Many Americans connect the art of bonsai with Japan, but this art form has more ancient roots in China, where it is usually known as “penjing.” This is why the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is so named, because the Museum displays not only bonsai in the Japanese Pavilion and the John Naka North American Pavilions but also penjing in the Yee Sun Wu Chinese Pavilion.
At the end of September, Museum curator Jack Sustic joined bonsai and penjing representatives from all over the world for an exhibition and tour of China celebrating the art of shohin. What is shohin? Fans of bonsai know that these artistically-trained trees can come in all shapes and sizes, and shohin bonsai and penjing are those under 20 centimeters (about 8 inches) tall. These tiny trees are becoming increasingly popular in the international bonsai/penjing community, and Chinese horticulturalists are keen on emphasizing this beautiful art more than ever.
Sustic and Scott Aker, the Gardens Unit Leader at the U.S. National Arboretum where the Museum is located, were the two Americans in a group that represented 10 countries such as Germany, Taiwan, Lithuania, South Korea, and the Czech Republic. The trip, which was sponsored by a generous donor on behalf of the Shanghai Botanic Garden, was an effort to strengthen the relationships among public gardens throughout the world.
“A ‘Signing Ceremony’ kicked off the week-long excursion,” Sustic said, “where all the participants agreed to work together to promote a sense of community.” The trip was intended as just the beginning of a long, continuing effort to work closer with gardens around the globe that display bonsai or penjing.
The first stop on the tour was to the city of Yuyao, where the group attended a large shohin exhibition directed by the benefactor of the trip. Throughout the week, they visited at least five different collections, both public and private, of bonsai and penjing, including shohin. A notable penjing collection was located on the campus of a high school. “I was impressed by the number of trees … by the hundreds,” Sustic said.
According to Sustic, the primary focus of the trip was to increase the exposure of penjing, and to show that the Chinese are interested in shohin. Traditionally, most of China’s horticultural community has been known for their large trees. That has become a problem for the Chinese growers of penjing. “There are a lot of people living in apartments,” Sustic said. “That’s a demographic they’re not reaching because their trees are so big.
Although the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum has a fine collection of shohin bonsai here in Washington, Sustic is interested in expanding that collection, as well as the Museum’s international presence. “We developed a good contact with Feng Shucheng, the director of the Shanghai Botanic Garden,” Sustic said. “We would like to see, potentially, an exchange, or they might donate a tree or two to the Museum, as they’ve given us rock (landscape) penjing in the past.”
In addition to meeting international bonsai enthusiasts and learning more about shohin, every group member received a Lifetime Free Entry Card to the Shanghai Botanic Garden. Sustic hopes to return to China sometime in the future and put the card to good use.