This Sunday, March 9, 2019, Chinese penjing masters Huang Jui Wei and Lu Xueming demonstrate the art of making large, tray landscapes with miniature trees, in an art form similar to the Japanese art of bonsai, from 10 a.m. to noon at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The event is free with no reservations required. For more information, see the event website here.
Bonsai and penjing involve horticultural and aesthetic techniques of miniaturizing trees to embody the principles that govern nature. They both convey reverence for nature and are deeply embedded in the histories and cultures in which they originated.
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. Actually, the Chinese art form of penjing has been around for thousands of years, long before its Japanese relative bonsai. Penjing and bonsai reflect the natural world and the connection that humans feel with it. Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) and penjing (pronounced pen-jing) are both singular and plural.
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.
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.
Left – The ideograms for the word pronounced “bon-sai” in Japanese. “Bon” denotes a pot or container; “sai” means a plant or tree. In Chinese, this word is pronounced “pen-zai”.
Right – The ideograms for the word pronounced “pen-jing” in Chinese. The character for “pen” is identical with the one for “bon” and also refers to a pot or container. “Jing” translates as a scenery.
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. “Sai” 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.