“The goal is to create the sense of a tree as though you took it out of nature” —Che Zhao Sheng
A Combination of Plants and Art
Penjing literally means potted scene. The goal of penjing artists is to create a scene or to evoke a particular feeling. The artists do this by shaping trees and arranging them, sometimes with other features like rocks or water in a landscaped scene.
Choose one of the above penjing. Allow the prompts and questions below to guide your observation. Once you’re done, you can choose a second penjing and repeat the process. Compare your responses for the two penjing. You can also compare your responses to those of a peer.
Questions & Prompts
Imagine you are very small (like a lizard or an ant). Trace your eyes along the penjing and imagine you are climbing upward. What does it feel like to climb within the penjing? What does the scene look like from the top?
Can you find a spot in the branches where you'd like to sit and daydream or that would be a great hiding spot?
Does this tree’s shape and features remind you of a tree you’ve seen in your neighborhood?
What scene or particular feeling does this penjing evoke for you?
What name or title would you give this penjing? Why?
What do you think this penjing looked like 10 years ago? What do you think it might look like 10 years from now? What about a hundred years from now? Some penjing are supposedly one hundred to five hundred years old!
Does the penjing you chose have a shadow in the photograph? What do you think the shadow looked like five hours earlier? What do you think the shadow will look like five hours later? Draw what you think these shadows would look like.
Che Zhao Sheng, the penjing artist who created these works, says, “I'm inspired by all of nature — the forests, lakes, and rocks — and then I bring all these scenes in my mind into the pot to create the penjing.” Where do you see each of these nature elements in the penjing?
The History of Penjing
Historians are not sure how penjing got started, but we know it has been around for a long time. Penjing has existed in China for about two thousand years. Mural paintings in Chinese tombs from the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.) show potted plants in low containers on display stands. These paintings depict early versions of penjing.
Penjing is an evolving artform. This set of carved tile panels is in The Huntington’s Chinese Garden and represents three important moments in the history of penjing.
Ming dynasty. This is an artist’s adaptation of a Ming-dynasty (16th and 17th centuries) penjing. It shows the Three Friends of Winter: a flowering plum tree, a pine tree behind, and a small clump of bamboo. The Three Friends of Winter were a common subject in penjing during the Ming dynasty. Learn more about the Three Friends of Winter at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Qing dynasty/Meiji period. The piece is adapted from a woodblock print in a Japanese book from the Meiji period (late 19th century). During this period, Chinese arts and culture (including tea, painting, poetry, and penjing) were very popular among certain social groups in Japan. This piece speaks to the 19th century artistic intersections between Japan and China. Americans became familiar with miniature plants like penjing through Japan, where they are known as bonsai.
20th and 21st centuries. This tile is inspired by a tree cultivated by Che Zhao Sheng, The Huntington’s primary penjing artist. Che Zhao Sheng says this is the tree that he is proudest of. He cultivated it in the backyard of his house in the San Gabriel Valley in California.
Che Zhao Sheng: Penjing Artist
Che Zhao Sheng is a gardener in The Huntington’s Chinese Garden. Before immigrating to the United States, Che Zhao Sheng studied with penjing artist Lu Xue Ming. Che Zhao Sheng was trained in the Lingnan school, which is a school of penjing that focuses on individual trees. This is why Che Zhao Sheng’s penjing might look similar to some of the bonsai in The Huntington’s collections. Even though they may look similar, they are very different artforms.
Che Zhao Sheng uses a technique called clip-and-grow to shape his penjing. The clip-and-grow technique allows branches to grow until they reach the desired diameter (until they are the right thickness). They are then clipped and allowed to grow in a different direction. The artist repeats this process until the artist has created the desired movement, rhythm, and balance on the plant.
An Interview with Che Zhao Sheng
This interview has been translated from Mandarin. Translation provided by Fan Wang.
Why do you create penjing?
One year for the Chinese Lunar New Year Festival, when I was still in Guangzhou, China, I went to a market to get some flowers to decorate our home. One of my friends told me that one of the vendors carried beautiful penjing. In our local dialect, penjing is called Ancient Plants. I didn't know what penjing was, but I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and exquisite form of penjing the first time that I saw them. I started going to the store and watching the gardeners every day. Later, I was lucky to meet my master Mr. Lu Xue Ming who is one of the Penjing masters that was titled by the Chinese government. I love penjing since it is the art of nature.
What is your favorite thing about working with living plants?
For me, the process of creating penjing is a mode of self-expression. My master used to tell me that you would not be able to acquire real skills if your purpose of creating penjing was to make money. The process of creating penjing is a way of expressing your attitudes and perspective. The piece you are working on should carry your passion from the very beginning and it will never go wrong.
What is the biggest challenge you face when working with living plants?
My challenge is how I can get praise from the majority of the audience. I will be happy if eight out of ten people who see my pieces give me thumbs-up and approve of my skills. I am happy to hear that some visitors from mainland China recognized my penjing style and understood that this was the authentic style of Chinese penjing.
How are you inspired by nature and the natural world?
When I start working on a new tree, I first analyze its natural characteristics and picture it in my mind. After a while, I have a clear picture about what path to go down when I see the tree. It's from years of experience. The natural characterizations are the most important factors to decide how I'm going to create it. You will not be able to force a form. I'm inspired by all of nature—the forests, lakes, and rocks—and then I bring all these scenes in my mind into the pot to create the penjing.
In the meantime, I never stop learning since penjing as an art style has been evolving constantly. So, I have been following the trends. The penjing will not be appealing if you make it the same style as 20 years ago. However, the only thing that is not going to change is the principle: Keep the penjing looking as natural as possible even though it's artificially formed.
Questions & Prompts
Che Zhao Sheng says he loves penjing because “It is the art of nature.” What do you think he means by that? Do you agree? Why or why not?
Che Zhao Sheng says that it makes him happy when people praise his work. What do you think of his penjing (the ones you can see on this page)? What are the reactions you like to see or hear when you share your artwork with people?
Che Zhao Sheng says, “The process of creating penjing is a way of expressing your attitudes and perspective.” What do you think he means by this? What attitudes and perspectives can you see in his penjing (the ones you can see on this page)? What attitudes and perspectives do you bring to the process of creating art?
If you could ask Che Zhao Sheng a question, what would you ask him?
From two-thousand-year-old wall murals to contemporary tile carvings like the ones in the Chinese Garden, Penjing have a long history of being represented in two-dimensional artforms. In order to create two-dimensional artwork representing a penjing, an artist needs to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the penjing.
Create a two-dimensional representation of a penjing:
Choose one of the above penjing from The Huntington’s Penjing Court (or pay a visit to the Huntington and choose one of the penjing on display).
Carefully observe its features.
What emotions or thoughts do the penjing evoke?
Are there shadows? If so, what do the shadows look like, and how do they contribute to the experience of looking at the penjing?
Where do you see the elements of art in the penjing?
Where do you see the principles of design in the penjing?
Create a two-dimensional artistic representation of the penjing using your observations to guide your translation of the penjing to a two-dimensional artform.
References and Resources
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. March 3, 2021. “Virtual Bonsai-A-Thon 2021 Part 2.” YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGJakHEJTvQ.
Los Angeles Times. October 9, 2020. “From ‘Penniless’ to Penjing Pro: The Man behind the Huntington’s Chinese Garden Art.” https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-10-09/penjing-art-huntington-chinese-garden.
McFarling, Usha Lee. October 28, 2020. “The Art of Penjing.” The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. https://www.huntington.org/verso/2020/10/art-penjing.