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.
The Japanese call it “bonkei“, which is written exactly as the Chinese words for penjing, “盆景”. At Buzan’s time, tray landscapes were called senkeiban (占景盘), which is a type of pots originally used for flower arrangements by the Chinese as far back as the 10th century during China’s Five Dynasties period. The Chinese pronounce it as zhanjingpan.
In most introductory books; “bonsai” is explained as consisting of two words, 盆 bon, a pot or tray, and 栽 sai, planting, therefore, a potted plant. The Japanese pronounce them as bonsai and the Chinese as penzai. You might also encountered a lesser known Japanese bonsai art form called “saikei“, 栽景 – sai as in planting (the second written character of bonsai) and kei means landscape; a miniature landscape planting introduced by Toshio Kawamoto after the Second World War. Now put the written characters bonsai and saikei together: 盆栽 栽景, and take away the redundant sai and sai, 栽 栽, you end up with “盆景”, bonkei, the same two words the Chinese pronounced as penjing!
Robert Lee Behme in his 1969 book, entitled “Bonsai, Saikei and Bonkei, Japanese Dwarf Trees and Tray Landscapes“, wrote “Thus a bonsai (bone-sigh) is a tray planting, and a bonkei (bone-kay) a tray scape, landscape or seascape. Saikei (sigh-kay), apparently a coined word, means much the same, the difference being that a bonkei is essentially a “dry” landscape, and living plants are seldom used; a saikei depends exclusively on living plants for effect”.
Copies of “Senkeiban zushiki” are in several major university (such as UCLA, UC Berkeley) and public library collections. You can also read or browse the complete book online from Japan’s Waseda Univeristy Library and the USDA National Agriculture Library,
After posting about senkeiban in Facebook’s Bonsai Talk, my friend, Alan Walker, of Lake Charles wrote he bought volume one of this book in an antique store in Old San Juan, Peurto Rico, many years ago. What a lucky guy to own a copy of these beautiful prints!
Here are some of Buzan’s illustrations of senkeiban (bonkei, aka penjing).
Some of the illustrations notes who created the tray landscape, who painted the illustration, who owned it, and written prose or explanation of the landscape design.
The last eight pages of volume 2 are texts explaining how to create tray landscapes, and illustrated the use of “mudman”, miniature houses, bridge, boats etc.
The text also suggested type of stones suitable for making landscapes, they include Kyoto’s Kamogawa stone, Kurama black stone, Tosa stone, Ise black stone, Chinese stone etc. Preferred trees includes Hinoki cypress, boxwood, unzen satsuki azalea, pine, moss etc.
Katsu Chuko (滕忠孝) wrote the Prefase. I will translate it into English as best as I can so readers can appreciate this “lost” ancient Japanese “penjing” art form.
Translation of the Preface:
“My friend, Buzan ko, is known for his skills in painting beautiful landscapes, and he also likes to create tray rock landscapes. By applying his interest in painting into creating tray landscapes, the positioning of trees and rocks are not only interesting and beautiful, they also look natural. Those who like them tried to imitate him, and they had formed a club with people of similar interests. The styling of these tray landscapes looks interesting, whether you look at them from the front or back. The practice of putting these landscapes into pots is called senkeiban. Every pot has different landscapes. Scenery of famous mountains and rivers, views of hills and cliffs; in big or small shapes, when several of them are put together, they look fantastic. I can sit leisurely in front of them and cease all my worldly thoughts. There is nothing like it as putting efforts in roaming around.
By shrinking a thousand mile scenery into the size of a mat, with scenes that look so natural, I can enjoy them while crouching at home. Without any doubt, I also long for paintings of these decorative items. Buzan ko has already passed away. His son, Aisan, is afraid that his father’s technique of painting using finger tip is lost; he , therefore, painted his father’s and other group member’s creations and published the illustrations in this booklet. This way, he can pass along his father’s works to those who are interested. I, therefore, write this preface for this special needs.”
By Katsu Chuko
Where is Present Day Japanese Bonkei?
Like any art form, aesthetic and taste change with time. Is Japanese bonkei (penjing) a lost art? There is no doubt very little is known about bonkei in the West compared to main stream bonsai. On Amazon Japan, I found a few books related to bonkei. This one is titled “Modern Bonkei, an Introduction to Modern Senkeiban”, by Sako Fumio. In one chapter, the author discussed the evolution of senkeiban to modern bonkei. You can browse pages from Amazon Japan online. This book has two co-authors, listed as instructors, both are professional bonsai nursery men from Saitama.
The Japan Association of Bonki Art just celebrated their 100th anniversary this year. To my disappointment, bonkei shown in their site seem to use a lot of fake plants. Perhaps the art has changed so much that it no longer resembles the tray landscapes of Buzan’s time.