Penjing and Viewing Stones in Hong Kong (Part 1) – Nan Lian Garden

In 2010, my wife and I took a month-long trip touring South China on our own. We started in Hong Kong and ended in Shanghai. We saw a lot of penjing and viewing stones, and I will share their photos in a series of travel blogs, starting with the Nan Lian Garden (南莲园池) in Hong Kong.


Nan Lian Garden is a gem where one can still enjoy tranquility in this bustling city. It is a public park, built in the style of a Tang dynasty garden and modeled after a 1,300 years old garden, Jiang Shouju Yuan (绛守居园池) , in Shanxi, China. It occupies 3.5 hectares, and is landscaped with hills, rocks, lakes, plants and Tang style Chinese timber architecture. There are several exhibits in the garden. I will highlight their Lingnan penjing collection, the Dahua Viewing Stone Museum, and take you through a walk in the garden which has very impressive Pordacarpus trees.

It is a very beautiful place and we spent our time there leisurely. There are a lot of photos to show in this blog.


The best time to visit the Garden is early morning before the tourists arrive. The place is very quiet with few people.

Dahua Stone Museum

This museum has some of the most beautiful and very large Dahua stones (大化石) I have ever seen. Dahua stones were first discovered in 1997 from the river bed of the Red River (红河) of Dahua County, Guangxi Province, China. Since the completion of a hydroelectric dam in Red River, Dahua stones could only be found in a 6 km stretch of the river down stream from the dam. These stones are silicaeous and jade-like, and have a hardness of 5-7 on the Moh scale. They are sedimentary rocks with high iron and  manganese contents, which give them reddish- to golden-brown colors. They were formed about 250-300 million years ago during the Permian period, and are naturally polished by the fast flowing river.

Two cascading Fukien Tea penjing graced the entrance as if they are welcoming the visitors to the museum


Orange Jasmine (Murraya paniculata) foundation plantings surrounding the museum. Every one of them are worthy of becoming a beautiful bonsai if planted in pots.

There are two very large Dahua stone group arrangements on sand beds.The sand was raked with circular wave patterns to portray the stones as islands. Although these stones are very  impressive with various shades of ocher, and with layers upon layers of folds smoothed by the force of water, I wished they could be placed outdoors and set further apart such that the viewers could take in a more panoramic view of these massive stones at a distance. However, it is understandable land is a precious commodity in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, their groupings follow examples illustrated in the”Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Paintings“.


The manual shows how 14th century Yuan dynasty landscape painting artists, Huang Gongwang 黄公望 and Nizan 倪瓒, grouped stones as tubo 土波 (doha in Japanese for those familiar in suiseki). One can easily see the similarity between the above Dahua stone arrangement and Huang and Nizan painted a tubo.


Grouping of tubo (doha) in Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.



Several smaller stones were displayed in alcoves on beds of sand, accompanied by Chinese calligraphic scrolls.






Some Lingnan penjing were displayed outside the stone museum, but the more impressive ones were in the courtyard of the adjacent Chi Lin Nunnery.


Chi Lin Nunnery 

The Chi Lin Nunnery (志连净苑) is a large temple complex with elegant Tang style wooden architecture built entirely without iron nails. Although it is a separate organization but the Nunnery is adjoined to the Nan Lian Garden.


Upon entering entering the main gate, a Tang style temple hall come into view, flanked by the Bell and Drum towers and large penjing along both side of the walkway. Two very large bougainvillea penjing full of hot pink flowers stood out among the podocarpus.



The size of these two penjing are astounding. I have my wife posed besides one to give a scale to their sizes. They are humongous and definitely require a forklift to move.


The penjing at the Nunnery are all large and outstanding. As we strolled along the walkways and the surrounding halls, we quickly noticed most of the penjing are displayed in pairs with one on the left and another on the right; and most of these pairs were styled with a major floating branch extending out as if the trees were extending their welcoming arms to visitors, inviting people to come in. In addition, their main trunks tipped towards the direction of the floating branches, and gave a humble feeling of the trees, most befitting of a nunnery gardern.


Snowrose or Tree of a Thousand Stars (Serissa foetida).



Fukien Tea (Carmona microphylla).


Fukien Tea (Carmona microphylla)




Orange Jasmine




Surinam Cherry (Eugenia uniflora).






A pyracantha forest.


Root-over-rock pyracantha.


Chinese Red Pine (Pinus massoniana)


Orange Jasmine (Murraya paniculata)


Hallway lined with Fukien Tea cascades.


Volunteers weeding the garden. As the Zen saying goes: “Weed the ground, you also weed your heart”.

Lingnan Penjing Techniques

Lingnan penjing originated in South China’s Guandong Province, and is practiced in Hong Kong, Macau and by many overseas Chinese. They are primarily shaped by the clip-and-grow method, which gives branches more angular bends compared to the sinuous curvatures of branches shaped using wires. Below is a fully defoliated Chinese elms showing the developed gnarly branches.


Branch ramification by clip-and-grow: this type of branching is called “chicken feet” because the nodes for each bend were short and stubby. The other type of Lingnan branching is called the “antelope horns”, which has longer nodes between bends and slander branches.

One of the benefits of visiting bonsai and penjing gardens is to learn about the techniques. Here are some of the Lingnan penjing used in these trees.


Thick branches were brought together using a turn buckle, and branches separated with bamboo stakes.


Dead wood painted with dark presevatives, a much better choice for trees like this Fukian Tea than the white look of lime-sulfur.


Guy wires were used to control branch direction.


Large wound sealed with concrete.


Woods used to support the floating branch and for tying guy wires.

Trees and Shrubs in the Nan Lian Garden

The garden is landscaped with many old Podocarpus, trees and other kind of stones.






Swirling bark of an old podocarpus tree.


Podocarpus is also called a Buddhist Pine because their fruits look like pious monks.




Chinese Elms


Chinese Elms.


A very large Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense)


Chinese Privets (Ligustrum sinense)


Chinese Privet.


Orange Jasmine (Murraya panuculata)

Updates of the Two Shohin Chinese Elms Air-Layered from a Mallsai

It has been three years since I wrote my first blog on air-layering a Chinese Elm mallsai into two shohin. It turned out to be one of my more popular blogs with over 2,600 views and had been reblogged twice by others. I think it is time to update how these two shohin look after three more years of care.

This is the original S-shaped Chinese Elm mallsai in 2009:


Air-Layered Top Section

August 4, 2009, after sawing off the rooted air-layered top section and potting:


I repotted it into a high-end Chinese olive-green crackle glazed bag-shape oval pot made by Jiang Xiaoling (江小林). This is the fall color in January 21, 2016:


This is how it looked about 10 days ago with spring leaves:


This shohin was trained as a Lingnan penjing using the clip-and-grow method. At first glance, it looks like an informal upright bonsai, but it is not. The main trunk, instead of moving to the left or right as in a typical informal upright, leans backward to the northwest corner of the pot before it bends back slightly to the right and forward with the apex falling within the trunk base. Since photography flattens the tree into a two dimensional image, perhaps one can better envisage the backward movement with the aid of the below side photo.


When I attended Pedro Morales’ Tropical Bonsai School’, he emphasized in the Japanese informal upright moyogi style, the first movement of the trunk is either to the left or to the right; it is a no-no for the first bend to go backward, otherwise the tree would have a Jay-Lo’s butt! Well, in Lingnan penjing, that is OK.

The late Lingnan master Mr. Liu Zhongming (刘仲明) said in his book, “Lingnan Penjing”, since South China has a hot weather, people tend to be easy-going and lackadaisical; and such traits show up as one of the characteristics of Lingnan penjing. So Lingnan penjing has a “reclining” (卧式) style tree, sort of like someone taking a siesta. In this shohin, the trunk movements resemble a person leaning on the far end of a sofa, a couch potato. I jokingly told friends this tree reflects me when I watch TV.

The Bottom Section

This is how the bottom section looks after cutting off the air-layered top:


And this is how it looks seven years later from a stump:


This one is a sumo style informal upright with a fat trunk and sharp taper, and trained with wiring; what a big contrast to the air-layered top section. I potted it into an oval blue glazed Chinese pot by Zhu Shuiming (朱水明 阳明交趾) to soften up the tree.

I have a lot of fun transforming this mallsai into two very different looking trees: a Lingnan penjing with an easy-going trunk movement and somewhat more natural looking branches ramifications, while its younger “brother” grows up as a serious looking squat-like informal upright bonsai.

A Landscape Kusamono on Lace Rock

This is my wife, Soon’s landscape kusamono. It was shown in the 2014 Houston Chinese Bonsai Society show. Our friend, Shaulin Hon, an architect turned professional photographer, took these photos.


Soon likes to create a mixed planting of herbaceous plants and weeds, the end result is a kusamono that looks like a natural meadow juxtaposed with plants of different colors and textures. I am not surprised there are more than ten species of plants on this lace rock.

She named this landscape planting: A World Beyond the Cave  (别有洞天).

This landscape kusamono is an allegory to a Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源记), written by Tao Yuanming (陶渊明) in 421 about a fisherman who came upon a grove of blossoming peach trees growing along the river banks. He was captured by the beautiful peach blossoms and kept rowing until the river ended at a spring. There was a cave on the hill side of the spring, he ventured into it and after passing through a narrow opening he emerged and saw a scenic village with cultivated fields and fine houses. The villagers were living happily and in harmony with each other. They produced everything they needed. The villagers told him their ancestors settled in this secluded place after escaping ravages of war during the Qin dynasty (around 200 BCE). For hundreds of years they lived in peace without outside contacts. After spending several days there, the fisherman left and marked his route so he could find his way back, however, the villagers erased all traces of the markings and the fisherman could not find this Shangri la again.

Don’t we all wish we could find our Peach Blossom Spring village on the other side of the tunnel?


The fisherman found a cave.


Coming out the other end of the cave and finding an Utopian village.


Photo taken November, 2016. An overgrown Ilysanthes floribunda nearly covers up the cave entrance.

The 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition’s Finest Creative Display and Hokusai, the Iconic Japanese Print Artist

You might not have heard of the artist, Hokusai (1740-1849), but you might recognize the image of his most famous woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”, which is perhaps one of the best recognized icons of Japanese art work.


Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagaw”

What does a Hokusai print have in common with bonsai? Apparently none! Bonsai was called hachinoki at his time, so he probably had never even heard of the word, bonsai. Yet, when I saw two bonsai displays, one in last year’s Artisans Cup, and the other in the recent 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition, Hokusai popped up in my mind.

This is Creighton Bostrom’s Finest Creative Award display at the 5th US National show. The semi-cascade Juniperus procumbens nana, planted in a “kurama” pot, is positioned precariously within a giant laminated wooden wave.


Michael Levin of Bonsai West looking at the “Wave” or the forest?


‘The Wave”, cropped from the above photo. You can find better image of this display in Bonsai Empire’s video of the exhibition.

Some people saw a bonsai tree, some saw a giant woodwork. What I saw reminded me of Hokusai’s Great Wave. I do not know what Creighton Bostrom tried to convey in this display. May be it’s a tribute to Hokusai because artist often pays homage to old masters by creating similar piece in his/her own medium, in this case, using bonsai display as a medium. May be he was inspired by the 2011 devastating tsunami in Japan? Many of us know, Isao Omachi, one of the young Japanese bonsai masters, lost all of his bonsai in the tsunami, literally they were swept away by the Great Wave. May be, and most likely, none of the above.

Now back to the question of what does a Hokusai print have in common with bonsai; I did say apparently none, but stretching my imagination a little bit and combining it with my science training, his “Great Wave” and bonsai do share something in common – fractal mathematics!

Look at the details of the “Great Wave”, we see the waves crashing down on the boats with exaggerated gnarly spooky fingers (Halloween is almost here). Each group of these “fingers” replicates itself throughout the waves. In fractal mathematics, replications of an elemental motif is called self-similarity.


When we create bonsai we want branch ramifications. Each section of the ramified branch is replicated throughout the tree, they look like out-stretch fingers. There is an uncanny resemblance between bonsai ramifications and the Great Waves’ “fingers”. So branch ramification has a self-similarity property too!


Branch ramification of a Tiger Bark Ficus I photographed at the 4th Taiwan Han Feng Show in 2008.


This figure is often quoted in fractal, a single line branches into a Y shape which is replicated as branching continues. This is exactly what is taught in bonsai for creating branch ramifications.


This is another Hokusai print of the same series, “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Note the branching pattern of old lava flow marks.

We are familiar with the relationships between bonsai and the Golden Ratio, and the Fibonacci numbers because those ratios describe proportionality of all things that are beautiful in nature. So is fractal, it describes replicating elemental features that made up undulating mountain ranges, cloud formation, coastlines etc.


David De Groot’s book cover has a beautiful Five-Needle Pine superimposed on a Golden Ratio diagram.

Now add fractal’s self-similarity to our bonsai language next time you go gaga over a well ramified tree, like the golden ratio, it too describes beauties in nature already ingrained in our head without us knowing it.


Another highly ramified Ficus microcarpa at Taiwan’s 2008 Han Feng show.

Imagine Hokusai’s Great Wave without those replicating “fingers”, it would be boring and would simply fade into obscurity. Imagine a bonsai without ramifications, we would just pooh-pooh it away. Self-similarity of certain key elements, the “fingers”, made the Hokusai print memorable; and the repeating Y-shape branching makes a bonsai impressive.

My good friend, Joe Rozek, wrote a blog about the relationship between fractal and bonsai. Joe is a thinking man, a philosophy student, and he explained the complexities very well in layman’s terms. He said bonsai masters do not create beautiful trees based on mathematical concepts, their trees are beautiful because they possess the internal logic of of nature’s beauty which happened to be describable in mathematical terms.

Japanese “Penjing” From an 1826 Book



Japanese penjing? No way! You must be kidding!!!

The above woodblock prints (from the Waseda University e-Library) were two of the tray landscapes illustrated in an 1826 two-volume Japanese book by Suminoe Buzan (墨江武禅), entitled Senkeiban zushiki” (占景盘图式, Illustrations of Tray Landscapes). Imagine if we were to replace those colorful deep pots with shallow trays or white marble slabs used by the Chinese today, I have no doubt most people will recognize them as penjing.

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The 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition


When Tony Tickle, one of the judges, said Bill Valavanis has an energy of four men at the awards banquet, he was right to the point and drew a standing ovation. Bill was the force behind this great event. When you see him directing volunteers, from setting up the displays to measuring dimensions of bonsai for the commemorative album, he is like the bunny in Energizer battery commercials, that just keeps going on and on.


L to R: Peter Warren (UK) translating for Minoru Akiyama (Japan), Bill Valavanis, Tony Tickler (UK) and Enrique Castano (Mexico). Minoru, Tony and Enrique are the three international judges.

This is the first time my wife and I attended the US National Bonsai Exhibition, held in Rochester, New York, September 10-11. We were excited by the number and the high standard of bonsai displays; one could virtually shop for anything you need for bonsai from the vendors who came from all over the US and from overseas. The exhibition and vending areas occupy two football fields, 55,000 square feet! A lot of walking.

Since we cannot take photos of trees on display, here are some photos of show preparations and at vendors’ area.


Staging area for participating trees.

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Growing a Good Nebari and Fat Trunk Base Ficus Bonsai

A  good nebari (exposed roots just above the soil surface) and a large trunk base are perhaps the two most desirable features we all wanted for our bonsai. However, they take a long time to develop. Many of us buy pre-bonsai. At the nursery, we may dig below the soil level, hold the tree up, turn it around and tilt it at various angles to choose the best possible material but it is rare to find one with both a good nebari and a large trunk.

In this post, I want to share my experience building a good nebari, at least to my eyes, and a large tapered trunk for a Ficus microcarpa pre-bonsai. I bought this ficus about 9 years ago from a gift shop of a local Chinese restaurant. As in all mass-produced pre-bonsai, they usually have messy or unattractive roots and a typical S-shape trunk. What attracted me to this tree was the large trunk base, however, it has a nagging thick root, about 2″ diameter, growing on the convex side of the trunk’s first curve, and plunging down into the soil like a large inverted J-hook. Nevertheless it was a good starting material.

When we begin to train our tree with a faulty root such as this one, uneven trunk movement or branch placement, it is imperative that we correct them as early as possible. If not, they will stay with the tree and may beome more troublesome to correct at a later date. We have to decide how we want our bonsai to look like in 5, 10 or more years down the line. There is no short cut unless you want to spend big bucks buying a “specimen” tree from bonsai professionals.

This is how this ficus looked in July this year after defoliation and wiring. The root spread is about 10″ at the soil level and the trunk diameter is about 4½” above the root base. DSCN6289

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