Bonsai Penjing The Difference

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Penjing – Bonsai ! What is the difference?

Simply, for the gardener to appreciate the main difference between Bonsai Penjing, the question to ask is this.
The composition, does it have a tree as it’s main focal point or not?

But the confusion does not stop there.

penjing
penjing
Example of Penjing, the rocks being the main focal point

Penjing creates a natural scene which may or may not include a Bonsai specimen. 

This is normally where the confusion starts as there are some displays (and the owners refer to them as Penjing) that have no plant material at all.

Further more, would you describe a display that featured a Bonsai specimen and some rock as Bonsai or Penjing

It is my understanding as things stand now (Jan 2014) that a Bonsai specimen (miniaturised tree) displayed on it’s own with no other elements is Bonsai, but as soon as you add another element such as rock, it becomes Penjing. But there are differing views on this definition. (More on this below)


Bonsai has plant (tree like) material, normally a tree, Bonsai trees shaped and sometimes miniaturised. (Dwarfing)

Bonsai
Bonsai
Example of Bonsai

Bonsai and Penjing are normally displayed in a container or on a slab.
The container, a receptacle, normally rectangular but sometimes round or square in shape, large or small and often shallow.
The slab is normally a flat piece of rock, slate or wood.

Penjing is best categorised as an artistic composition which would include rocks, tree’s, water and other natural elements, normally placed on a slab or in a container. It may include a tree but not essential.
Bonsai will always have a tree as the sole element and main focus but there are differing views on this and some say it may also include rock and other natural offerings but the main focus is the tree.
The tree is often manipulated (shaped artificially) and can be ‘miniaturised’.

Ask most in the west, what’s Bonsai? and most will answer, a miniature tree in a pot.

This is not always seen as entirely correct, as sometimes Bonsai trees are very large (albeit miniaturised compared to the characteristic of the naturally growing tree). This Bonsai Topiary is about 3 metres tall.

Bonsai specimen or Topiary specimen ?
 

In Japan and America, Bonsai is the more readily used term for both Bonsai and Penjing works and the difference in the main, not being fully understood.
Whereas here in China, Penjing is commonly used to describe both Bonsai and Penjing works. So the confusion continues…
Well, that’s it, a very simplified explanation of an extremely complex and often subjective topic.

It is my observation that as each country emerges with a growing interest in Bonsai or Penjing then the rules and disciplines change slightly.
Actually, Penjing is divided into several categories. The categories referring to the composition, ‘Mountain and Water Penjing’ or ‘Landscape Penjing’.
These types display mountain scenes made up of rock. With maybe a tree or two added. The tree or trees would not be the focal point.
Another is ‘Tree Penjing’ (from this we can see how the confusion starts).
This is the Penjing that would have a tree or trees as the main focal point.

Also the the ‘Water and Land Penjing’
Included will be trees often displayed as a forest setting with water and rocks.

Not only are there categories but also, just to confuse the novice and expert still further, there are Schools of Penjing in China that relate to regions.
Each region having it’s own style and when you add the school to the category, you will get greater variation or interpretations.
It’s probably this, the differing styles and various categories of Penjing that has caused most of the confusion for us in the west.

The three countries that have the most masters of this art are China, Japan and America. With China having more than the other two.

For the novice, Bonsai tree care is often the biggest concern and without doubt it is the Bonsai tree care that makes the essential difference between top quality and mediocre Bonsai tree specimens and displays. As a general rule, basic gardening techniques used in the care of most garden plants and trees can be used in caring for your Bonsai or living Penjing specimens.


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