tall, narrow trees were displayed in colorfully decorated pots or trays (pen) presenting scenes (jing) of natural wilderness. The earliest drawing of penjing on record (706 A.D.) illustrates a maid carrying a tray of fruit trees and stones.
The precursor to penjing was most likely a Chinese incense burner invented during the Han dynasty (c. 200 B.C.). The lid was decorated to represent mountains, such as Mount Penglai, the home of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. A shallow dish set at the base was filled with water symbolizing the sea, and mythological creatures were depicted cavorting in the scenery.
Nevertheless, the symbolism behind penjing appeared as early as 2,500 years ago with the advent of Chinese philosopher Laozi’s natural metaphysics, Daoism (c. 200-600 B.C.). As penjing emerged centuries later, designs were imbued with the Daoist wisdom of seeking harmony within nature, action without intention (wu wei), and a return to the natural state. By the fifth century, the merging of Daoism with Chan Buddhism led to the ascendancy of mysticism, resulting in the belief that penjing representations of magical places were centers of concentrated cosmic power.
Throughout the centuries, Chinese art, poetry, and calligraphy further influenced penjing designs, which are categorized by style: Guangdong style from southeast China has a smooth, natural appearance. In contrast, Guangxi style incorporates stones to emulate a landscape surrounded by mountains. Styles are often based on the species of trees used: Fujian employs banyans; Zhejiang, cypress and evergreens; Anhui, ume (plum); and Yangzhou, trees with twisted trunks. In Hubei, a dynamic style, the placement of plants and rocks suggests movement.
Penjing represent the physical manifestations of the Daoist concept of yin-yang. Ying qualities include softness, open crowns, and ethereal branching; yang include large roots, tight crowns, dark colors, and hefty trunks. Celebrated penjing incorporate four critical aspects: Purity as beauty, spirit, uniqueness, and old age. Penjing today continues to be a timeless art form allowing practitioners to cultivate inner peace in a chaotic world.
“Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image.
Oh it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form.”