BCI Bonsai Magazine Volume 43, Number 4 (2004): 42-43.

"Penzai", or "Penjing", that is the question.

by Akey C. F. Hung (Alias the Barefeet Duke)
This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend, Daniel Joseph Chiplis.

I published an article on penjing in the Weekly Magazine of the North American Chinese newspaper "World Journal" on November 30, 2003. Here I would like to present my discussion on "penzai" and "penjing" to non-Chinese speaking readers. Chinese characters are often used in written Japanese and are called "kanji". However, the same Chinese character does not always have the same meaning to both the Chinese and the Japanese. For example, the Japanese call a train (not the modern electrical train) "kishia" (a steam vehicle) because there is steam coming out of the locomotive. But the Chinese call the train "huoche" (a fire vehicle), because they see coal burning inside the locomotive. Interestingly, to the Chinese, the two Chinese characters for "kishia" (pronounced "chiche" in Mandarin) mean automobiles not trains. Evidently, the Chinese have the same problem with the Japanese term "bonsai". The two Chinese characters for "bonsai" are pronounced "pen" (for "bon" meaning "pot") and "zai" (for "sai" meaning "to plant"). However, to the Chinese, "penzai" means any potted plants with no artistic design. Although "bonsai" literally means, "planted in a pot" in Japanese, this term conveys to the Japanese the meaning of an art form. Therefore, the significance of these two Chinese characters is different in China and Japan. There are two categories of penjing, namely "Tree Penjing" and "Landscape Penjing". Bonsai derived from "Tree Penjing". Most Chinese refer to "bonsai" as "penjing", but not "penzai".

There is an "assumption" among some Chinese artists that the poet Tao Yuenming of Jin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.) first used the term "penzai" in his writings. One author in Taiwan even stated in her book "The Art of Penzai" that Tao Yuenming is "the Founder of the Southern China Penzai". Because both "bonsai" and "penzai" have the same two Chinese characters, there is a trend in China and Taiwan to call "Tree Penjing" "penzai" and reserve the term "penjing" only for "Landscape Penjing". This change seems to gain popularity in the Western world. Some artists in Taiwan even went so far as to replace the term "penjing" with "penzai", because they believe that the term "bonsai" is now internationally known and the continuous use of the term "penjing" would create unnecessarily confusion.

First of all, Tao Yuenming never used the term "penzai". I checked all of his writings and could not find the term ""penzai" mentioned anywhere. There is a painting depicting Tao Yuenming and six friends enjoying the autumn color of chrysanthemums with several pots of this flower in the background. However, this painting was created in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) and potted chrysanthemum was not developed until the Song Dynasty (960-1279A.D.). Tao Yuenming did enjoy growing chrysanthemums and most Chinese are familiar with the famous lines " I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge, see the southern mountain, calm and still." in his "Drinking Wine Poem, No. 5" (English translation from "The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry" by Burton Watson). But he never planted any chrysanthemums in the pot. Therefore, the "assumption" that Tao Yuenming first used the term "penzai" is simply a widely circulated rumor.

One Chinese author in California stated in his book, "Still another poet who has described penzai and penjing in his poems is Qian Zhongyang". After citing one of Qian's poems, which this author considered a "penzai poem", he concluded, "From this poem we learn that transplantation was known in the art of penzai in the Tang dynasty." First of all, Qian's poem is not a "penzai poem". The title, which this author did not mention, is simply "The newly planted little pine tree on the north side of Kongyuen". Judging from the title and the content of the poem, this pine was planted in the ground and not in a container. Therefore, Qian's poem is not about "penzai". In fact, there is no mention of the term "penzai" in any poem of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Therefore, the theory that the term "penzai" originated in the Tang Dynasty cannot be substantiated either.

Perhaps because the term "penzai" cannot be found in any ancient Chinese literature and is a "foreign term" imported from Japan, it was not included in the earlier editions of the two most authoritative dictionaries, namely "Ci Hai" and "Ci Yuen"(For example, there is no entry for "penzai" in the 1962 edition of "Ci Hai"). The term "penjing", on the other hand, was listed in both dictionaries. As I pointed out earlier, the two Chinese characters for "bonsai" have an artistic connotation to the Japanese. But these same characters, which are pronounced "penzai" by the Chinese, do not convey the meaning of any form of art. I, therefore, believe that it is infelicitous to use this imported term "penzai" for "Tree Penjing". Furthermore, bonsai does not include "Landscape Penjing." Even "Tree Penjing" is different from "bonsai". Therefore, it is equally inappropriate to forsake the traditional term "penjing" and use "bonsai" for this ancient Chinese art. As for the internationalization of this art, if the term "bonsai" can be accepted internationally, so can "penjing". The U.S. National Arboretum has a National Bonsai and Penjing Museum with 31 "Tree Penjing" of the Lingnan School and only one "Landscape Penjing".

It is widely accepted by Chinese artists that the term "penjing" appeared in the literature as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A. D.). However, in a booklet entitled "A Brief Description of My Observations and Investigations" the author stated that piercing the banana sprout with a hairpin could prevent it from growing further, thus could create a "penjing". As pointed out by Fan De Ji of Yuan Dynasty (1279-1367 A.D.), the authorship of this booklet was erroneously attributed to the poet Su Dong-Po (1036-1101 A. D.) of Song Dynasty. This booklet must have been published after Su Dong-Po died. And since Fan De Ji read it and added a postscript to this booklet, the publication date would have been prior to the Yuan Dynasty. This would make the Southern Song domain of the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) the most likely period in which this booklet was published. Therefore, the term "penjing" was first mentioned in Chinese literature several hundred years earlier than Chinese artists had thought previously. This booklet contains entries of mostly single sentences that cover a very wide range of subjects. Many of these observations/investigations cannot be substantiated at all. For example, "Where there is onion in the mountain, there is silver under the onion." Some are just plain funny. For example, "Don't spit in the toilet!" A penjing friend once told me that poking the bamboo shoot with a needle could stunt its growth, shorten the internodes and produce a dwarf bamboo for penjing. Perhaps he got the idea from this booklet.


Different meanings of Chinese and Japanese Chracters

Serissa japonica penjing in a 3-inch pot.

Dr. Wu Yee Sun's Ulmus parvifolia penjing in the U.S. National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (NA Acc. No.127). Dr. Wu described the hollow trunk of this Chinese elm as having "a mind as open as a valley" (see page 79 in "Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants")

Dr. Wu Yee Sun's Pinus thunbergii penjing in the U.S. National Bonsai and Penjing Museum (NA Acc. No.130). This black pine penjing was used to design the logo of the Penjing Collection. Dr. Wu described this penjing as "strong and powerful as a swimming dragon"(see page 195 in "Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants")

Home Page