by Milo Mietzner

This year the Minnesota Bonsai Society is adding two new categories to its judged show at the State Fair: Suiseki and Landscapes. The first is an artful presentation and appreciation of viewing stones and has its origins as garden stones in China, where abstract shapes or those representing mountains, people, animals, or architecture were mounted and displayed. The other broad category features miniature landscapes composed of trees trained with bonsai or penjing techniques, rocks, and accessory plants placed in shallow trays or on slabs. But not all miniature landscapes are the same, and the artist should be aware of the deep tradition, and differences, between Chinese penjing and Japanese saikei.


Saikei - Courtesy of Kodansha Intl

To understand what the terms bonsai, saikei, and penjing mean in relation to miniature tray landscapes, we need to review the history and development of these arts. Craig Coussins writes, “I came to realize that bonsai, penjing, Oriental gardens, landscapes in miniature, and the appreciation of viewing stones, were inextricably linked over the centuries that predate our modern understanding of bonsai.”…

(Please download full article for insight into the historical context of penjing, bonsai, and saikei).

The landscape artist has much to draw on when composing a piece—nature, available plant and rock material, his or her own inspiration, and a deep tradition of different styles in China and Japan. In part 2 of this article, I will introduce other styles, old and new, from different parts of the world, as well as changing tastes and hybrid forms that push the boundaries, such as Su Chin Ee’s work. (And how else can you categorize Nick Lenz’s creations?!)

Penjing - Courtesy of Venus Communications

As you experiment with landscapes, how do you know what your landscape should be called? The easiest way to answer is to know the differences and reasons behind making a saikei, water-and-land penjing (shuihan), or landscape penjing (shansui). To distinguish between them, I found it useful to emulate the works, found in books by experts, that are explicitly called saikei or penjing. In addition to the histories above, I have included a chart (end of full article download) showing the basic differences and characteristics of these arts distilled from my research for this article. Any omissions or errors are my own. Aside from a list of technical differences, perhaps the best explanation comes from Herb Gustafson:

The most important distinguishing characteristic that separates [penjing] from its Japanese counterparts is found in its spirit or intent. Penjing exists in the minds of its creators. It is not a reproduction or a photographic image. Each portrays a mystical, wonderful land where one might want to go….More impressionistic than still life, the penjing moves one’s emotions somehow. The cliffs are somehow more precarious, the rock ledges narrower, and gorge walls more precipitous than in actual life. Penjing are larger than life, even in their “miniature” size; actual container sizes range between three and five feet…. In saikei, capturing a moonlit, starry sky on distant mountain peaks might be comparable to a photograph by Ansel Adams or Ray Atkeson. A penjing of the same scene might capture a spirit more like Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


Penjing - Courtesy of Venus Communications