Penjing: History, Aesthetics and Spiritual Background.

Penjing: History, aesthetics & spiritual background.

Many people think of bonsai as exclusively Japanese. But there is a long tradition of bonsai from China. Penjing is the Chinese art of creating a miniature landscape in a container.

The word consists of the two characters shown on the left:
“pen” - “pot” or “container”, and “jing” - “scenery”. An artist may use plant material and natural stone to portray an idyllic mountain retreat with a murmuring brook or a waterscape with a lush tropical island. Or he or she may design a much simpler scene where one single tree makes up the entire composition.

Penjing and bonsai are closely related art forms. Penjing is the older form from which bonsai derived. While the similarities by far outweigh the differences, there is a significant variance in scope: “Bonsai” literally means a “tree in a pot” and therefore as an art form, bonsai is more narrowly defined than penjing, a “landscape in a pot”. Many of the beautiful, elaborate tray sceneries created by Chinese artists clearly defy the parameters of bonsai. While penjing can be found in many variations, the Chinese themselves recognize three distinct categories:
• Tree Penjing (shumu penjing)
• Landscape Penjing (shanshui penjing)
• Water-and-Land Penjing (shuihan penjing)

Penjing as an art form spans over a thousand years. Our earliest historical records of a stone and a plant arranged in a container to form an artistic scenery date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 ), the Chinese already practiced the art at an advanced artistic level.

Paintings from that period depict pieces that would be prized among seasoned collectors today. Penjing artists have drawn much of their inspiration not only from nature, but from nature poetry and landscape painting.

Similar aesthetic considerations have guided all three art forms. With landscape painting attaining unprecedented heights during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), penjing, too, was poised for vigorous artistic development. By the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the art had become very popular, and the first manuals appeared. With increasing popularity, however, more commercial, folkloristic, and regionally defined strands of penjing sprang up alongside the more sophisticated, artistic forms.
In addition to aesthetically refined penjing, one could find trees whose trunks had been coiled to represent dragons or whose canopies were to depict cloud layers, or trees shaped to resemble the strokes of fortuitous characters.

The variations were endless. In the later years of the Qing Dynasty, the 19th century, foreign aggression and domination led to a decline in penjing, and this development was exacerbated during the years of foreign occupation and humiliation, war, civil war, and cultural revolution that China experienced during much of this century. Old collections were lost, artists struggled to survive and to pass on their wisdom and insights. Only in the last twenty-plus years have the conditions in China allowed for a renaissance of this ancient art form.

Today, a quickly growing number of enthusiasts and collectors have discovered their roots in penjing. It is assumed that the art of creating miniature trees reached Japan by the 13th century. Beginning in 600 A.D., Japan sent envoys to China to study her arts and architecture, her language and literature as well as her law and the forms of Buddhism evolving there, which were grafted on the original Indian teachings. During China’s Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) in particular, the Japanese imported Chinese culture and arts on a large scale. It was during that time that the Chinese form of Buddhism known as “Ch’an” was introduced to Japan and given the name “Zen” - the name by which it is known in the West today. This massive transmission of culture begun in the the 1200’s would last for centuries as Japanese artists continued looking to their Chinese counterparts for guidance and inspiration.

The penjing artist’s goal is not only to re-create a natural scenery in a container, but to capture its essence and spirit. To achieve this objective, a wide palette of artistic devices comes into play. Like a Chinese landscape painting, a penjing is a study in contrasts. On a philosophical level, this presentation of opposites is evidence of the Chinese artist’s conceptualization of the universe as being governed by two poles of cosmic energy, the yin and the yang. Artistically, the contrasts create rhythm and dramatic tension
which then is resolved in a dynamic balance, a delicately tuned equilibrium.

The attainment of overall structural unity is critical, especially in a more complex composition like a water-and-land penjing where design elements such as trees, rocks, mosses, small grasses, and water all need to harmonize with each other and contribute to the design in a meaningful fashion. Careful selection is critical. In addition to deciding on a container and determining the tentative placement of the composition, the artist will consider the tree species, number of trees to be used, their sizes, trunk angles and the density of their foliage mass. He or she will choose rocks for their size, color, shape, surface details, and compatibility with the trees.

In the end, each and every element in the design needs to relate to all the others so that the entire landscape appears as an all-embracing, encompassing entity. Penjing artists do not seek to create perfection. As a matter of fact, trees trained into highly stylized forms where every angle and every root and branch placement has been meticulously calculated by a rigid formula do not suit their tastes. Apart from being beautiful, an outstanding penjing must look entirely natural. It should look as if Nature herself had spontaneously created it - like a marvellous accident of Nature.

Spiritual background
Bonsai and penjing may be viewed as objects of meditation.

The act of creating bonsai or penjing by itself is a contemplative, meditative exercise - a practice of Zen. The little trees and miniature landscapes can be seen as a celebration of Nature and the healing powers extended by an intact natural environment. Creating and taking care of bonsai and penjing will draw you closer to Nature, enabling you to experience her in a more direct, intimate way.

For a more in-depth understanding of bonsai and penjing, the practice of creating miniature trees and landscapes should be viewed against the backdrop of two of China’s great philosophical traditions, Daoism (Taoism) and Zen Buddhism.

Daoism has exerted a profound infl uence over Far Eastern arts for over two thousand years. It’s a way of thinking and living that can liberate mind and body. Daoism proposes the return to a state of original spontaneity by discarding the rules of rigid conventional behavior and thinking. It suggests that by learning to go with the flow and allowing our minds to function naturally, tremendous creative power can be
unleashed.

Tuning into the rhythm of Nature and understanding the interrelatedness of all things around us are key components of Daoist teachings. Zen Buddhism - known as “Ch’an” in Chinese - evolved as a new strand of Buddhism with unique Chinese features after Indian monks introduced Mahayana Buddhism around 500 A.D. It came about when a form of Indian Buddhism was grafted upon the native Chinese Daoist tradition. Chinese-style sitting meditation (“zuo Ch’an”, a concept called “za zen” in Japanese) does not seek to bring the mind under rigid control as does traditional Indian Buddhism, but instead seeks to liberate, encouraging the mind to fl ow without impediment and to follow its own, intrinsically good, nature. Ch’an, popularized in the West under its Japanese name, Zen, teaches that the receptive mind can find Enlightenment  verywhere, at any time, in the form of “sudden awakening”.

And so it is that a bonsai or penjing artist, working with natural materials and concentrating moment to moment, may come upon sudden insights, inspirations, and resolutions. This is the creative process. It fi nds the artist quietly absorbed in a state of active meditation. Arranging trees and placing rocks, he suddenly discovers something new, not pre-meditated - a composition that flows naturally and harmoniously, engendering great beauty and universal, eternal truths with seemingly little effort.

The ancient art of bonsai and penjing.
Masters of Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing techniques are gardening artists. The tiny trees they meticulously shape— ranging in age from newborn to centenarian — create a sense of full-grown trees in their natural surroundings while taking up only the space of a coffee table. Perfecting such miniature masterpieces is truly the pinnacle of gardening skill.

A well-trained bonsai or penjing specimen should give the impression of being a tree, not a shrub. Trees have well-defined foliage layers with open areas between them, while shrubs are masses of foliage that need pruning to define and improve their branch structure.

Though many people believe such trees are simply dwarfed versions of natural trees, the truth of the art form lies in the creation of the image. Masters manipulate potentially full-sized trees and mold them into beautiful pieces of art that, with proper care, can last for generations—sometimes centuries. But take a bonsai or penjing tree out of its pot and plant it in the ground, and it’ll reach its full, normal height.


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