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.
Anyone interested in reading more about Penjing should take a look at the following book by the Penjing master Zhao Qingquan. Penjing, The Chinese art of Bonsai. (A Pictorial Exploration of Its History, Aesthetics, Styles and Preservation)
Shanghai Press (ISBN-13 9781602200098)