Shanghai Botanical Gardens 

by Cheryl Petty Golden Statementsvol.xxxiv No.5 Sep/Oct 2011

In March of 2011, Cheryl Petty, freelance writer and videographer from California, visited the Shanghai Botanical Garden (SHBG) to interview Mr HU Yun Hua, Director and Professor, and to video the world renowned Penjing collection.  Mr HU is also Chairman of  the World Bonsai Friendship Federation.


Penjing, an ancient traditional Chinese art, can trace its origins back 1,900 years to the Han Dynasties.  It has been found depicted in early Chinese wall murals dating from the Tang Dynasty, about 706CE.  These paintings were discovered in 1972 at the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai at the Qianling Mausoleum site in Shaanxi province.  A guild of tree masters near Suzhou in the province of Jiangsu is known to have produced miniature trees since 1276CE.  The word 'Penjing' can trace its origin back 300 years to manuscripts from the Qing Dynasty.

Compare this to the earliest known depiction of tray landscape in Japan dating from 1309CE.  It is easy to spot the word development of Chinese penzai to Japanese Bonsai and Chinese Penjing to Japanese bunjin.  During the Heian period in Japan (794-1191CE), Chinese introduced the art of making miniature plant landscapes to Japanese Buddhist monks along with tea and other cultural gifts. The Monk Suren (1895-1962) at the Haichuang Monastery in Guandong (Canton) province invigorated the old Xu Hue Xe style which was then called Wenren Mu, characterized by a willowy or sparse, thin trunk with bunches of foliage at the top and ends of branches in a small bowl.

Chinese Penjing (penzai) can be divided into two main categories.  Shansui describes landscape Penjing (penzai) of mountains and water, featuring mainly rocks and depicting mountain scenes.  They may or may not have trees, and if they do they play a minor role.

Shumu (shuomo) or tree Penjing  (penzai) relate more closely to the Japanese funka style Bonsai.  This category includes one or several trees being the main subject and utilizes contrasts, yin and yang, to develop tree composition.  One wonders why the overall impression or characterisctic of Chinese Penjing is more natura?  China being an open and large country has resulted in a variety of styles with more open and natural branch forms.  A tree is allowed to express itself without being restricted to a set of rules or named styles, according to Mr HU.  That said, there are a number of styles that have been identified.



Penjing with Mr HU Yun Hua at the Shanghai Botanic Garden


The video interview of Mr HU and the collection by Cheryl Petty.


Because of the long period of cultural development that has allowed Penjing to evolve and flourish over the centuries, there naturally are many regional and historical schools.  Many styles have poetically descriptive names like "Ingenious or Delicate Cloud," "Coiled Dragon," "Earthworm" or "Phoenix and Crane on Pavilion and Pagoda."  Regional variations emerged in the late Ming and Qing Dynasties c.17th century, relatively late in the scheme of things.  One could infer that prior to that time only a few styles were predominant such as the original Literati Style.

There are six modern styles:  straight trunk, slanting trunk, curved trunk, cliff hanging, vine and forest styles added to the orginal Literati style.  The term shuzhuang or "tree stump" refers to specimens collected from the wild and is the same as the Japanese term "yamadori."  Now artists responsibly use nursery grown stock; they stopped using wild collected material about twenty years ago.

I will only mention a couple of styles here.  Western Su, Suzhou School trees show an aged appearance with curved branches of classical elegance.  The  "Six Platforms, Three Bases and One Top" style  has a trunk twisted into six curves.  The three branches emerging from the bole to the left and three branches to the right are called the six platforms.  There are three more branches to the back called the three bases, and it culminates with a cluster at the top.  Plum tree and pine tree styles from the town of Guang Fu near Suzhou show Penjing with an exaggerated protruding branch at the top in a beckoning gesture called "guest welcoming."

The Shanghai School is known for its natural and free style emphacizing "extended branch lines of firm and exquisite quality."  These artists use "Shaping Through Bending, Fine Shaping Through Pruning" (Coarse wiring and Fine pruning) on hundreds of plant species but most typically the Five-Needled Pine Pinus parviflora (White Pine), Two-Needled Pine Pinus thungergiana (Black Pine), Yew Podocarpus Podocarpus macrophylla, Dragon spruce Picea asperata and many Juniper species.  They use iron wire to form branches and trunks instead of palm fiber used in other schools or the newer aluminum wire popular in the west.

Shanghai trees show variety in non-formulaic natural shapes and appearance as well as in size from large specimens to small palm-sized miniatures (Japanese "mame" size).  Shanghai Penjing artists were the first to create in the new style using flat trays of Fan stone or marble called "Water-land Penjing."  Two kinds of rock and water landscapes have emerged, one using hard and one using soft rock, emphacizing near or far distance in the miniature landscape.

Mr. HU trims Podocarpus
Mr. HU trims Podocarpus


Trimming of Podocarpus macrophylla is done twice a year in spring and autumn.  After this first general shaping, training is provided with wire.  Iron wire is applied in spring and removed in autumn, to give the tree a rest over winter.  Wire is left on large branches for three years.  After "Shaping Through Bending, Fine Shaping Through Pruning" (Coarse wiring and Fine pruning), flat foliage pads begin to take shape.

The variety of Podocarpus used at SHBG has been cultivated for pot culture over a long period and produces small leaves compared to the landscape variety of macrophylla commonly seen.  It grows slowly in a pot and achieves a long life, qualities which are important in Penjing or Bonsai.

Mr HU was demonstrating for us on a specimen.  He says, "In 1975, when I started at SHBG thirty-five years ago, this tree was in the same pot and looked as it does now.   This tree grows very slowly.  Of course, the foliage is denser now, but the tree is the same height.  These are exemplary trees for Bonsai and are easy to maintain."


It is not unusual to see trees older than 150 years at the garden.  They had a Pinus parviflora set out for display which was at least that aged.  The oldest tree in their collection is a Juniperus formosona 'Sibai' which they estimate to be older than 200 years.  It's trunk is about 15cm or 6-inches in diameter, 200cm or 78-inches tall, and is being trained with wire into a slant style.  Rocks and grass are arranged around the base.

Shanghai Penjing artists are famous for their water and landscape designs.  They showed me a Crabapple Malus spectabilis in full precious bloom which had been in its very shallow marble tray with rocks and mosses for more than ten years.

Black pines Pinus thunbergiana are admired in China the same as everywhere for their beautiful rugged bark marked by deep fissures.  The one we were looking at was relatively young, only twenty years in the pot, and overall about 150 years old.

Another characteristic of Chinese Penjing is forming trees to look like animals.  This is a very old practice and is not seen often.  In the garden adjacent to the demonstration area was a huge decidious creature, a tree with a story.  It originally was found growing in a wall resembling a animal nursing its young, a baby Penjing nursing its gigantic and grotesque mother.

Mr. HU promotes penjing culture.
Mr. HU promotes penjing culture.


Mr ZHAO Wei, Vice Manager of Penjing Garden, has a Masters degree in Penjing and is responsible for the daily care of the trees as well as for creating new ones.  That day he was working on a large tray garden in the greenhouse.  Only one year old, it will be for exhibition in the future.

The raft or grove style or 'Forest style Penjing' is popular here in China as it is in Japan and the west.  ZHAO was using Dragon spruce Picea asperata, native to western China in the Yangtze River area.  They call it 'Lioche' in Chinese.  It has long droopy branches with medium fine green foliage.

Waiting in the cool greenhouse for warmer weather were several Sweet Wisteria Wisteria sinensis.  The fat buds were showing at the ends of the carefully contorted branches.  Used for centuries in China, it was introduced to Europe and North America in 1816 where it is a popular flowering landscape vine.

At least three-quarters of the house was devoted to hundreds of Podocarpus at all levels of development.  Bridget WONG has a Masters Degree in Landscape.  She told me these Podocarpus were at least thirty to fifty years old, although they looked like young trees to my eyes.


All the soil they use at SHBG comes from Zhejiang or Jiangsu Province.  The native soil around Shanghai is not suitable for the trees.  They don't amend their soil with other media, but they do add a small amount of organic fertilizer such as soybean or bone meal at the time of potting or repotting, similar to practices to which we are accustomed.

I didn't see any big bins of soil, and I wondered about their procedure at SHBG.  ZHAO explained that they only make up as much soil as they need each day without the use of sieves.  Instead he demonstrated using a large scoop, winnowing it like a forty-niner panning for gold.  The different sized particles  separate themselves out in this way since they are all of the same material.

The large pieces are picked out and placed in the contianer bottom.  The small material remaining is used to fill in around the plant roots.  Very little media is needed with Penjing.  The containers are shallow, and they sometimes leave as much as half the old soil and part of the old root when transplanting, depending on the vigor and condition of the tree.

Generally, depending on the kind and age of plant and the size of the container, repotting is done every three to five years for large ones and two to three years for small to medium sized trees.  This is not a strict rule and many exceptions have been noticed.  The times and  methods for repotting are very similar to what we do in the west and in Japan.  According to Mr HU's book, The Chinese Art of Miniature Gardens, pines prefer sandy soils and pomegranates "are fond of slightly sticky heavy soils."

Plants outdoors at the SHBG are fastened to their stands with wire as a precaution against typhoons or high winds.  Care is given to protect the branches from extreme weather events like wind or snow.

In 2013 the Bonsai Clubs International and the World Bonsai Friendship Federation, the two largest international Penjing organizations, will hold two Penjing conventions in China.  BCI's event is in Yangzhou City while WBFF's is in Jin Tan City, both in Jiang Su Province, PRC.  Not only is Mr HU the Director of SHBG, but he also is the 2010-2013 Chairman of the WBFF.  They welcome and invite all the Penjing enthusiasts in the world to come to China to visit.

Mr HU adds, "China has made great progress to opening to the world since the 1970s.  People's living standards have also improved.  There are many large private gardens now which include Penjing collections.  We want to communicate with the global community of Penjing lovers.  Thank you, Xiexie!"


Bunjin:  Japanese word for Literati style

Etymology:  punsai : first word in use for Penjing or penzai

Literati style:  early Penjing style in categoy by itself, carried to Japan around 700CE

Monk Suren:  1895-1962 Haichuang Monastery, Guandong (Canton) Province, style Wenren Mu

Penzai:  another word for Penjing.  Use in modern sentence, "The art of penzai had been almost obliterated during China's modern political upheavals, and thus most of the trees in some collections are young and lack the vigor and look of age."RJB

Penjing:  art of making miniature plant landscapes

Shansui:  landscape Penjing of mountains and water

Shumuor shuomo: one or several trees being the main subject

Shuzhuang:  tree stump, wild, collected similar to Japanese yamadori

Xu Hue Xe:  Original Literati style from Tang Dynasty 618-907CE


HU, Yunhua Chinese Penjing, Miniature Trees and Landscapes (Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1987 Wan Li Books Co., Ltd., Hong Kong)

ZHAO,Qingguan Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment (Athens, GA: Venus Communications, LLC: 1997)

CHEN Zhiqi, CHEN Zhijiu, Gold Awarded Penjing of the World Vol. I II (Guangdong Language Audiovisual & Electronic Press; 2008)


Botanic Gardens Conservation International Shanghai Botanic Garden

World Bonsai Friendship Federation

Excellent web article on Techniques of Creating Water-and-Land Penjingfrom the WBFF website

Bonsai Clubs International

7th World Bonsai Friendship Federation Convention September 2013



The Chinese Collection (Penjing Collection) is sustained by the National Bonsai Foundation (non profit organization) as the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum located on 446 acre 1.8km campus at the US National Arboretum in Washington DC.  Director Tom Elias.  Yee Sun WU Chinese Garden Pavilion:  Dr WU (1905-1995) collected Penjing in Hong Kong.  In 1983 he was asked to help fund the pavilion as well as donating many trees.  Renamed in 1988 National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.


Guangzhou Liuhua Western Garden and Shenzhen Qu Yi Garden in Guandong Province featuring Penjing was founded March 2010.  Located in Liuhua Lake Park in Guandong, it is a special research and promotion site for Lingnan School of Pinjing.  Shenzhen Qu Yi Garden was founded by Mr WU Cheng Fa, WBFF International consultant and Vice Chairman of HongKong Penjing and Artstone Society.  The collection has more than 2,000 Penjing, ancient pots and art stones.

There is a notable Penjing collection at the Beijing Botanical Garden  at the foot of the Western Hill in Haidian District, Beijing, PRC.


A new and growing collection is at the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia  in Commonwealth Park in Canberra, Australia.