Although we often refer to bonsai by its Japanese name, the art of creating miniature landscapes actually originated in China and was probably exported to Japan sometime around the 13th century. Though the two traditions evolved according to different ideals, their foundations are the same: to create idyllic miniature scenes that reflect the realism and beauty of natural life.
Chinese miniascapes are known as penjing, literally meaning ‘container scenery’. While the Japanese Bonsai tradition focuses solely on creating beautiful miniature trees, Chinese Penjing is more broadly concerned with complex natural scenery, which may additionally include rocks, water and sometimes people or animals.
Penjing trees are created by limiting the growth and span of the tree’s size using binding or other dwarfing techniques, often resulting in strangely mutilated trunks or bizarrely angled branches. Historically, these mangled miniature trees could represent auspicious Chinese characters, dragons, clouds or other symbolic ideas. Because the purpose of Chinese Penjing was to create a realistic scene, other natural elements, such as rocks and water, were often included.
The art of Chinese miniature scenery reached its pinnacle during the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it was immensely popular among the general public. Regional varieties and schools of Penjing practices began to pop up all over China, and its forms became more refined and particular.
Generally, three forms of Chinese Penjing have been identified: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Tree Penjing can be compared directly with Japanese Bonsai, where the dwarfed tree is the only element of the miniascape. In Landscape Penjing, the rock rather than the tree is the central focus of the scene, which appears as a rock garden. Land and Water Penjing, then, uses trees, rocks and water to create a complex scene that not only looks beautiful, but also tells a story.
Although the art of Chinese Penjing suffered at the hands of foreign occupation, war and internal strife during the early 20th century, it has in the past two decades gone through a renaissance period. More and more artists are now attracted to the beauty and simplicity of Penjing art, using it as an expression of both spirituality and outer aesthetic beauty. Penjing scenes are on display in many public parks and historic gardens across China, where foreign and Chinese tourists alike can enjoy the strange, mutilated beauty of the miniature landscape.