CHINA -- Up to the SONG DYNASTY
(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
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 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.
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. 3
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.