Penjing: The Chinese Art of Bonsai

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


Penjing: The Chinese Art of Bonsai
by Chao Qingquan
Better Link Press

This potted history of the ancient art of penjing (Chinese bonsai), by expert practitioner Chao Qingquan, is concise and descriptive, offering an easy introduction for those unfamiliar with the practice, and ample details to satisfy those who are more au fait.

Overall, the book is well structured and gets to the root of the art form. We are given an overview of the aesthetics of penjing, then a chronological history, followed by techniques and designs.

The photographs of the trees are clearly laid out with short descriptions but the book is let down by poor editing: there are frequent mistakes in grammar and punctuation, and the layout of the text is occasionally clumsy.

The book opens with a thorough introduction giving an outline of penjing, literally 'tray/pot scenery'. As well as taking readers on a theoretical journey, the book also offers the green-fingered and artistic plenty of tips for implementing this theory; we gradually grow to appreciate the nuances and complexities of the art form - and there's a lot more to it than meets the eye.

While the trees - pruned to stay small and shaped using wire - are meant to be 'poetic images' of their full-sized versions, penjing is also meant to resemble designs of traditional Chinese ink paintings. Thus, in penjing, nature meets the artist. And, as we read on, what we find is a book about art history and appreciation; but instead of the brushstrokes and compositions of paintings we are looking at details of trees - different species' colours, textures, shapes, and, of course, the three-dimensional aspect too, which adds a further layer to this art.

This 'art with life' can take the form of tree penjing (pruned natural trees and plants), landscape penjing (for example, using rocks shaped into mountains), and water and land penjing (a mixture of the two, which may include miniatures such as figurines).

Penjing, it seems, is not just a hobby. Like the vast majority of artwork, the tree scenes are meant to express emotions. This is achieved through the fusion of natural landscapes and the images created. We are frequently asked to consider the complexities of penjing and its various meanings - as something artistic (the book repeatedly refers to Chinese poetry and paintings), natural (yet, paradoxically, crafted through pruning and manipulating), spiritual (notions of 'emptiness' pertain to Buddhist philosophy), and historically embedded (the practice has a rich history across Asian countries).

Understanding penjing is not just about looking at miniature trees - it's about 'seeing the big from the tiny'. With this complex art form, we must 'think big' and appreciate something beyond what meets the eye - something almost philosophical.

The book covers pretty much everything, but if you are serious about penjing, a more thorough book with more detail about the practical element of maintaining the trees would be of more benefit. The size and shape of this book make it cumbersome to handle, and there is not much in the way of a conclusion.

The book works best in providing a thorough span of the art form. With the right tools, tips and techniques, the real challenge is keeping that mini tree alive away from the page.