Dwarf Potted Trees in Paintings, Scrolls
and Woodblock Prints


(to the year 960 C.E.)

The Work:     Tribute Offered by a Vassal (c. mid-7th century C.E.) depicts a scene of at least twenty-five men presenting gifts to the court.  Three of them each carry long columns of rock, equivalent to three or four feet in length and perhaps six inches in diameter.  Each stone riddled with hollows, one particular specimen apparently has some flowers growing from it.  Three other persons are seen bringing exquisitely shaped rocks.  These are perhaps equivalent to between twelve and eighteen inches high, arranged in a light brown/tan oval container of from nine to twenty-four inches in length and three or four inches in depth.  (These gifts bear a striking resemblance to some of the landscape penjing we know today.)  Behind each of the two smaller rock carriers on the left is a fellow carrying an elephant tusk. 

The Artist:     Yan Liben [Yen Li-pen, 600 - 673] was a minister of state and a court painter, in fact, the most celebrated painter of the seventh century in China.  He was the son and brother of two other famous artists, had been a court painter in attendance to the second Tang emperor, Tai Zong [T'ai-tsung], and rose to the high office of Minister of the Right under the emperor's successor.  Yan's portraits are in the presumed Han style, which became the standard style of official court portraiture and the epitome of the Confucian ideal.  He often employed ink and color on silk, but most of his work has long since been lost.  He is reported to have painted emperors, great scholars, strange-looking foreigners, animals, birds, and even popular Buddhist subjects in the same style. 
     It is said that when rudely summoned by Tai Zong -- whose tomb he was commissioned to design -- to do a picture, the well-known and prolific Yan had to crawl on the ground before the emperor and other officials while he worked. Bathed in sweat, Yan sketched some ducks that were swimming about on the palace lake in front of the officials.  Returning home after his humiliation, he advised his sons and pupils never to follow his profession. 1


The Work:     Courtiers and Guests (c. 706) is the wall mural on a corridor leading to the tomb of Zhang Huai at Qianling [Chien Ling].  Two of the servants in court attire hold with both hands penjing, artistic pot plants with miniature rockeries and fruit trees.  (There appears to be a non-essential piece of the mural missing between the two, evidence of surface degradation.)  The left-hand servant, male, carries a yellowish oval bowl, perhaps equivalent to nine inches long by an inch deep.  Two, possibly three, small pyramidal stones are in the dish.  The rightmost stone has a touch or two of aqua pigment.  On two of the stones is a small plant with a few frond-like leaves; the left-hand plant is topped with a red flower, the right with a green bud.
     The servant to the right, female, carries a pot in the form of a lotus flower.  This contains a perhaps foot tall thin-stemmed flowering plant or tree with leaves and fruits.  The gesture of these courtiers presenting the gifts suggest that these landscapes were very desirable and occupied honored positions in the mansions of the nobility of the time.

The Subject:     Prince Zhang Huai (posthumous name for Li Xian [Li Hsien]) was the second son of Empress Wu Zetian and the third Tang emperor, Gao Zong.  Zhang's is one of the attendant tombs to the vast double Qianling Mausoleum of the Gao Zong and Wu at Qianxian [Chienhsien] county, Shaanxi province, to the northwest of Xian.  The larger tombs remain unopened, still hiding their treasures.  The murals in the smaller tombs also show chariots, carriages and horses; terraces, battlements and parapets; weapons, flags, banners, canopies and fans; hills, rivers, trees and rocks; birds, flowers and plucked branches; exotic animals and insects.  Using fine brushes to apply colors, the painters varied themes and expressiveness of feeling, creating many realistic images.  The drawing is free and vivacious, sketchy yet perfectly controlled. 
     Each of this pair of paintings shows courtiers in front and "guests" (emissaries) in the rear, reflecting the friendly contacts between nationalities and countries.  Looking solemn, the guests stand on two sides of the passage facing the tomb chamber in conformity with the Tang ceremony of paying respects to the dead, the theme portrayed.  While ancient books mention paintings recording such exchanges, these are the first known pictures of emissaries on a mission of condolence.  At least some the figures are fairly large, approximately three-quarters of life scale.
     On the west wall of the passage to the tomb of Zhang Huai is a twelve meter-long painting, "Playing Polo."  The game was introduced from Persia and became popular under the patronage of the Tang royal house.  Polo was Prince Zhang Huai's favorite sport. 2


The Work:     Frescoes featuring dwarf potted trees were found near Hebei in the graves of nobles who lived during the Five Dynasties period.  Discovered in 1978, these paintings have images of a variety of red blossoms arranged in floral pentsai.  Six of these are placed on a five-cornered table.  The plants, containers and stand, the three elements of the gardening art's display, result in a work of unsurpassed beauty.

Pre-Song Portrayals


1.    Liang, Amy  The Living Art of Bonsai (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1992), pg. 101 in color; Zhao, Qingquan  Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment (Athens, GA: Venus Communications; 1997), pg. 40, small in color; Hu, Yunhua Chinese Penjing (Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1987) pp. 129-130, has as "Paying Tribute" with a detail of one section; Goepper, Roger The Essence of Chinese Painting (Boston, MA: Boston Book & Art Shop; 1963), pp. 34, 244; Wen, Chin  "Two Underground Galleries of Tang Dynasty Murals" in New Archaeological Finds in China, II (Peking: Foreign Language Press; 1978),  pg. 101; Hucker, Charles O. China's Imperial Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1975), pg. 262; Sullivan, Michael The Arts of China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1984, Third Edition), pp. 128-130; Fitzgerald, C.P.  China, A Short Cultural History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1985), pg. 368; per Sunset Bonsai (Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Publishing Corporation; 1994, Third Edition), pg. 8, "Chinese frescoes dating back sometime before A.D.220 clearly show floral bonsai [sic] -- what we would think of as flower arrangements -- in complementary containers.  Painted during the late Han dynasty, these frescoes were discovered in the 1970's."

2.    Webber, Leonard Bonsai For the Home and Garden (North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers; 1985), pg.1; Koreshoff, Deborah Bonsai: Its Art, Science and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984), pg. 3; Stein, Rolf A.  The World in Miniature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 40; Hu,  pg. 128 with b&w photo; cf. "Princess Zhang-Huai" in the caption of a different picture in Samson, Isabelle and Rémy Samson  The Creative Art of Bonsai (London: Ward Lock, Ltd.; 1986), pg. 9, and the pg. 8 text which reads: "The first mention of the art of bonsai goes back to the Tsin era (third century BC): on the tomb of Zhang Huai, the second son of the Empress Tang Wu Zetian, there is a figure of a woman carrying a bonsai in both hands."; both attendants are shown together in one picture on the "Bonsai in Evolution" information board at the Fuku-Bonsai Center, Hawaii, and also on pg. 19 of Giorgi, Gianfranco  Simon & Schuster's Guide to Bonsai (New York: Simon & Schuster; 1990); Liang, pp. 100-101, the latter showing the left servant in color; Chan, Peter  Bonsai, The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees (Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press; 1985), pg. 144, has close-up of left servant, possibly retouched; Zhao, pg. 40 has small in color of left servant with the tray being orange in color; Lesniewicz, Paul Bonsai in Your Home (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1994), color of left servant on pp. 3 and 8, taken at a slightly oblique angle; Wen, pp. 95-98; Sullivan, pp. 128-130; Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye A Journey Through Ancient China (New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 212; gender identification of servants based on Tang clothing styles courtesy of Dustin Martinez in conversation with RJB Feb. 21, 2002.

3.    Liang, pg. 99.

China  960 to 1644
China  1644 to 1911

Home  > Bonsai History  > Paintings  > China to 960