What is the difference between Chinese bonsai and a Japanese bonsai tree ?
First of all the name, Chinese bonsai are known as penjing.
Basically, a Japanese bonsai tree appears a little more formal than Chinese penjing.
Even the Japanese bonsai containers are usually more subtle, in both color and design.
All photos on this page are of penjing in
Photographs are used with permission of
You rarely, if ever, see rocks or figurines in a Japanese composition.
Chinese bonsai has always fascinated me. (Perhaps that's the reason, bunjin aka literati is one of my favorite "bonsai" styles.)
It wasn't until I read Karin Albert's
Penjing: A Chinese Renaissance
several years ago that I grasped a deeper meaning and the genuine differences.
She wrote a beautifully worded, thorough article on the subject for the Art of Bonsai blog.
This is, in part, what Karin had to say:
“So maybe it would be appropriate to call designs with only trees bonsai and compositions that involve stones or rock penjing?
I don't think so.
After all, penjing is the much older art form from which bonsai derived. And even where only trees are involved, Chinese creations often look distinctly different.
Moon Gate - National Arboretum Washington DC
Frequently, designs appear bolder, livelier, and more playful, sometimes even bizarre.
By contrast, a Japanese bonsai tree tends to look neater and more formalized. Regarding the latter, there is a greater sense
of control; the viewer gets the feeling that not even the most minute detail has been left to chance.
The minimalism of many Japanese designs can feel comforting and safe but it also produces a high degree of predictability.
Trident Maple Penjing - 'Chinese Dragon'
By and large, it seems that Japanese artists have a strong tendency to impose order on their creations, whereas Chinese artists appear willing to embrace a measure of chaos.
Clearly, they are less concerned with rules and the pursuit of perfection.
Does it mean that there are no rules in penjing at all?
Conversations with penjing artists reveal that they are less interested in displays of technical virtuosity and ideal form.
Instead, they seek to capture and convey sentiment and mood in their work.
Sageretia theezans with figurine
Their goal is to reveal an inner beauty, an essence inherent in nature.”
Karin Albert is the translator of Hu Yunhua's 'Chinese Penjing: Miniature
Trees and Landscapes' book (Timber Press, 1988). She also translated and
designed Zhao Qingquan's book 'Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment' - Venus
You can read her entire article, including illustrations of the main types of penjing, more about how they differ from the Japanese bonsai tree and additional photos at
If not, don't be too concerned. It is sometimes difficult for those
of us experienced in the art to decide which is bonsai and which is
penjing! Many people still call them "Chinese bonsai."
Both are outstanding examples of an exotic Asian living art form.
Fortunately, it is not important to know the difference, in order to enjoy them!
If you decide to create a penjing, just remember there is more to it than just making a weird looking tree or adding a rock or two!
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