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The Penjing Album of Gotha

The Penjing Album of Gotha


by Gunter Lind



Nearly all of the articles in this series have been dealing with Japan, although we were reminded several times that until the end of the 19th century, Chinese penjing were in many ways the prototypes for Japanese bonsai. The reason for this bias are the pictures available to me. In China there was no social class like the Japanese middle class and no art genre like the Japanese coloured woodcut. In the Chinese scholars’ high art of painting, genre scenes only played a minor role. Due to these circumstances, there exists much less picture material from 18th and 19th century China, and it is also of lesser quality. This deficit is not really compensated, but to some degree counterbalanced by one single source: The Penjing Album of Gotha, which will be the topic of this article.

In the middle of the 17th century there was the start of an increasing enthusiasm about China among the people in Europe. The Jesuits spread some knowledge about China. Since they interpreted Confucianism in a way that made it similar to Christian morality, an ideal image of China emerged as a civilized country controlled by fair laws. Even more positive was the appreciation of the far eastern art. Imported silk fabrics, porcelain, jade carvings, lacquer objects and tapestsries were numerous and every ruler who wanted to be regarded as an art connoisseur built a “Chinese room”. The collection of the dukes of Sachsen-Gotha are also due to this entusiasm about China. Around the middle of the 17th century the colloction was established, and it was considerably enlarged in the 18th century. The creation of such “Indian Cabinets” with original items was expensive and therefore limited to the upper class. This led to a downright wave of imitations during the Rococo. Chinoiseries were produced in large numbers in Europe, which made them also affordable for middle class people.

At the end of the 18th century, London was the centre of tea trade, and the tea ships also brought art objects to Europe. These had been bought in the big Chinese cities. Particularly in Hongkong and Canton, there were many manufactures that produced specially for the European market and often in a way that was attuned to the European taste. It is largely unknown whether these goods were also sold in China, and the artistic value in comparison to the merchandise produced for the domestic market has hardly been investigated. By the end of the 18th century the demand was so great that Chinese artists were invited to London where they worked on orders in local workshops. These workshops however lasted only for a short period until the China fashion receded at the end of the classicist period.

August, the Duke of Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg, who reigned from 1804, reorganized his collection of east asian art objects in a kind of museum, the “Chinese Cabinet”, which occupied several rooms in the western tower of Friedrichstein palace in Gotha. More art objects of this kind were brought from other palaces of the country. The rooms were open to the public who paid an entrance fee, which was a sign that the art objects were no longer only used for representative purposes, but in a museal context.

Image 1:  Jiangnanchausong, a pine species

Through numerous acquisitions Duke August extended his collection to be Germany's most significant one. One of these items was the Penjing Album of Gotha, created in Canton around 1800 and purchased in London. Today the album is still in Gotha. It consists of 36 opaque colour paintings measuring 38,5 x 45,5 cm that show miniature landscapes. They were obviously made to be exported to Europe. In Asia penjing were not considered to be independent motives for paintings; instead, they were just accessories on genre paintings. The paintings are executed in a European fashion, and the plants are shown with botanical detail. The sheets are not signed and there is no description on the painting itself. Outside the frame, only the name of the dominating plant is written. This probably indicates that they were not meant as works of art, but as a kind of botanical illustrations which should give Europeans an overview of miniature landscape creations.


The Album is a unique source for the history of penjing. As the entire series of penjing are pictured in the same style it is possible to appreciate the stylistic variations of each type. The paintings are very true to detail and were especially created to showcase the penjing. They provide us with much more specific information than most other pictures on which penjing or bonsai are only accessory parts, often displayed very small or cropped.

The penjing shown on these pages are stylistically very uniform. The most significant principle of composition is the correspondence between tree and stone. This seems to have been the predominant type of miniature landscapes in Canton in those times. But it was not only a Cantonese specialty. It can be found since the 14th century and also on other pictures from the 18th and 19th century. As other kinds of landscapes are rarely depicted, one could say with caution that this might have been the predominant type of minitiature landscapes in those times.



Image 2: Wang Zhenpeng (1280-1329), Spring Celebration, Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig

Image 2 shows the oldest picture of such a landscape known to me.The painting by Wang Zhenpeng (around 1280-1329) shows the celebration of the spring festival in a noble Chinese house.

In the foreground there is a table with a root carving, and on it a penjing is placed with two apricot trees as messengers of spring. If the smaller of the two trees was removed, the type would exactly match the type of the Album of Gotha. There is however an obvious difference in the quality of the drawing. The quality of the trees in the Album of Gotha is outstanding also in comparison with other pictures of the 18th century. This along with the diversity of designs does not hint at a local arts and crafts school. The sheets are more likely showing designs inspired by scholar art, the top form of penjing which always eluded schematism. This is at least indicated by the highly artistic arrangement.


The Album of Gotha shows the variance of a type and allows a stylistic characterization. The combination of tree and stone is predominant. Only 5 of 36 pages show pure tree penjing. A diversity of tree species and various types of stones are used. On most pages, trees and stones are treated as autonomous elements that are placed next to each other, but are formally related. Stone and tree have similar formal attributes, they communicate, they are brothers of a kind.

This may be due to an old Chinese concept of the relatedness between trees and stones. Stones grow from the earth like trees, and trees can turn into stones (e.g. petrified trees). They are both symbols for durability, old age, long life, even immortality. This symbolism is further enforced by the symbiosis of both, be it a tree growing on a stone, be it a stone and a tree answering each other as with the Penjing of Gotha. This type of penjing design might be a late reflection of Taoistic beliefs in immortality. Such beliefs might still have a certain attraction even when people don't really believe in them any more.

Image 3: Shuiweng, a myrtle plant (Cleistocalyx operculatus)

In any case the correspondence between tree and stone is nicely designed on many pictures. On image 3, both the stone and the tree trunk have large cavities which makes them appear light and transparent. Tree and stone seem to turn away from each other but the tree reaches back to the stone with one of its branches, thus reestablishing the connection. Image 4 shows a tree in the exposed roots style and the assigned stone also seems to stand on stilt roots. The formal upright tree on image 5 corresponds to a group of stones that are formal upright as well.

Image  4 : Datourong

This is the most unusual sheet of the entire series. Neither the symmetrically shaped tree nor the monolithic, plain stones correspond to Chinese taste. The tree is rather reminiscent of Baroque topiary in Europe. In Asia there is nothing comparable, especially not in penjing. Topiary plants are common in Japan but the shapes are very simple and imitate mountains in the background of the garden. The most propable explanation for this strange tree is that the artist knew about English topiary. The sheet therefore might be an attempt to show the London clients that miniature landscapes could also be designed in the European fashion.

Image 5: Xiangshu, a laurel plant (Cinnamomum bodinieri)

Overall, the simple clear structure of the pictured trees is noticeable. There are no “leaf pads”, no opulence, the entire structure of the tree is visible, nothing is concealed. This is consistent with the “calligraphic” concept of penjing, the bunjin style. One can recognize more features of this style: the effort to create elegance, especially in the trunk lines of many trees, also the impression of a certain remoteness from the world, stone and tree suggest landscapes far away from civilisation. One should not think of the modern Japanese interpretation of the bunjin style however. Such slim trunks with small crowns occur as well, but also powerful, thick trunks with impressive, widespread surface roots.

Image 6: Qingsi

In penjing, the attributes of age are particularly important, since the fresh green of deciduous trees introduce a moment of youth which must be compensated by predominant attributes of age. This is less important in the essentially monochrome technique of watercolour painting. A great sign of an old age is a thick trunk which the penjing creators would not forgo, even if it would make it harder to create an elegant tree. The Album of Gotha contains several trees with thick trunks (Images 6, 7 and 8). But in all cases the trunk appears not compact but is structured and made interesting with wounds, holes and branches. Thick trunks must always have a widespread visible rootage, while thin trunks can do completely without nebari. The roots continue in the line of the trunk, and this fluting is another structuring element of the trunk.

Image 7: Xufurong, a bush from the family of mugwort plants (Crossostephium chinense)

Image 8: Tusanqi

The variety of tree shapes is impressive. With the exception of the formal upright „topiary tree“ there are no schematic trees built according to a system. Each penjing is individual, has special character, as should be the case for penjing created with a certain artistic ambitions. Trees based on prototypes like in Japan were customary in China only in local craft schools, not in the high penjing art.

Image 9: Tieshu

Most of the trees are trained in the informal upright style with very different trunk lines which were surely not meant to be naturalistic, but decorative. The border to the bizarre is sometimes touched but - at least for me - it is not crossed. There are as many informal upright twin trunks or couples of two informal upright trees with a substantial difference in height as there are single trees. Then there are a few groups with three or four trees, but in one case it could also be a raft style. Crossing trunks are obviously not taboo, but are deliberately used in order to create a decorative overall crown (image 9). The formal upright style occurs only once except for the topiary tree. The more exotic styles are one exposed root style (image 4) and two trees with horizontal trunks (images 10 and 11), the last one combined with stones repeating the horizontal shape of the trunk so that they do not compete with the dominating upright part of the trunk.

Image 10: Chuisiliu, weeping willow (Salix babylonica)

Image 11: Wuhuaguo, edible fig (Ficus carica)

We can assume that the design of the trees in the landscapes is in principle the same as for single tree penjing. The informal upright style will have dominated there as well.

On each page the name of the dominating plant is inscribed in Chinese writing. Only one name occurs twice, that of the Chinese elm. You get the impression that the variety of plants suitable for penjing was to be demonstrated. This is indeed impressive and is in contrast to the limitation to a few species which was common in Japan. One of the contributing factors might have been that in tropical Canton there were much more possibilities than in Edo or Kyoto. Most of the plant names on the pages can be identified so that one gets a good overview of the species used for penjing in south China in those times.

Deciduous trees and shrubs dominate, as they are pictured in 24 of 36 pages. The following species can be identified: Chinese elm, weeping willow, edible fig, the banyan tree, two varieties of the Chinese parasol tree, pomgrenate, a camphor tree species, Chinese gleditsia, two varieties of the gardenia, two myrtle plants, a laurel plant, a pavetta and a Chinese chaste tree. Many of these species are apparently no longer used as bonsai today.

On the other hand there are only 5 conifers, three different pines and two varieties of the Chinese cypress.

On seven pages, the main point of focus is not a tree but a different plant, three palm species, one bamboo, one fern tree, a perennial herb (decorative asparagus) and one cactus. Except the last one all others are created as group plantings, since these plants lack the impressive trunk shape which is constitutive for the single tree.

The lack of flowering trees is noticeable, and there is only one tree with fruit (image 12).  Several of the pictured species do bear interesting flowers but they are not shown in flower. Other pictures prove that flowering and fruit bearing trees were popular as well, just like in Japan, but mainly as single trees in a pot. It seems that flowering and fruiting trees were rarely used in landscapes. This might indicate that special emphasis was put on the artistic design. If rich flowers and fruit is wanted on penjing or bonsai, certain compromises must be made in the formal shaping. That such trees are missing in the Gotha series is a further indication of the high artistic standards.

Image 12: Huoshilin, Pomgrenate ( Punica granatum)

All penjing of the album are planted on very nice tasteful ceramic trays. For the 18th and 19th century one can assume that it was a rule to plant landscapes into trays, and single trees into pots. The trays were mostly ceramic, partly glazed, partly unglazed; in Japan, wooden troughs were used as well. The pots were often made of porcelain that was painted in most cases. In the Album of Gotha the few single trees are also planted in trays. Perhaps this should indicate that they were meant as landscapes as well. For people used to modern bonsai the trays seem too big in relation to the trees. But you have to keep in mind that they are not bonsai but landscapes. To give an impression of a landscape, trays with a larger area are favourable. They are designed as parts of a landscape with smaller accessory plants and mosses, and the viewer might imagine them to continue beyond the edges of the tray. Often parts of the substrate are not planted. They show a grainy structure which allows us to draw conclusions about the soil that was used. Near Canton a very firm, finely grained clay was mined. It was broken mechanically into small pieces about the size of beans. The substrate was chemically and physically very similar to coarse Akadama.

The trays are mostly rectangular (23) or oval (7). Some special shapes occur as well: twice there's a lotus shape, onece a round pot with a small base (image 8), one pot is shaped like a clover leaf (image 3) and there's also quite a fancy diamond-shaped one with cut off corners (image 9). Some of the containers are richly decorated, with either geometrical patterns or with floral (bamboo) and ornamental motives (images 9 and 10). All decorations are embossed, there are no painting or carving techniques. Overall you get the impression that the pots are not much different from those produced today. Such pots were only available in China in these days. If you find them on Japanese pictures, they were imported.

The landscapes in the Album of Gotha could be called minimalist: a tree, a stone, maybe a few small accessory plants. They are symbolic landscapes and in order to see a real landscape in them, the viewer had to add something: his phantasy. Only people who were prepared to sit meditating in front of the miniature landscapes on a quiet evening in their garden could get abducted into the loneliness of nature, the world of trees and stones. After getting in touch with european art, it seems that Asian people became dissatisfied with that. Too big was the fascination of the European renditions of landscapes that were naturalistic and illusionistic. By the time the Album of Gotha was created, such landscapes were already out of fashion in Japan; they were replaced by illusonist reconstructions of famous Japanese wonders of nature. The Chinese scholars were more conservative than the novelty-seeking Japanese middle class, and their sense of art prevented them from kitschy aberrations. A new type of landscapes including illusionist elements arose here as well, but much later than in Japan and without losing the connections to the tradition. They did not imitate real landscapes, but the ideal watercolor landscapes of scholar paintings. Examples can be found in modern Chinese bonsai books but hardly on old pictures.


The pages of the Penjing Album of Gotha are property of the “Stiftung Schloss Friedrichstein Gotha” (Foundation of Friedrichstein Castle, Gotha). All pages shown in this article have not been published before. I would like to sincerely thank Mrs Ute Däberitz from the foundation for providing a CD with photographs of the pages and for the permission to use them here.

On the 9th of April 2007 Prof. Dr. Lind died after severe illness. He had dedicated most of his time after his retirement to the exploration of bonsai history. It took a very competent bonsai and art connoisseur to disclose a field of knowledge that is so completely unknown in the west.

Many of his articles were published by the magazine BONSAI ART and in the German BONSAI FACHFORUM internet forum. Unfortunately many unfinished articles will be lost for us. As a bonsai pot enthusiast, this article was particularly fascinating for me. It is a great honor for the “” website to have the permission to publish this article.

I would also like to sincerely thank Mrs Ute Däberitz for the permission to publish pictures from the Penjing Album here.




Friedenstein Castle

Special thanks to Mrs. Lind and to the publishing company of BONSAI-ART.

Copyright text and photographs: Gerlind Lind

Translation: Heike van Gunst

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