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Huntington Highlight: Experience the Chinese Art of Penjing

This weekend, The Huntington hosts a two-day show celebrating penjing, a Chinese horticultural art that seeks to capture the essence of scenic beauty in a miniaturized form.

Anyone who enjoys the elegant beauty of bonsai won’t want to miss a special event that’s taking place at on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17-18. On these two days, from 10:30-4:30 p.m., the Southern Breeze Society will present a show featuring the Chinese version of this renowned horticultural art, called penjing (literally, “tray scenery”). 

“Penjing is actually the precursor of bonsai which came to Japan,” said Ernie Kuo, coordinator of the Southern Breeze Society. “It was adopted by the Japanese and they were the first ones to introduce that to the West.”

The art of penjing boasts a long and rich history, stretching back to over a thousand years ago. Examples of these miniature landscapes in pots show up in drawings and wall murals dating from at least the earliest years of the Tang Dynasty, possibly even the preceding Han Dynasty.

Kuo said that, though penjing and bonsai naturally share many similarities, there are fundamental differences between them, too. 

“Bonsai, strictly speaking, is just one tree in a pot,” said Kuo. “The definition of penjing has a broader scope. It may be one tree in a pot, or a forest in a pot, a combination of tree and rocks in a pot. The scope is a landscape. It's like scenery.” 

Another difference is in the way specimens of each art form are displayed. While Japanese bonsai is usually shown on short stands, penjing is often set up on elaborately carved, furniture-quality stands.

Both forms invite the viewer into a miniaturized version of the natural world, and by doing so, to gain a new or fresh perspective of one’s place within it.

The show this weekend will include a demonstration at 2 p.m. on Saturday, given by penjing artist Zhao-Sheng Che. Then on Sunday at 2 p.m. Dr. Thomas Elias--former Director of the U.S. National Arboretum and Honorary Director of the National Bonsai Foundation--will present a talk on the history of penjing. 

This will be the Southern Breeze Society’s third penjing show, but the first one in Friends’ Hall. Previous shows were held in the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, Liu Fang Yuan. The second phase of construction for Liu Fang Yuan calls for the installation of a permanent penjing collection, along with adding a lake-side performance hall for music, dance, opera, and readings, completing the boat-shaped viewing platform, and establishing another viewing pavilion on the highest point of the hill southwest of the lake. 

The Southern Breeze Society has about 30 members and is open to anyone who is interested in joining; there are no membership requirements or dues. Since the club meets once a month at The Huntington’s Botanical Center, Kuo said he hopes that the show will help get the word out about the club’s existence and draw more potential members, especially from San Marino. (For more information about the Southern Breeze Society, email Kuo at erniekuo@gmail.com.)

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