Zhao Qingquan is the vice-president of the Association of Penjing Artists of China and an internationally acclaimed penjing master for several decades. We met Zhao Qingquan in Penshin museum of the Slender West Lake garden in, which he directs. Many of China’s famous penshins are kept, maintained and exhibited here. Zhao grew up in a family full of penjing. His father and grandfather both liked to make them and Zhao started playing with penjing when he was 9 or 10 years old. “But it was only when I grew up and studied, years ago, that I took penjing as my profession.” It’s very important to him, because it’s not only his job and career, but also his hobby: “I think that human energy is limited, so to free myself, I have to put the limited energy into the limited career. So I took penjing as my career and I can get fully devoted to that career.”

Travelling the world for his profession for years, Zhao recognizes the growing number of people who like pending. He explains: “I think the best reason is that human beings come from nature. But since the process of modernization, people get far away from nature.” The focus on the natural, or the landscape, is historically embedded in Chinese culture: “There’s a special class of people in China who study to become an officer in the government. We call them scholars, or poets. These people put their ideas about society in their work.

During the Jin Dynasty (1600 years ago), it wasn’t easy to become an officer. You had to bribe somebody to get the position. Dissatisfied about society, these scholars escaped to settle down in a forest or a place, which had beautiful scenery. They put their dissatisfaction in a poem, a painting or the design of a garden.” Zhao explains he developed his personal style the same way as the scholars developed their poetry or paintings. He puts a lot of emphasis on his environment in his work: “Yangzhou is a city with 2500 years of history and a lively local culture. It really influenced me a lot.” He made two kinds of innovations: “One is that my work must be poetic. In the old China, poetry could embody a lot of things. The same way, I want my audience to see and imagine more than the penjing.” He wants to instil empathy in his audience: “A forest might occur to

them, or they might even imagine they lived in a forest once. The way you look at trees will remind you of your happy life and make you experience it again.”

Penjing Museum, Yangzhou China

But Zhao wants to do more: “My work has to be picturalistic as well. Where in the west, the emphasis in painting is on the human being; in China we pay our attention to the mountains, the water, the river and the tree. Penjing is like a painting of this landscape in three dimensions.” All in all, his work needs to embed his ideal: “That is the function and also my expectation to my work.” When asked, Zhao replies that society is the most important factor in his work. After that comes culture and after that comes nature: “When I went to Canada, I saw penjing which had very thin trunks and branches, erected to the sky. Their leaves were growing downwards. I found that very strange. The same way you might think we have very strange forms of penjing, but they are based on our natural environment. It’s about looking at something as ordinary as nature.”

Pan Yi Long has been making penjing for over sixty years now, but he stands in long family tradition of penjing artists. Penjing is the Chinese art of growing trees in trays. In general penjing differ from bonsai in their wider range of shapes, allowing more creative freedom to make ‘wild-looking’ trees. This freedom is also reflected in the use of brightly coloured and creatively shaped pots.

We visited Pan Yi Long’s garden in Nanjing in the winter of 2009. It was a peaceful haven in an otherwise urban wasteland inhabited mostly by pushy car dealers, on the banks of a small river. Having a cup of green tea in his freezing cold glasshouse, he explained what his work means to him. Nanjing, or Jingling as the Chinese call it, has it’s own specific local culture. Due to Nanjings geographic location in the middle of the country and it’s

history as southern capital, its culture has been influenced from all corners of China. You could say that Nanjing culture is a mix of these different cultures, which all have influenced the local penjing with their own specific characteristics. However, Pan Yi Long argues there are also distinct Nanjing features: “In most parts of China, penjing are quite open in style, which reflects a male attitude. Here in Nanjing, penjing are quite narrow and curled. It refers to a more universal meaning. Elegant, like a woman.”

Working in Pan's studio, photo: Xu Janwei

For Pan Yi Long, penjing is important for his personal wellbeing. Being seventy years of age, he has had five

Working in Pan's studio, photo: Xu Janwei

operations from which he recovered remarkably fast. He believes he owes this to his penjing. When he stands in front of his works, he feels really good and believes that as a result his body heals very fast. It helps him think as well: “You can compare it with drawing characters: it is a spiritual development.” When asked if he translates his own character into his work, Pan Yi Long says the first thing he wants his penjings to show is ‘royalty’ or ‘luxury’. Another meaning he wants his penjing to convey is intelligence. We asked our selves the question if a tree could convey a person’s character?

Charles Ceronio

On a rainy april morning in Pretoria, we drive our purple rental car to the other end of the city to meet Charles Ceronio. In a quiet suburban neighbourhood, we enter a

gate, park next to Charles his ‘bakkie’ (4wd) and are welcomed by the curious bull terrier Dosie. Charles’ wife Elsie has prepared a very tasty breakfast with eggs, ‘boerewors’ (sausage), toast and amarula jam. After prayer, we eat and talk with a view on their lush garden where we catch a glimpse of Charles potted trees. When our stomachs are filled, Charles gives us a tour and explains how he started doing bonsai as one of the first people in South Africa.

“I was born in the Free State, which is a very dry, high veld country. During my primary school time, I helped my mother do our garden. In those days, gardening was very strict in trying to make a landscape, with paths running through it. I myself was very interested in plants and spent my afternoons working in my mother’s and grandfather’s garden.” Charles first heard about bonsai in the 1970’s, during his studies at the university in Pretoria: “My mother sent me an article about bonsai from the Readers Digest, which tickled me. At the time, I didn’t do anything with it, but it was slumbering in my brain and stayed there for many years.” Right after he married Elsie, an advert for a bonsai exhibition in Johannesburg got them curious: “It was the first in Johannesburg, as far as I know, so we drove up there to see it. That was the spark, and from there on we were always doing bonsai. At the time we had an apartment with a balcony and I had 21 trees living there.

It has since always been a passion and a life for us.”

The art aspect is what attracts Charles to bonsai: “You have to design something, working with live material. You sculpt it in your mind, but it has to fit the tree. And when it grows, it gets better and better. In the fifty years you have, you need to change your tree, because branches may die, for instance. It’s a sculpture, which is always on the move and growing. It all depends on the tree and you have to use the tree to its best benefits to make the best out of that specific tree.

Charles' garden in Pretoria

Charles takes in inspiration from African trees. During his first bonsai convention in Cape Town in the 1980’s, it struck him that the discussions were mainly about Japanese styles and pine trees: “But pines don’t grow in

our city, because of the warmer climate. So I radically went over to a new kind of approach. I decided that our country is full of wonderful acacia’s and flattop trees. We’ve got these huge baobab trees next to that. Why not use them? I started experimenting and introducing African styles to the public, who were shocked by the idea that they should now do African styles and not Japanese styles. But some of the guys said: “It’s common sense. Why didn’t I think of it?” I think that is typical of Africa. Nowadays, most of the guys are growing South African styles”.

Bonsai, to us, seemed a strange hobby for a man in South Africa. Yet when Charles walks us through his garden, somehow it all makes sense. At his workbench he starts telling a story: “You know that I grew up in the high veld. There was only grassland there. No natural trees grew in the higher northern part of South Africa: You had to plant them yourself. Whenever we visited family in Pretoria we drove through the Fountain Valley. That’s a wonderful path valley with streams and trees around it. For a guy who is only used to grassland, suddenly driving underneath these trees, the plants, the waterfalls and streams was just fantastic. That kind of feeling of forest was implanted in me. So whenever I make bonsai forests now, I enjoy that feeling when trees are around you. But I have a friend who doesn’t like forest plantings, because he was shot in a forest in France, during the World War.

All the trees were torn down by fire and bombings. Whenever I showed him my work he said he didn’t like it. Only later, he told me the story, which made me realize that for some people there’s another connotation about forests.”

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