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History of Penjing/Bonsai

bonsai ancient photo

While the art of bonsai 盆栽 has long been associated with Japan, it is originated first in China which we know as Penjing 盆景, and then spread eastward to Korea and then Japan. From ancient paintings and manuscripts, we know that “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars feel that bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 or 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

It is no accident that artistic plant cultivation originated in China. The Chinese have always loved flowers and plants, and the country is naturally endowed with a rich diversity of flora. The Chinese also had a passion for gardens. In fact, many of these gardens were on a miniature scale and included many miniature trees and shrubs, planted to reinforce the scale and balance of their landscapes. They believed that miniature objects had concentrated within them certain mystical and magical powers.

The development of Chinese and Korean ceramics played an important role in the development of bonsai as we know it today. Without the development of beautiful Chinese containers (pot), bonsai trees would not have been admired as much as they have been. Bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity. Even to this day the most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often antique Chinese containers.

Bonsai has evolved and developed along different lines in China and Japan. Both countries have different approach in styling the Bonsai/Penjing. The Japanese trees are for the most part more refined and better groomed. Both types have their own individualistic charms and admirers.

Bonsai Ancient photo
Bonsai Juniperus

In the post-World War II era most of the bonsai seen in the United States and Europe are Japanese in origin. The monopoly that Japan has enjoyed until recently is coming to be shared with several other countries, although the quality of Japanese trees continues to be of the highest quality.

 

​​​​Finally, we owe a great debt to the Japanese and Chinese artists for developing this beautiful art and for keeping it alive for almost 2,500 years. Without their enthusiasm, artistic tradition, and patient stewardship, we would not be enjoying bonsai as we know it today. The aesthetic sensibilities of bonsai, which have their roots in the Zen Buddhist tradition, contribute significantly to the complete bonsai experience.

History of Suiseki/Viewing stone 

Suiseki

The art of stone appreciation

Similar to “bonsai”, “suiseki” is also a Japanese term literally mean water stone. Suiseki is a generic term for naturally shaped stone or rock that being collected and appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. The stone appreciation culture started in China more than 1000 years ago during the Tang dynasty (618-907). In China, gongshi (tribute stone), guaishi (strange stone), yashi (elegant stone) or qishi (rare stone) are used interchangeably to represent the natural stone treasured by connoisseur which and the culture of stone appreciation itself. From China, it spread to Japan (known as suiseki), Korea (known as suseok) and subsequently to the West (known as viewing stone or scholar’s rock). The stone appreciation culture is known as scholar’s rock in the West because these stone or rock are usually collected by scholar or literati during the period of Imperial China. During those years, scholar’s rock provides artists, poets and calligraphers with never ending inspiration.

Among all the word that represent the art of stone appreciation, suiseki is by far the most popular term used today, very likely because effort and contribution of Japanese in promoting this art form to worldwide audience.

Size of the stone or rock collected can vary from tiny hand-held stones displayed on a shelf to large rock weighting several tons to decorate a garden. Suiseki displayed indoor are usually small to medium sizes stone moveable by one person, typically mounted on a carved wooden bases, ceramic or metal trays. A Chinese saying has it that, “A garden without stone cannot be beautiful, house without stone wouldn’t be comfortable and a room without stone lacks elegance.”

suiseki

By the Song dynasty (960-1279), four principal aesthetic criteria—thinness (shou), holes or openness (tou), channels (lou), and wrinkling (zhou) had been identified for judging qualities of scholars' rocks. Although newer criteria based on shape, color, surface pattern or texture and appropriateness of the base has been adopted by modern connoisseur to accommodate wider range of stone types collected today, the four principal aesthetic criteria are still respected and applied particularly on 4 major stone type appreciated by the ancient Chinese - Lingbi, Taihu, Ying and Kun stones.

Today, the art of stone appreciation has gain popularity across the globe. Other than China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, society or club for stone appreciation has been established in all countries in Southeast Asia and most of the countries in Europe and North America. Some society or club were established solely for the art of stone appreciation while many are combined with bonsai society of respective countries – Malaysia Bonsai and Suiseki Society (MBSS) is a typical example.

How to appreciate a stone

Stone is formed through billion years of earth crust activity, coupled with natural erosion by water or wind; an amazing artwork or sculpture can be produced by chance. These stone are not merely collected for appreciation of its beauty but also a spiritual pursuit where quite stone are known to help calming oneself for meditation.

Judging quality of a stone can be a very personal matter, several criteria (as following) can be use as guidance for evaluating quality of a stone but it is not exhaustive.

​1. Shape: is the shape of stone suggesting any landscape or object?

Type of landscape stone

  • Distant mountain (imagine you are looking at a mountain range from far)

  • Near view mountain (the mountain is right in front of you)

  • Mountain with waterfall, pool or stream

  • Island (typically displayed on a ceramic or metal tray with sand)

  • Plateau

  • Arch

  • Bridge, etc

Type of object stone

  • Human figure

  • Animals

  • Abstract sculpture

  • Objects like hut, boat, moon, tree, flower, pot etc

 

2. Pattern or texture: is pattern or texture of the stone suggesting any landscape or object (as above)?

 

3. Color: some stone are treasured for its color – black, green, yellow, red, etc

 

4. Material: usually harder stones are treasured mainly due to it durability. Hardness of a stone can be measure in Mohs scale.

Human intervention on stone with cutting or drilling has been documented and known to be acceptable in ancient stone appreciation culture in China. Japanese generally have much stricter rule, all stones must be found in nature and cannot be changed in any way. Although there are some exceptions of man-enhanced stones being treasured due skillful enhancement by artist, it is worth noting that the best stone should be completely sculpted by nature.

When anyone start looking for stones, one must imagine; turn it upside down, left to right and/or right to left to search for a unique or pleasing view. As much as possible, try to collect stone that able to connect and evoke your emotions. What you see may not be what another person may see, that is okay because that is how the stone connecting with you.

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