About Penjing
Extracted from Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants, 1967
Wu Yee Sun


        The art of garden planning in China was already at a developed stage in the early Dynasties of Hsia, Shang and Chow (2205 B.C. - 255 B.C.) The "Yow Terrace", built by King Jiek of Hsia, the "Luk Terrace" of King Jow af Shang, and the "Ling Terrace" and the "Ling Pond" of King Wen of Chow were outstanding examples of the high standard of palace architecture and garden planning in those ancient periods.

        In time artificial rock hills were devised to supplement the layout of a garden. According to ancient Chinese writings, King Liangshaa built the "Rabbit Garden", in which artificial rock hills of different designs were named after baboons and dragons. Again, from the writings of the Han Dynasty we learn that a wealthy resident of Mou-Ling by the name of Yuen Kwang-Hanhad built a garden at the foot of the North Mountain extending four "li" to the east and to the west of it; in his garden were running streams and artificial rock hills, some rising to a height of 200 feet. This shows that as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 221 A.D.) rack gardens were popular. Again, according to legend, during the East Han Dynasty, a magician by the name of Fei Jiang-Feng had the power of shrinking and collecting in an urn mountains and streams, birds and animals, people, pavilions, terraces, and buildings, boats and carriages, trees and rivers.

        In the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.), Tu Fu, the topmost poet, in one of his poems described rock landscape shrunken into the space of one cubic foot. Another Tang poet, Pee Yat-Yau, described a miniature artificial rock hill in one of his poems. In the following Sung Dynasty (960 A.D. - 1280 A.D.) the famous author, So Suen, narrated in an essay his visit to an artificial wood hill. Another writer, Chao Hsi-Kok, described "grotesque rocks" in his essay collection. We gather from the above that artificial rock hills which had been originally placed in gardens were dwarfed and brought indoors. The name Pun-Ching, (i.e. artistic pot plants with landscape) was probably first used towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) and the beginning of the Ching Dynasty (1644 A.D. - 1911 A.D.).  Before that period, artistic pot plants had been called Pun-wan during the Tang and the Sung Dynasties (618 A.D.- 1280 A.D.) and Shea Tzu Ching in the Yuan Dynasty (1280 A.D. - 1368 A.D.). 

This painting from the Sung Dynasty shows that penjing was already popular in early China.

     Pot plants with landscape number among the popular pastimes of the Chinese people. The landscape may consist of artificial rock work or woodwork or it may consist of one single piece of natural rock or wood. As mentioned above rock work or woodwork may be placed outdoors in gardens or indoors in shallow containers according to size. Miniature rock gardens also contain pavilions and terraces, trees and flowers, sailing boats, people, birds and animals, all very much reduced in size but nevertheless life-like, presenting vivid figures more real than those on landscape paintings. Rock-gardening is a Chinese art. After the Second World War, it has also become rather popular in Japan. But the rocks and stones there which may be used as raw material are much below those produced in China, both as to quantity and variety. This accounts for the fact that pot plants with miniature rock landscape are not as popular as dwarfed trees (Bonsai) in Japan.

        The name Pun-sai originated in China during the Tsin Dynasty (265 A.D. - 420 A.D.). Tou Yuen- Ming (365 A.D.- 427 A.D.), a noted poet and essayist as well as a government official of that period, "unwilling to bow to his superiors because of five doou (pecks) of rice" (about 50 kilograms, being his monthly pay in kind), resigned from office and retired to his native village to enjoy a quiet farm life. His personally cultivated chrysanthemums in pots, well known at that time, may well have marked the beginning of pot plants. The dwarfed tree culture grew in popularity in the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D.- 907 A.D.) that followed. From the paintings of the Tang and the Sung Dynasties (618 - 1280) we find that the objects painted include the pine, cypress, plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo - all in pots. Again we notice that dwarfed plants figure prominently in poems and prose written in those periods. This shows that dwarfed tree culture was already very popular in the Tang Dynasty. In the following Sung Dynasty (960 A.D.- 1 280 A.D.) dwarfed tree growers added landscape and figurines to their trees and called them Pun-wan. In the Yuan Dynasty the name Shea Tzu Ching was used instead. Artistic pot plants grew in popularity during the later Ming Dynasty and the Ching Dynasty when they came to be known as Pun-ching (i.e. pot plants with landscape).

        In China numerous books written on the subject of dwarfed trees were eagerly read by enthusiasts. It may be noted that during the periods from "Kang-Hsi" to "Chia-Ching" (1662 A.D.- 1821 A.D.) in the Ching Dynasty, China was prosperous and the people enjoyed a peaceful life. Government officials, merchants and in fact people in all walks of life took to the culture of artistic pot plants as a hobby. During that time there came into existence a variety of styles and structures of dwarfed plants and these were often linked with the geographical locations. For example, there were the Pagoda Style of Yangchow, the Earthworm Style of Szechuen, the Dancing Dragon Style of Anhwei, the Three-winding Style of the North, the Flattop Style of Hunan and Hupeh, the Five-tree Style of Kwangtung, etc. Towards the end of the Ching Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic af China (about 1900 A.D.), dwarfed tree trainers in Kwangtung Province introduced the "Grow and Clip" method, inspired by Chinese brush painting technique. The result was a new layout and structure of dwarfed trees which have an ancient, gnarled appearance as well as an easy grace. This method came to be known as the "Lingnan School", and raised pot plant culture to the status of Art. The other provinces adopted this method, which has since been universally employed by growers both north and south of the Yangtzekiang (the "Long River"). The various old styles mentioned above gradually died out and became things of historical interest only. This marked a significant change in the evolution of dwarfed tree culture in China. It will be noticed from what has been said above that the name Pun-Sai or Pot plants, has gone through several changes and was at one time included in the category Pun-ching (meaning "Pot plants with landscape"). However, nowadays the name Pot plants is commonly used to mean "dwarfed ancient trees without landscape."

        Chinese culture and art has had a great influence on Japan. From the time of the Chin Dynasty (255 B.C. - 206 B.C.) when the Chinese magician, Hsu Fu was sent by the Emperor on a trip to Japan in quest of the Elixir of Life, through to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 221 A.D.) when an honor was conferred upon the Japanese King by Emperor Kwang Wu and Japanese ministers came to China to pay tributes to the Emperor, Chinese culture began to spread to Japan. As regards dwarfed tree culture, its introduction into Japan was during the Yuan Dynasty (1280 A.D.- 1368 A.D.) when Japanese ministers, merchants and students who had visited China brought back dwarfed tree culture to Japan when they left the country. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, a government official called Chu Shun-Sui, unwilling to serve under the Manchu rulers of the Ching Dynasty, fled to Japan, taking with him Chinese literature and culture as well as the art of pot plants. This marked the beginning of bonsai culture in Japan. Within a short time it became very popular and remarkable progress was made. After the Second World War the art of Bonsai was introduced to the Western countries. The Japanese have translated the Chinese characters Pun-sai, into "Bonsai", which has become a common word to denote artistic dwarfed pot trees. Although dwarfed tree culture originated in China, it is undeniable that the Japanese, in acting as a bridge in the spreading of this Chinese culture to other parts of the world, have done something worthwhile and credit must be given to them.

        It is interesting to note that dwarfed tree culture has now spread far and wide. There are Bonsai clubs in Asia, Europe, America. Australia and even Africa. The culture is especially popular in the United States of America, where bonsai clubs have sprung up like mushrooms. Bonsai exhibitions of an international nature are organized each year by these clubs, which also recruit bonsai experts to give lectures and conduct classes for the benefit of their members. I have been invited during the past several years to participate in these international exhibitions, but regrettably I could not attend for health reasons. I understand that recently the construction of a National Arboretum has been planned in Washington D.C. The subject of Bonsai is taught in the agricultural department of quite a number of universities.

     Although Bonsai culture is still in its infancy in the United States, the Americans are keenly interested in it and are studying it seriously. Moreover, the climatic and soil conditions of United States are particularly suitable for the growing of dwarfed trees, and the raw materials there for training are plentiful. The three elements of success, namely, "Heaven, Earth and Man in Harmony" as the Chinese saying goes, are all present in the United States. All this favor a remarkable growth of bonsai culture and I can predict that in a hundred years the leading country in bonsai art will be neither China nor Japan but the United States of America. I leave it to the younger generations of bonsai culture to find out whether or not my prediction has come true. 

Next: Bonsai and Living

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