Chinese "Bonsai"?

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 Japanese bonsai containers are usually more subtle, in both color and design.

Some of the penjing photographs shown on this page are of displayed in Washington, D.C. at

The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum

A Major Difference

You rarely, if ever, see 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 GateMoon 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?  Absolutely not.

"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. 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 Communications, 1997.

You can read her entire article, including illustrations of the main types of penjing, and more about how they differ from the Japanese bonsai tree plus additional photos at ...  'Penjing: A Chinese Renaissance'

Examples of Early Chinese Styles

Styles of both bonsai and penjing have changes over the years.  These styles, although still occasionally created, are no longer popular with the masses.

Japanese Bonsai/Chinese Bonsai
Can You Tell the Difference?

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!

Where to Go From Here?

To read more about Chinese penjing, especially if you enjoy seeing the use of rocks and stones go to Rock Penjing page.

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