A Huge Influence Blooms in Miniature Gardens

A miniature pine displays a dramatic form in a pot. EVERYDAY CHINA

Seeing these “gardens” is like looking at a universe in a flowerpot.

The miniature carved branches stretch and twist, artistically demonstrating the vitality of nature, allowing the viewer to stop and ponder the circle of life. Penjing potted landscape, also known abroad as bonsai, is a signature of high-level garden art in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Ever since Wanjing Shanzhuang (“A Hill Station of a Thousand Scenes”) was opened in the ruins of an ancient temple near Tiger Hill in 1982, Tan Qiuyi has been tending to these exquisitely designed plant trays .

More than 600 works of penjing art are now displayed at the site, the largest center for the graceful art of horticulture in Suzhou, a city known for its classical gardens.

After working for four decades, Tan is now a leading horticulturist. Reviewing the years spent with these plants, which grow extremely slowly, the 59-year-old jokes that he barely notices the fleeting passage of time.

“If you are patient, nature will give you a wonder,” he says. “It takes years to create the perfect plantation.”

Each penjing should be watered twice a day to maintain the ideal humidity. Sometimes the job gives Tan a sense of duality. On the one hand, he actively prunes the branches to convey elegance and beauty as if he were an artist. On the other hand, physical labor, such as making smelly organic fertilizers, makes him feel like a farmhand.

“No matter who I am, it’s a duty to pass on a key part of our traditional culture,” Tan says with a smile.

Suzhou style penjing cultivation technique was listed as national intangible cultural heritage in 2011.

“Without penjing, the gardens of Suzhou would not be as charming as they are today,” he says. “Once the construction of a garden is completed, its buildings, rock gardens and waterscapes are set, but the planting (one of the four key elements of classical gardens in Suzhou) can grow and change.

“It makes the gardens come alive,” he adds. “More importantly, no matter how small a piece of penjing is, it has almost all the characteristics of a life-size Suzhou garden.”

The history of penjing dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), according to Tan, when the great poet Bai Juyi, once a civil servant in Suzhou, used stones to create miniature landscapes in pots. Fan Chengda, a local poet from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) had already made Suzhou’s penjing famous, creating them to imitate mountains and rivers.

Because of this long history, Suzhou-style penjing is often regarded as a fundamental school of Chinese plateau planting art, which later greatly influenced its counterparts in Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and Vietnam.

“By examining its origin, you can see how Suzhou penjing was tied to the aesthetics of Chinese scholars,” says Tan. “Their refined artistic taste dominated the guiding ideas for designing models of such plantations.”

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) marked a boom in Suzhou’s urban economy, a period that also made the city a major cultural center. Printing houses and painting studios flourished, which lifted the curtain on the golden age of literary painting – an artistic school that aimed to reveal the self-cultivation and morals of painters rather than concentrating on the demonstration of artistic skill through the accurate depiction of detail.

“This tradition of abstract expression also defined what Suzhou-style penjing looked like,” says Tan. “We prefer an image that doesn’t look ‘too full’. So when designing a penjing work, we tend to leave blank areas that allow viewers to imagine. A few thin branches and simply placed can make people think of a bigger picture, like in an Indian ink painting.”

In Tan’s eyes, this no-frills yet tasteful style is also the best way to pay homage to nature.

However, as a horticulturist, he also understands that it is unnatural to prune the branches of plants just for people’s tastes. Therefore, a penjing work will be moved out of Wanjing Shanzhuang after being publicly displayed and carved continuously for five to eight years. In the culture base, it can take advantage of a break of about three years to develop freely.

“It’s to respect life,” says Tan.

In recent years, Suzhou has nurtured a few entrepreneurs who, as fans of penjing, have contributed to the revitalization of horticultural art. They introduced new styles and techniques, not only from the rest of China, but also from Japanese bonsai.

Tan considers it important for growers to create new varieties of penjing.

“Penjing’s works are beautiful, but people stereotype that they belonged to the rich and we can only admire them as art,” he says.

“However, it is only when they are embraced by young people and general consumers that they can benefit from belonging to people’s broader modern aesthetic taste. After all, it is a garden in Suzhou that they can take home.”

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