The Art of Penjing; the Daoist Origins of Bonsai

//The Art of Penjing; the Daoist Origins of Bonsai

The Art of Penjing; the Daoist Origins of Bonsai

Some of my most incredible memories of China, and there are many, are of the gardens. This last trip seeing the gardens of Suzhou and Hangzhou were beyond words. Ancient bonsai, exquisite flowers, rock sculptures, and tranquil water features. In fact, every tree in that country seems perfectly trained into a work of art. Chinese gardeners apply the same rules of balance to their standard trees and shrubs as they do to their miniaturized trees. This fall Judith and I finally resolved to take a bonsai class to start imitating what we observed in our own gardens.

The class we took recently at Wigert’s Bonsai in Fort Myers, FL is known as tropical bonsai. (The unique growth habits of tropical trees have inspired new styles and compositions.) When selecting my tree, two small Fukien Tea trees jumped out at me. One, more rounded with tiny leaves and ample flowers felt Yin to me, while the other was more angular with larger leaves thus exuding Yang energy. I felt they wanted to be together in a composition; a dance between Yin and Yang at the center of all creation. This balance between these primal forces was also at the heart of the book I am currently working on on Daoist sexuality. In working with them every day, the trees would teach me this dance. Our teacher was not impressed, as this did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, but he allowed it.

The instruction was sound and easy to apply, but I felt stifled by the seriousness in the room. Judith was unaffected. An artist in all mediums (sewing, upholstry, cooking, decorating, gardening); she took to bonsai immediately. She selected an ordinary little Tiger Bark ficus and set about transforming it into an adorable tree. I followed her lead and just focused on my work.

Penjing; the Daoist Origins of Bonsai

Penjing (盆景, pén jǐng, “tray scenery”) is an ancient Daoist art of sculpting rock and training trees into miniaturized landscapes. (The principles of this art are applied to life-size gardens and landscapes as well.) When we visited Mantak Chia’s healing center in Thailand, he had hundreds of bonsai trees on display. He explained that the little trees are so valued by Daoists because they concentrate Qi.

Penjing is a meditation. The gardner/artist works with natural materials (plants, rocks, earth, water) to create a vision. It can replicate a sacred site, invoke a specific element, or invoke a state of mind being cultivated. Every day the artist tends to his/her art, adding more intention. This is what makes penjing so magical. The observer feels a certain mood or energy emanating from the scuture, built upon many years of daily intention.

The art of penjing spread throughout Asia, and most famously to Japan in the 6th century, where it became known as bonsai. Bonsai is the Japanese pronunciation of 盆栽, meaning potted plant and pronouced “pén zāi” in Chinese. In its Japanese interpretation it has become more formal and precise. Less a free form meditation, it is the practice of perfection. Traditional bonsai is limited to trees, and does not include rock sculptures or figurines. More recently, bonsai has been re-interpreted again as it becomes popularized around the world. The term “bonsai” in common usage around the world is not limited to the Japanese interpretation, but is an umbrella term for a wider art in constant transformation.

Step 1 – Choose Your Trees

The top tree had a natural Yin quality to me, while the bottom tree displayed a Yang quality. In their natural disheveled state they were quite adorable and had a happy, Fire quality. They seemed excited about the adventure.

Fukien Tea 2

Step 2 – Shape Your Tree

Shaping the tree is a continuous process. First, each leaf was trimmed back, called defoliation. This accomplishes a few things: a) it reduces leaf size, b) it balances the removal of roots, and c) it allows you to see a clear trunk and branch line. Defoliation is always done when the tree is first made into a bonsai and is repeated yearly, depending on the tree. Second, branches are trimmed to create the initial style. Third, every branch is wired and set. I could feel the constriction of the trees during the wiring process; not unlike when I first got my braces. I felt bad for my trees at this point.

Step 3 – Pot Your Tree in a Bonsai Pot

After shaping the top of the trees, I needed to do the same to the roots in order to place them in the little pot. This will stunt the growth of the trunk and roots in order to keep the tree small. The dirt is removed from the roots with a rake, then the roots are rinsed under water. If there is a large root ball it is trimmed back, along with excess smaller roots. (This process is called bare rooting and is typically only done once. Bonsai trees need to be repotted every 1-3 years but it is not so traumatic). Then the tree(s) is securely tied into the pot with wires. Special bonsai soil is added and mixed in with a chopstick. A little fertilizer is mixed in, then the potted tree is soaked in water with “super thrive” for 5 minutes.

The “Finished” Bonsai

The ordeal in becoming a bonsai is arduous for the plant and it must rest in the shade, untouched, for 2 weeks. It is checked daily for wetness by sticking a pencil or wooden chopstick into the soil. After this time it will be moved to its preferred light requirements.

The top picture is of my twin Yin and Yang Fukien Tea trees. The bottom is Judith’s Tiger Bark ficus bonsai.

Judith Andrews Bonsai
By | 2017-12-03T23:54:40+00:00 October 21st, 2015|Plants|Comments Off on The Art of Penjing; the Daoist Origins of Bonsai

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