Inspiration from the East: Miniturisation and Philosophy


As an artist who is in the main influenced by contemporary western art it was with great interest that I revisited the ancient Eastern art forms of the well known Japanese Bonsai, the lesser known Chinese Penjing, and Vietnamese Hòn Non Bo. Miniturisation and scale in general has always fascinated me as a sculptor. As this project draws heavily from the microscopic worlds of the tree I was drawn to research these art forms while developing the artwork for the Cherry Blossom in particular.

I was also inspired by how these art forms seek to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts. Penjing specifically are influenced by the principles of Taoism, the concept of Yin and Yang in particular: the idea of the universe as governed by two primal forces, opposing but complementary.

Some of the contrasting concepts used in penjing for example include portrayal of “dominance and subordination, emptiness (void) and substance, denseness and sparseness, highness and lowness, largeness and smallness, life and death, dynamics and statics, roughness and meticulousness, firmness and gentleness, lightness and darkness, straightness and curviness, verticality and horizontality, and lightness and heaviness.

Before I outline some general information about the individual art forms; a little bit of information about the Japanese Bonsai, Bonkei and Saikei, the Vietnamese Hòn Non Bo and some more comprehensive information on the Chinese Penjing; I thought it would be of interest to give a basic outline of the differences between the art forms.

Generally speaking, tree penjing specimens differ from bonsai by allowing a wider range of tree shapes (more “wild-looking”) and by planting them in bright-colored and creatively shaped pots. In contrast, bonsai are more simplified in shape (more “refined” in appearance) with larger-in-proportion trunks, and are planted in unobtrusive, low-sided containers with simple lines and muted colors.

While the Saikei depicts living landscapes in containers, like water and land penjing, it does not use miniatures to decorate the living landscape. In Vietnam the Hòn non bộ focuses on depicting landscapes of islands and mountains, usually in contact with water, and decorated with live trees and other plants. Like water and land penjing, hòn non bộ specimens can feature miniature figures, vehicles, and structures. Distinctions among these traditional forms have been blurred by some practitioners outside of Asia, as enthusiasts explore the potential of local plant and pot materials without strict adherence to traditional styling and display guidelines.

Bonsai as an art form is relatively familiar to westerners so to follow I have just added a little information for context. The Chinese art forms are in fact deemed to originate from much earlier and like the Vietnamese forms are extremely varied and really interesting.


Japanese Bonsai:

Bonsai is a Japanese art form using trees grown in containers. The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation for the viewer, and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity for the grower.

A bonsai is created beginning with a specimen of source material. This may be a cutting, seedling, or small tree of a species suitable for bonsai development. Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. Some species are popular as bonsai material because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them appropriate for the compact visual scope of bonsai.

Historical context:

Although imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan had returned from the mainland with miniature landscape souvenirs since the 6th century, the oldest known depiction of a dwarfed tray landscape in Japan dates from 1309. The fifth of the twenty-scroll Kasuga-gongen-genki masterpiece depicts the household of a wealthy Japanese individual who has an outdoors slatted-workbench holding a shallow wooden tray and ceramic dish of Chinese origin with dwarf trees, grasses, and stones. By this time Chán Buddhism had been developed in Japan as Zen. Its influence of “beauty in severe austerity” led native Japanese dwarf potted landscapes to be distilled into single, ideal trees being representatives of the universe. What is termed bonsai derives from this.


Lesser know Japanese Bonkei and Saikei

Bonkei is Japanese for “tray landscape”. A bonkei is a temporary or permanent three-dimensional depiction of a landscape in miniature, portrayed using mainly dry materials like rock, papier-mâché or cement mixtures, and sand in a shallow tray. A bonkei contains no living material, in contrast with related Japanese art forms bonsai and saikei: bonsai contain living trees, and saikei contain living trees and other vegetation.

Its three-dimensional character and permanence distinguish bonkei from bonseki, which is a Japanese form of sand-painting that produces mostly-flat images on a display tray, usually for transient viewing before being erased for a new creation. Although bonkei materials are usually dry, flowing water and seasides are often depicted, with varying colors of gravel or sand making up the land and the water elements. A bonkei may also contain miniature figures of people, animals, buildings, bridges, and other common outdoor items.

The goal of the form is to provide an aesthetically pleasing miniature landscape for display and contemplation. The landscape is depicted in full three dimensions, and contained in a wide, low-sided tray. Raised areas representing river banks, hills, cliffs, or mountains are built up from sculptable materials like ciment fondu, clay, papier mache, or a dried and powdered peat called keto in Japan. These sculpted elements are frequently painted to resemble the natural environment as closely as possible, for example, through painting ice, rock, and vegetation colors onto sculpted mountains. Flat areas representing plains or open water are covered with colored sand or gravel. Real rocks may be embedded in the landscape.

Human and animal figurines and miniature models of structures and vehicles are placed on top of the bonkei’s base landscape to create a fully realized scene. Even model trees and other vegetation may be incorporated, though live plants are not generally considered elements of bonkei. The completed bonkei can be displayed in the home similar to “a bonsai, a painting, or a floral arrangement – at proper height, against an uncluttered background”.



Saikei 2


Bonkei is similar in some ways to the Japanese saikei (plant landscape), Chinese penjing, or Vietnamese hon non bo art forms. Robert Behme says that bonkei differs from saikei in that a bonkei “is essentially a dry landscape, and living plants are rarely used; a saikei depends exclusively on living plants for effect.” As a result of this key difference, many bonkei specimens can last a long time with no maintenance, where a saikei requires frequent tending and a favorable environment for growth of the trees and other vegetation it contains.

hòn non bộ

Vietnamese Hòn Non Bộ:

Hòn Non Bộ is the Vietnamese art of making miniature landscapes, imitating the scenery of the islands, mountains and surrounding environment as found in nature. It is a particular local development of the Chinese art of penjing, as was bonsai in Japan.

The phrase Hòn Non Bộ comes from the Vietnamese language : Hòn means Island, Non means Mountain, and Bộ means a combination of water, mountain range and forest, or it can also mean “imitating the way the scenery looks in miniature”.


Hòn Non Bộ may be quite large and elaborate or small and simple. It was used to grace the courtyard entrance of the traditional Vietnamese home. Throughout Vietnam history, Hòn Non Bộ have been built for emperors, generals, and other important people as monuments, decorations, personal vistas, and as cultural icons.

Chinese Penjing:


A Penjing is a tray landscape, potted scenery, potted landscape, or miniature trees and rockery, is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature.

As an art form, penjing is an extension of the garden, since it enables an artist to recreate parts of the natural landscape in miniature. Penjing is often used indoors as part of a garden’s overall design, since it reiterates the landscape features found outside.

Design inspiration is not limited to observation or representation of nature, but is also influenced by Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and other visual arts. Common penjing designs include evocation of dragons and the strokes of well-omened characters. At its highest level, the artistic value of penjing is on par with that of poetry, calligraphy, brush painting and garden art.

Penjing generally fall into one of three categories:

penging 1 tree

Shùmù pénjǐng:

Tree penjing that focuses on the depiction of one or more trees and optionally other plants in a container, with the composition’s dominant elements shaped by the creator through trimming, pruning, and wiring.

penjing 2 rock & small plants

Shānshuǐ pénjǐng:

Landscape penjing that depicts a miniature landscape by carefully selecting and shaping rocks, which are usually placed in a container in contact with water. Small live plants are placed within the composition to complete the depiction. Often, rocks, miniature ceramic structures (like buildings and bridges), and figurines are added to give the proper scales as part of the natural scenery. These miniatures add to the symbolism of a penjing specimen, by providing a social or historical context in which to interpret the overall penjing design. Like the chinese gardens, these miniature landscapes are designed to convey landscapes experienced from various viewpoints – a close-up view, a medium-range view or a panorama.

penjing 3 rocks & trees

Shuǐhàn pénjǐng:

A water and land penjing style that effectively combines the first two, including miniature trees and optionally miniature figures and structures to portray a landscape in detail.

Earliest versions of Penjings:

While there were legends dating from at least the 3rd and 4th centuries of Daoist persons said to have had the power to shrink whole landscapes down to small vessel size, written descriptions of miniature landscapes are not known until Tang Dynasty times. As the information at that point shows a somewhat developed craft, (then called “punsai”) the making of dwarfed tree landscapes had to have been taking place for a while, either in China or possibly based on a form brought in from outside.

The first highly prized trees are believed to have been collected in the wild and were full of twists, knots, and deformities. These were seen as sacred, of no practical profane value for timber or other ordinary purpose. These naturally dwarfed plants were held to be endowed with special concentrated energies due to age and origin away from human influence. The viewpoint of Chán Buddhism would continue to impact the creation of miniature landscapes.

Smaller and younger plants which could be collected closer to civilization but still bore a resemblance to the rugged old treasures from the mountains would also have been chosen. Horticultural techniques to increase the appearance of age by emphasizing trunk, root, and branch size, texture, and shapes would eventually be employed with these specimens.

How they used to create and maintain the creations:

By the first half of the 19th century, according to various Western accounts, air layering was the primary propagation method for penjing, which were then generally between one and two feet in height after two to twenty years of work. Elms were the main specimens used, along with pines, junipers, cypresses, and bamboos; plums were the favored fruit trees, along with peaches and oranges.

bonsai wiring

The branches could be bent and shaped using various forms of bamboo scaffolding, twisted lead strips, and iron or brass wire to hold them in place; they could be also be cut, burnt, or grafted. The bark was sometimes lacerated at places or smeared with sugary substance to induce termites (“white ants”) to roughen it or even to eat the similarly sweetened heartwood. Rocks with moss or lichens were also a frequent feature of these compositions.

More recently:

Established in 1954, the Longhua nursery in Shanghai included the teaching of classical theory and all aspects of the practice of penjing, a process which could take student-gardeners ten years.

As late as the early 1960s, it is reported that some 60 characteristic regional forms of penjing could be distinguished by the expert eye. A few of these forms dated back to at least the 16th century.

Of interest was that during the upheaval of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (May 1966-April 1969), one relatively small effect was that many collections of penjing in Mainland China, especially around Beijing, were damaged or neglected because they were seen as a bourgeois pastime. After their trees were gone, some Chinese penjing masters, men in their sixties and seventies, were forced to do something considered socially redemptive—many were sent to fields to plant rice. However, in other areas of China, especially in eastern and southern China, penjing were collected for safe keeping.