The University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum

Bonsai & Penjing Collection

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Copyright Carlos Diaz

Understanding Bonsai & Penjing

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.

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.

In Chinese “pen” means pot or container and “jing” is translated as landscape or scenery. The three types of penjing are tree penjing, landscape penjing, and water and land penjing. The elements that make up this art form are the container or tray and the rocks, plants, soil, water, grasses, and figures—which can be human, architectural, or animal—that are present. While these elements do not always have to be physically part of the design, if they are not their presence is often inferred from the composition. Some penjing, typically distant landscapes, primarily use rock in their design. The artist is not trying to copy an exact landscape, but to create an ideal world that conjures up different emotions depending on the viewer’s own experiences in nature.

In Japanese “bon” means plant or tree and “sai” means pot or tray. Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art form, related to tree penjing, in which woody plants are grown in containers as representations of aged or interesting trees. The three expressions of bonsai are: single tree, multiple tree, and forest. Like penjing, bonsai has never been an attempt to create scale models of trees. Rather, living material is grown as a statement about trees and about the interactions between people, trees, and nature’s cycles.

Styles of Bonsai & Penjing

Style names are used in discussing bonsai and penjing. There are three fundamental styles: single tree, group or forest tree, and landscape. Within the single tree style there are five style subcategories.

  • Single tree styles (shared by bonsai and penjing)

There are many styles of single tree bonsai and penjing. Most single tree bonsai and penjing can be categorized in one of the following five basic styles based on the trunk’s posture. The artist focuses on revealing the inherent nature of the plant material rather than forcing a tree to exemplify a certain style.

Formal Upright
  • Formal Upright (bonsai term) - Upright Trunk (penjing term)

Recognized by a straight trunk with the apex directly above the roots.

Represents a tree with steady, purposeful, upward growth, benefiting from little environmental stress or competition.

Intent: calm and balanced strength.

Informal Upright
  • Informal Upright (bonsai term) - Curved Trunk (penjing term)

Recognized by a naturally curved trunk, having its apex located above, or almost above, the trunk base.

Represents a tree making its way upward while responding to its changing environment.

Intent: making adjustments to achieve quiet stability.

  • Slanting (bonsai term) - Slanting Trunk (penjing term)

Recognized by a leaning trunk that positions the apex away from the base.

Represents a tree that continues to grow despite displacement by the forces of nature.

Intent: precarious stability.

  • Semi-cascade (bonsai term) - Partial Hanging Cliff (penjing term)

Recognized by a trunk line more horizontal than vertical. Most of the foliage mass is above the pot and the apex is positioned outside and below the lip of the pot.

Represents a tree that responds to wind and eroding soil.

Intent: tension and struggle; weathering adversity.

  • Cascade (bonsai term) - Hanging Cliff (penjing term)

Recognized by a rapidly descending trunk line with most of the foliage mass below the lip of the pot and the apex continuing the descent.

Represents a tree growing over an abyss.

Intent: transformation by adversity.

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