page contents The Little Bonsai: The Art of Penjing 樹木盆景

Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

The Art of Penjing 樹木盆景

Penjing Bonsai

The Chinese Bonsai is called Penjing, also known as penzai, is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature.

Penjing generally fall into one of three categories:

Shumu penjing (樹木盆景): Tree penjing that focuses on the depiction of one or more trees and optionally other plants in a container, with the composition's dominant elements shaped by the creator through trimming, pruning, and wiring.

Penjing Bonsai Book
Shanshui penjing (山水盆景): Landscape penjing that depicts a miniature landscape by carefully selecting and shaping rocks, which are usually placed in a container in contact with water. Small live plants are placed within the composition to complete the depiction.

Shuihan penjing (水旱盆景): A water and land penjing style that effectively combines the first two, including miniature trees and optionally miniature figures and structures to portray a landscape in detail.

Similar practices exist in other cultures, including the Japanese traditions of bonsai and saikei, as well as the miniature living landscapes of Vietnamese hòn non bộ. Generally speaking, tree penjing specimens differ from bonsai by allowing a wider range of tree shapes (more "wild-looking") and by planting them in bright-colored and creatively shaped pots. In contrast, bonsai are more simplified in shape (more "refined" in appearance) with larger-in-proportion trunks, and are planted in unobtrusive, low-sided containers with simple lines and muted colors.

While saikei depicts living landscapes in containers, like water and land penjing, it does not use miniatures to decorate the living landscape. Hòn non bộ focuses on depicting landscapes of islands and mountains, usually in contact with water, and decorated with live trees and other plants. Like water and land penjing, hòn non bộ specimens can feature miniature figures, vehicles, and structures. Distinctions among these traditional forms have been blurred by some practitioners outside of Asia, as enthusiasts explore the potential of local plant and pot materials without strict adherence to traditional styling and display guidelines.

What is the difference between Chinese bonsai and a Japanese bonsai tree ?

Ancient Penjing
Basically, a Japanese bonsai tree appears a little more formal than Chinese penjing. Even the Japanese bonsai containers are usually more subtle, in both color and design. So that is the very basic difference. You rarely, if ever, see rocks or figurines in a Japanese composition.

Chinese bonsai has always fascinated me. (Perhaps that's the reason, bunjin aka literati is one of my favorite "bonsai" styles.) It wasn't until I read Karin Albert's 'Penjing: A Chinese Renaissance' several years ago that I grasped a deeper meaning and the genuine differences. She wrote a beautifully worded, thorough article on the subject for theArt of Bonsai blog.

Frequently, designs appear bolder, livelier, and more playful, sometimes even bizarre. By contrast, a Japanese bonsai tree tends to look neater and more formalized. Regarding the latter, there is a greater sense of control; the viewer gets the feeling that not even the most minute detail has been left to chance. The minimalism of many Japanese designs can feel comforting and safe, but it also produces a high degree of predictability.

By and large, it seems that Japanese artists have a strong tendency to impose order on their creations, whereas Chinese artists appear willing to embrace a measure of chaos. Clearly, they are less concerned with rules and the pursuit of perfection. Does it mean that there are no rules in penjing at all? Absolutely not. Conversations with penjing artists reveal that they are less interested in displays of technical virtuosity and ideal form. Instead, they seek to capture and convey sentiment and mood in their work. Their goal is to reveal an inner beauty, an essence inherent in nature.

Famous Bonsai producers in China include the Shanghai Botanic Gardens whose mission is preventing plant extinction and educating people. With over 150 Bonsai gardens, Suzhou is believed to have the loveliest Bonsai gardens in China. One of Suzhou’s many gardens, the Humble Administrators Garden, is listed as a World Heritage Site. The Hangzhou Flower Nursery in Zhejiang is famous for its two-and-a-half acre Bonsai garden that includes 3,500 Bonsai plants.


Chinese Bonsai can be classified into several groups including size, the province from which they are
Penjing Shirt - Click on image for more details
derived from and the type of Bonsai. Although Chinese Bonsai comes in many sizes, Chinese Rock Bonsai stands out because they are available from just a few centimeters in height up to two meters in height. Provinces throughout China have their own genres, or schools, of Bonsai. Among them are the Suzhou School (featuing 'Tree Branches Overhanging a Cliff'), the Zhejiang School (featuring 'Tall Trunk'), the Sichuan School (featuring 'Reclining and Slanting Trunk'), the Hunan School (featuring 'Hanging Cliff'), the Hubei School (featuring 'Flat-Top'), the Liaoning School (featuring 'Earthworm Curves'), the Beijing School, the Shanghai School and the Lingnan (Guangzhou) School. Types of Bonsai include tree Bonsai, landscape Bonsai, flower Bonsai, plant Bonsai and rock Bonsai.

Care and Maintenance

Bonsai plants need regular care just like other plants. Watering, fertilizing, trimming and the occasional re-potting (every three years or when the roots are bound) will ensure that the Bonsai is healthy and lives long. The art of Bonsai takes patience and diligence but with proper care, a Bonsai will repay the owner many times over. Transforming a small tree can transform your life.

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