Penjing: A Chinese Renaissance
In the West, penjing has come a long way. For decades, the art of dwarfing trees in containers had been attributed exclusively to the Japanese. Bonsai, we were told, was a Japanese invention. The first teachers were Japanese, and the first books were translated from the Japanese or written in English by Japanese immigrants.
But then there was Wu Yee-sun, a wealthy Hong Kong banker. He not only possessed a sizeable collection of miniature trees and landscapes but the wherewithal to speak for a country that had become impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world although for over a millennium, it had been the leading cultural influence in Far East Asia. Mr. Wu's title "Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants", first published in 1969 and re-issued in a second and enlarged edition in 1974, caused a stir in the monolithic bonsai universe because he maintained that in China, the art of miniaturizing trees had roots extending back well over a thousand years! And the claims of this "cultured farmer" ("man lung") were just the beginning. In the mid 1980's, two books by Hu Yunhua, a mainland Chinese author, became available in English. "Penjing: The Chinese Art of Miniature Gardens" (Timber Press, 1982) and "Chinese Penjing: Miniature Trees and Landscapes" (Timber Press, 1987) both showcased penjing from various geographic regions of the People's Republic. While many of the trees appeared crude and imperfect to the eyes of bonsai artists trained in the Japanese tradition, they also exuded a spirit of bold personality and brave artistic expression that some Western artists did not fail to notice. Then came the first exhibits and the first visits by Chinese artists on U.S. soil. A few Americans revealed that their initial exposure to penjing resembled a coming-out-of-the-closet type of experience. A genuine liberation. They rejoiced over the fact that the straightjacket of rigid rules and regulations had been cracked and permission granted to pursue a greater level of artistic experimentation. Since the early days, this chorus has grown steadily. Meanwhile, bonsai enthusiasts in warm climates discovered that the more intuitive and free-flowing styling methods of Chinese artists suited their natural environment better than many classical Japanese methods. They found that the vivacity and profuse grace innate to tropical species such as Ficus or Bougainvillea call for a less formal approach to tree art.
These advances in the West became possible because by the late 1970's, after many decades of wars and imperial domination, destruction, famines, revolution, international isolation and Communist experiments, the giant formerly known as the Middle Kingdom was stirring and realigning itself. Unknown to the rest of the world, some men had bravely begun to re-evaluate penjing in the hope of revitalizing this ancient art. There were formidable obstacles. Many fine collections had perished in 100 + years of man-made disasters. And much of the former art had degenerated into regional "schools" consisting of craftsmen and folk artists determined to coerce trees into weird, pre-conceived shapes such as dragons, cloud layers, and so on. Undaunted, these visionaries resolved to connect with the lofty spirit of earlier times and to build on their time-honored tradition while experimenting with new forms and techniques.
Eventually, a genuine renaissance got underway. And with the substantial economic growth that began in the 1980's and continues through today, particularly the stability that rising living standards have brought to people's lives, penjing in China has once more become a force to be reckoned with. Personally, I was fortunate enough to spend five years among Chinese people in the 1980's, learning their language, their culture, and their ways. I witnessed many of the changes described above first-hand. While the initial purpose of my visit was to teach English and study Chinese, I secretly hoped to find access to China's classical culture and art. When I discovered penjing and met some of China's finest artists, I knew I had hit a home run because it offered me a window into the mysterious and elusive realm of traditional culture. Learning all I could about penjing and its cultural context became my personal passion. And from the late 1980's on, I have communicated my growing understanding and appreciation to Western bonsai enthusiasts. This series of articles is my most comprehensive effort to date to share my knowledge of the ancient art of penjing with a wider audience.
What exactly is penjing, and how does it differ from Japanese bonsai? There are people who maintain that penjing is nothing but the Chinese word for the same kind of tree art. This is just a little too simple. It is true that to the uninitiated, similarities between bonsai and penjing will always outweigh their differences. However, when people view themselves as enthusiasts, practitioners, collectors, connoisseurs, or even artists, I think a little more distinction and cultural sensitivity is called for.
First and foremost, there's a major difference in the scope of these two related art forms and the materials used. The two characters used by the Chinese and the Japanese to denote their art offer a critical clue. You will notice that the first ideogram in both sets is identical, although it is pronounced "bon" in Japanese and "pen" in Chinese. In both languages, this character means a pot or container. The second ideogram is the one that reveals the difference. "Sa"i translates as plant or tree; whereas "jing" means a scenery. Bon-sai, then, literally translates as a tree in a container, and pen-jing denotes a scenery in a container. Consequently, the bonsai artist only works with plant material, miniaturizing one, two, or several trees and presenting and maintaining them in a container to suggest a natural scene. The penjing artist may do just that, or he or she may work with natural stones or rock as artistic medium. Stones can be used to accompany or enhance one or several trees, or an entire composition may be created with rocks as the major ingredient. For the Chinese, all of that is penjing. It's a much wider concept and actually encompasses what the Japanese call bonsai. By contrast, a penjing consisting of a landscape on a slab created entirely from rock could never be called a bonsai.
The following 3 drawings represent the 3 forms of penjing practiced in today's China:
So maybe it would be appropriate to call designs with only trees bonsai and compositions that involve stones or rock penjing? I don't think so. After all, penjing is the much older art form from which bonsai derived. And even where only trees are involved, Chinese creations often look distinctly different. Frequently, designs appear bolder, livelier, and more playful, sometimes even bizarre. By contrast, Japanese bonsai tend 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. In traditional China, penjing, at the highest level of the art, was practised by the scholars, and the aesthetics and art theories formulated by these men shaped the course along which penjing evolved. And while there is no scholar class in today's China, modern artists clearly view penjing as a literati art and take their cues and inspiration not only from ancient writings but from the other arts the scholars enjoyed, particularly painting, poetry, calligraphy, and garden art. The close connection between penjing and painting is particularly well understood. In my upcoming articles, I will highlight the cultural and spiritual context of penjing and discuss why and how these other literati arts have fertilized the art of creating miniature trees and landscapes.
Why bother, you may ask. Can't we just create cute little trees without learning about philosophies and cultural influences? Of course you can. You can practice penjing or bonsai at any level. If you only want to be a craftsperson who learns and applies techniques to copy what someone else has created, don't bother to read on. If, however, you aspire to a higher level and deeper understanding, you'll need to go to the source – the culture of traditional China. You'll find that when you begin to view penjing with Chinese eyes, an entire new world of insights and possibilities will open up. After all, penjing is a synthesis between nature and art. Most of us don't have much of a problem with the nature aspect. Nature, while varying a great deal from one region and climate to the next, can display a surprisingly universal quality. Similar landscapes can be found in many parts of the world. We can tune into them and understand them fairly readily. Art, however, is culturally determined and can be quite unique, and the doors to comprehension and appreciation may not open to the novice. However, if we want to succeed at the art part of the equation, we need to try for a closer understanding of the aesthetics and values of those who created this art before us. I've been approached by quite a few Western bonsai and penjing enthusiasts who ask for advice on how to go beyond a mere copying of Asian artists to something more deeply satisfying. They want their work to capture their own personality, their unique perception of the world around them, their own sensibilities. They want it to convey their very own spirituality and understanding of nature. These are great questions with no easy answers. But I think the ancient practitioners pondered these very same questions. Revisiting their world with honest curiosity and open-mindedness may reveal important guidelines and establish some signposts that can help lead us onto our own unique paths.
To get there, it seems equally important to address issues pertaining to the provenance of the art with fairness and sincerity. Lineage, an important concept in Chinese and Japanese art, needs to be handled with integrity and sensitivity if we want the art to thrive. Yet most of the bonsai literature is filled with misconceptions on the subject of cultural transmission.
Bonsai, just like Zen Buddhism, is commonly described as a Japanese invention. Once people become more seriously involved, they learn that tree art and Zen had their roots in China. However, a theory has persisted which claims that the beginnings there were nebulous and insignificant. The story goes that once Zen and miniature trees were taken to Japan eons ago, the islands offered the perfect environment for both philosophy and art to flourish in complete isolation from mainland influences. Since Zen blended perfectly with the indigenous Japanese culture and psychology, we're told, Japan provided the fertile soil in which the practice of miniaturizing trees evolved into art.
I think the time for more serious and responsible scholarship has come. The shelves of any good university library are filled with books by Far East Asian scholars, and their research shows a clear consensus that for over 1000 years, China was the major cultural and artistic influence in that part of the world. These books leave no doubt that the impact of Chinese philosophy, literature, painting, calligraphy, garden art, and medicine was both far-reaching and ongoing.
Since the transmission of culture from China to her neighbors was not a single, isolated event, it is equally naïve to imagine that some time in the 6th century, there was a one-time transplanting of miniature trees from China to Japan, as some bonsai books suggest. As a matter of fact, nobody can ascertain when the forerunners of today's penjing and bonsai first arrived on Japanese shores. But since we do know that Japanese philosophy, literature, the visual arts, customs, and fashion, over the course of many centuries, either followed Chinese models or were profoundly shaped by Chinese events, experiences, and tastes, we must assume that dwarf trees in Japan, too, for a long time were styled and maintained with horticultural knowledge and artistic and aesthetic inspiration gleaned from Chinese sources and with the guidance offered by visitors to and from the Middle Kingdom.
Stephen Addiss ("Japanese Quest for a New Vision: The Impact of Visiting Chinese Painters, 1600-1900") identifies three distinct waves of Chinese influence. The first wave occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries and brought a system of writing, political and educational improvements, Buddhism, and various art forms. Addiss writes: "The sixth and seventh centuries saw the wholesale transformation of Japan into a country modeled strongly upon Chinese customs and principles". The second wave spanned the 13th and 14th centuries; a major import at this time was Zen Buddhism and the culture and arts associated with it. Japanese delegations to China at that time included her two eminent monks, Eisai and Dogen. As a result of this major transmission, Zen monasteries in Japan became a significant cultural force and centers for Chinese-style poetry, calligraphy, and ink painting. However, Japanese interests were not confined to Zen. Alan Watts ("The Way of Zen") observes that Japan's craze for things Chinese reached a fever pitch in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279):
"It was during this same period that Eisai and Dogen came from Japan to return with Zen to their own country, to be followed by an incessant stream of Japanese scholar-monks eager to take home not only Zen but every other aspect of Chinese culture. Shiploads of monks, amounting almost to floating monasteries, plied between China and Japan, carrying not only sutras and Chinese classical books, but also tea, silk, pottery, incense, paintings, drugs, musical instruments, and every refinement of Chinese culture – not to mention Chinese artists and craftsmen."
The third wave was not as monumental and far-reaching as the two preceding it. It took place from the 17th to the 19th centuries and included the adoption and promotion of neo-Confucianism by Japanese leaders and a new style of ink painting modeled after China's literati painting that became known as Nanga. Nevertheless, the impact was profound. It is critical to understand that when Nanga artists like Taiga adopted the painting style of China's literati, their interest was not limited to certain techniques. Instead, they "borrowed" entire motifs from Chinese culture and history and recreated these in their works. Examples are, among others, the coterie of erudite, like-minded men sharing scholarly avocations, the four scholarly accomplishments, and the mountain hermit who withdrew from society to seek refuge in the liberating realm of nature. For clarification on these important issues, I feel particularly indebted to the excellent study "The Politics of Reclusion: Painting and Power in Momoyama Japan" by Kendall H. Brown, Professor of Asian Art History at California State University at Long Beach and Japanese garden consultant, as well as the equally outstanding book "Taiga's True Views: The Language of Landscape Painting in 18th Century Japan" by Melinda Takeuchi, Professor of Japanese Art at Stanford University. One of the many intriguing facts revealed by Dr. Takeuchi is the insight that "first- and second-generation Nanga painters wore Chinese robes, drank Chinese tea, and cultivated Chinese plants from imported seeds". The life experiences, traditions, and sentiments as well as the aesthetics imparted in many traditional Japanese arts had their origin in imperial China. The Japanese contribution should mostly be seen in the manner in which philosophies, themes and cultural icons from China were given specific form in the island nation's literature, the visual arts, and special celebrations such as the tea ceremony. In most cases, the Japanese have used original ideas and cultural components from China and preserved, re-interpreted, idealized, formalized, stereotyped, and dramatized them to suit their own context at a particular time. They've done so exceedingly well and deserve our admiration. Moreover, we owe them our gratitude for having introduced tree art to the West at a time when China had closed her doors. Nevertheless, China should be honored as the source and originator of many outstanding arts, including penjing.
In all art, influences are complex, and penjing and bonsai are no exception. By focusing on China as the root, I hoped to address some of the above-mentioned misconceptions and to clear a path for much needed corrections. At least my articles – iconoclastic as they might appear - might stimulate a meaningful and profound exchange of opinions and, in turn, unleash creativity and open up new horizons. I hope to see artists from all over the world transcend the Chinese and Japanese traditions to find their own vision and their own voice. If art is the language of the soul, isn't that what both bonsai and penjing should be all about?