A Guide to Bonsai

Penjing Defined by Master Zhao Qingquan

If you’re not familiar with the nuances differentiating bonsai – which originated in China and has been popularized by the Japanese – from the Chinese art of penjing, the two forms probably seem very similar or even identical. But with a little background, you’ll see there are important differences that distinguish most penjing from bonsai. We spoke with renowned penjing master, Zhao Qingquan, to bring you this blog.

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Zhao was born in Yangzhou City, China, where his father – a penjing enthusiast – first introduced him to the art of penjing. Other than his father, the most influential figure in Zhao’s life was his professor Xiaobai Xu, who bolstered his penjing knowledge.

“I am always proud of my final choice of the penjing as a career,” he says.

As Zhao explained in Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment: “In the Chinese language, we distinguish between three kinds of penjing, shumu penjing (tree penjing), shanshui penjing (which literally translates to “mountain and water penjing” but is usually called “landscape penjing” or “rock penjing”) and shuihan penjing (water-and-land penjing).

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Zhao says that artists in China constantly innovate and develop penjing forms, so the style and content of the art form is becoming increasingly varied, but all have the “same essence of applying natural materials to express natural landscapes.”

Zhao explains that bonsai is actually the same as shumu penjing (tree penjing), one of the three categories of penjing. Tree penjing (bonsai) uses containers to display natural trees and plants, and artists will use wiring, pruning and chiseling techniques to create the composition’s dominant elements, he says.

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In contrast, the second category of mountain and water penjing take the form of landscape scenes: artists will cut and reshape rocks to embody islands or mountains and often add small live plants to flesh out the scene, Zhao says. In the third category of water-and-land penjing, artists depict more “complete” scene, using materials like soil and water, as well as miniature figurines, he adds.

Zhao points out that “as an art aiming at ‘seeing the big from the tiny,’ penjing is often created as a method of self-expression to convey personal emotions.”

He reflects that humans naturally desire a tranquil life that immerses us in nature, but we often alienate ourselves from our natural environment to focus on work and family. Zhao says the pressure to survive in a modern and increasingly industrialized world facilitates humans’ tendencies to not prioritize connections with nature.

 “Penjing art allows us to pursue peacefulness and tranquility in our inner hearts and fulfill our desires of being part of nature,” he said. “Therefore, penjing as an old traditional art has been renewed.”

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Penjing is a traditional Chinese art that can be traced back to as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Bonsai (tree penjing) was brought to Japan during the Southern Song Dynasty of China (1127–1279) or the late Heian Period in Japan (794–1192), Zhao says. 

Three nationwide penjing communities have been established successively in China: the Chinese Society of Landscape Architecture Flower Penjing Suiseki Association, the Chinese Penjing Artists Association, and the Penjing Branch of China Flower Association. 

“As an art form expressing the human desire to love nature and peace in the world, penjing has gained increasing popularity around the globe,” Zhao says. “Penjing is used to decorate our homes and to cultivate self-expression, helping us achieve a healthier and happier life.”

Know Your Styles: A Guide to Bonsai Configurations

Walking through the Museum, you’ll find plaques with titles, donor names and dates next to most of the bonsai. But do you know how to tell which style our trees are exhibiting?

To help you wow friends on your next visit, Museum curator Michael James walked us through the main styles of bonsai on display in our pavilions: cascade, upright, root-over-rock, forest and windswept. James said these configurations simplify and categorize trees’ common forms or growth habits after enduring forces of nature – like wind, ice and snow – that shape trees in the wild.

“These are just styles that mimic what’s found happening in trees growing in harsh conditions,” he said.

The formal upright style is a simple design: the tree’s apex stands directly over the base of the trunk, and the tree is perfectly straight. James said the informal upright design is a bit looser and more whimsical than formal upright. The tree’s apex remains in line with the base of the tree, but the trunk twists and turns on its way to the top.

An informal upright bonsai.

An informal upright bonsai.

Forest style displays are created to mirror the different heights and trunk thicknesses found in natural forests, so the trees should differ randomly in size, James said. He added that the displays are usually arranged in odd numbers, ranging from about five to 11 trees.

A forest bonsai display.

A forest bonsai display.

Seeds that land on a small patch of fertile soil germinate and send roots down into the earth to create a tree. But over the years that bit of soil can erode, exposing the rock underneath where the tree began to grow. This process creates the root-over-rock look.

A root-over-rock style bonsai.

A root-over-rock style bonsai.

To replicate this style, bonsai masters will plant a bonsai on top of a rock. In some plantings, the masters attach the bonsai to the rock with wires and the tree lives entirely on the rock, growing in a special soil mix.

In other cases, as the above picture demonstrates, the rock and attached tree are planted in a container filled with soil, and the bonsai roots grow into the soil. In this instance, each time the bonsai is repotted, the master may lift the rock and attached tree higher in the container and remove some of the soil, exposing more of the roots and the rock.

A full-cascade bonsai.

A full-cascade bonsai.

Bonsai in the cascade style also come in two configurations. In the semi-cascade design, the trunk of the tree might lean over and drop below the lip of its pot. But the tip of bonsai in full-cascade reaches below its container, to emulate a tree clinging to a cliffside.

A bonsai in the windswept style.

A bonsai in the windswept style.

The Museum has one tree that displays the windswept look: the iconic Chinese elm. Branches of windswept bonsai grow in one direction and look as if the tree is growing while enduring a strong wind blowing from only one side.

James said some styles are more common in certain trees, but many trees can be trained into myriad configurations. One exception is with cascade bonsai. Trees in the cascade category are often flowering trees or conifers, like pines and junipers, which are found in mountainous areas. Their low hanging branches are pulled down by the weight of fruit or snow and ice that accompany high-altitude conditions, creating the cascade look.

He added that some styles fit specific occasions, as certain designs are more formal than others.

“If you were displaying a bonsai for a special occasion you would use a formal tree, which would be very stately, maybe austere – very proper,” James said. “But an informal tree lends itself more to having a party or a big celebration. Something fun, maybe even more playful.”

Looking to learn even more about bonsai, and get your hands-on experience while doing it? Join our Museum Staff and Volunteers as they offer several Intro to Bonsai classes this July. Learn more here.