The next penjing garden we visited was in a Daoist monastry, Qingsong Guan (青松观) or Ching Chung Koon in Cantonese dialect used in Hong Kong. It is located a little out-of-the-way in Tuen Mun (新界屯门) in the New Territory area. The late abbot, Mr. Hou Baoyuan (候宝垣 1914-1999) was one of the early pioneers of Lingnan penjing. As a Daoist monk, his penjing were steeped into his philosophical thoughts and believes, they are unpretentious and follow the Daoist Way of harmonizing with nature. His penjing also tell stories and have distinct personalities. Their compositions are not from the typical old school teaching.
Instead of showing photos of penjing after penjing, I am going to select a few and describe my impressions the way I saw them.
A Twin-Trunk that Broke the Rules
When we make a twin-trunk bonsai or penjing, we are taught to place the two trees, one large and one small, close to each other like a mother and child. Who would have ever thought of planting two large trees at opposite ends of a pot? Oh no, that would be breaking the rules! Yes, Abbot Hou did just that and he did it very well.
He approached this creation by envisioning the viewer is inside a forest, facing two large trees at close range. Don’t we often encounter such a familiar setting when we take a walk in a mature woods or an old forest? To reach for light, trees in old growths grow straight up to the top, the canopies do not overlap but just away from each other. That type of canopy does not allow much light into the interior, competitive smaller trees eventually die off. So the tall trees tend to be a little apart from each other, and without much penetrating light they do not have low branches.
It would be very boring to see two straight trunk trees in a pot. He broke up the monotony by putting a figurine between them, which creates the look of a traveler resting in the woods in his journey. This close range scene suddenly becomes believable and that makes this penjing different from the typical twin-trunk. Further more he kept the ground unkempt with some weeds here and there. Using a proportional size figurine is key in this composition, without it the composition would collapse.
One of the principles in Lingnan penjing is to create a large tree as if you view them at close range (近树造型). In this case Abbot Hou pushed the limit, instead of seeing a forest, he moved us so close that we see just two unassuming trees out of the many of a forest. One could say he broke the rules and that is the beauty of his creativity, perhaps a vision only a Daoist monk could venture into.
A Gnarly Ficus
The next one is a gnarly overgrown ficus. The acute angular bend of the main trunk makes the tree looks like it lacks a primary apex, the secondary branches make up an umbrella shape canopy. The long out-stretched trunk also makes the tree looks highly unstable. Yet there is an un-describable harmony when he placed an old monk figurine and a dwarf mondo grass beneath that bend. The large negative space is partially filled and the tree no longer looks unstable with the exaggerated out-stretched trunk.
Look at the following photo, I wiped out the old monk and mondo grass in Paint and the tree looks highly unstable.
Buddha is said to achieve enlightenment while meditating beneath a banyan tree, Ficus religiosa. Travelling mendicant monks often seek shelter under big trees. To me, this penjing tells a story.
If we were given a pre-bonsai with such an acute curvature in the main trunk, how would we tackle it? Perhaps we will try to correct the “fault” by tilting the planting angle, use bending large trunk techniques to bend the curve back a little, chopping off a large section of the trunk, etc. In this case, the fault was skillfully used to create a dynamic looking penjing by simply putting an old monk beneath the tree.
It also reminds me of street arts in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. The city encourages artists to paint on sidewalks and commissions mural artworks on walls of old buildings. Julia Volchova of Russia painted this old Indian woman in prayer, skillfully merged her with a mass of entangled ficus roots growing over a wall,, a very similar imagery to the lower half of this penjing.
Georgetown is a UNESCO heritage city. The British TV drama, “Indian Summer”, was filmed in Georgetown and its hill stations. The film crew could not find suitable old colonial buildings in India because they were obscured by so many new modern buildings and made filming difficult. They found Penang to be a good substitute filming location.
Twin-Trunk Planted at the Far Corner of a Pot
Now onto the third penjing I wanted to discuss in more details. One of the fundamental penjing and bonsai principles is to plant the tree slightly off center or at two-third the width of the pot to create asymmetry. However, the two trees in this penjing were planted side by side at the far right rear corner of the pot, a very unorthodox placement.
We would appreciate this odd choice when we examine the trees in detail.
The outer edge tree has a hollowed out trunk inscribed with three red Chinese characters “Le Ma Ya” (Stop the Horse Cliff). A Chinese person would readily connect these three words to an old teaching: “hold back your horse before it overshoots the edge of a cliff”, an advise to people to desist things that they will later regret, stop before falling into the abyss. The bark of the tree was peeled to inscribe the warning and that tree is at the very corner of the pot, symbolizing danger lurks ahead. A second shorter tree is planted next to the big one to counter balance the setting. Perhaps Abbot Hou wanted to gently remind viewers to heed old traditional teaching of not overly indulgence in any pursuit.
Also note the hollowed wood has aged and rotted down to the lower part of the trunk. I do not know the age of this penjing but Abbot Hou passed away in 1999, It is amazing the hollowed out wood still survive. The highlight of this penjing is the aged peeled trunk with the warning inscriptions.
As an overseas Chinese descendent, I appreciate the subtle meaning and readily accept this kind of penjing. Some people may find them unrefined like the Japanese bonsai, or even too wild for people looking for ‘natural’ bonsai. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. I just want to share what I see and interpret.
Abbot Hou used Shiwan figurines (石湾公仔) extensively in his penjing. Their sizes are appropriate and proportional to the trees. When done correctly they tell stories. In the West, we call these Shiwan figurines mudman, and tend to use them indiscriminately with mismatch sizes such as a hut is smaller than the person sitting next to it. Perhaps they originate from people trying to sell so called “Chinese Bonsai”. Such a practice gives penjing a bad reputation, and wrongfully become a connotation of Chinese penjing. There are a lot to learn from penjing in this monastery. I hope readers of this post do not use figurines indiscriminately and make their penjing look ridiculous.
Shiwan figurines is an art by themselves and are highly collectible. Those used in the Monastery’s penjing are probably antiques now. In my next post, I will feature antique figurines from the Hong Kong Art Museum.
Before I go, here are more photos of the monastery, penjing and garden.