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The Penjing of Yang Guisheng

The Penjing of Yang Guisheng  – Owner of Suzhou’s Suiyuan Garden

Author: Liu Shaohong

From “Hua Mu Penjing” (Flower Plant and Penjing), Issue No.10, 2009; translated with permission of the author.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, several high profile people emerge in the active and growing Chinese penjing circle; among them, the rise of one individual can indeed be described as legendary.  In 2008, he entered penjing exhibition for the first time and won gold medals in three major shows that year, rocking the Chinese penjing circle.  It is rumored that he spends tens of million yuan a year on penjing, and to a certain degree, his spending is said to have some effects on penjing prices in the Chinese market.  He also owns one of the finest antique pot collections in China.  He once used half a year tracking down the whereabouts of famous Chinese antique pots in Japanese collections, and bought many back to China. This person is Mr. Yang Guisheng, the owner of Suzhou’s Suiyuan Garden.

Mr. Yang Guisheng (right) and Mr. Bao Ruiqi (left) at Suiyuan Garden

His Early Encounter and Love of Penjing

In the later half of 1981, Mr. Yang’s wife was hospitalized with work related injury.  While spending time taking care of her, he met a patient who was a nurseryman; he gave Yang some penjing seedlings.  He carefully planted and took care of them.  When he saw how these seedlings grew, sprouting new lush green leaves, his heart was filled with hope that his wife would also recover as vigorously as these seedlings, and would return home as early as possible. Day after day, Yang poured in his energies caring these plants, and it was during this period he fell in love with penjing.

At that time China’s economy was growing with leaps and bounce.  Although Yang was a department head in a nationally owned factory, and had received an award as a model worker in his native Jiangsu Province, his family financial situation was rather tight.  He found penjing not only beautifies his living space, it also supplemented his financial incomes.  As such, Yang began to plant penjing on a small scale.  “In 1984, I sold 16 pots of penjing for the first time for 550 yuan, and bought my wife a gold necklace”, Yang recalled.

Yang became an entrepreneur and started his own business in 1984.  His love of penjing continued until 1990 when Suzhou city began tearing down buildings in the old town for new constructions. His house was demolished.  From 1990 and 2000, between relocating and growing his business, his penjing activity almost came to a halt.  In 2000, Yang’s business had flourished and brought him his first pot of gold; he bought a 16-acre plot on the south side of Suzhou city to build a new factory.  When the factory buildings were completed, about 2-3 acres of land was left unused; he used it to grow penjing again, intoxicating himself among the flowers and trees he planted. During the winter of 2001, Mr, Jin Liyong, an experienced Suzhou penjing enthusiast introduced Yang to a young penjing artist, Mr. Fan Sunli of Hefei city in Anhui Province. Through frequent interactions with Fan, Yang’s artistic skills improved greatly and his love of penjing became even more fervent.

Since 2002 Yang has been researching and comparing the historical Suzhou style penjing with the current practice.  He came to the following conclusions: first, Suzhou style penjing continues to use broadleaf trees as the main materials; as a whole, Suzhou penjing lacks behind the progress of other penjing styles, and also loses its influential status as it once did in the past; second, the styles and techniques used are too conservative, somewhat boring and lacks creativity; and thirdly, penjing concepts are inwards and practitioners are too proud of and adhere to the traditional ways.  To address them, he decided he would use more conifers such as pines and junipers for his penjing; he would retain Suzhou characteristics, as much as possible, when working on broadleaf species but would expand the varieties of species used.  When it comes to styling and techniques, he does not confine himself to any particular school and uses different techniques as he sees fit and as long as they can bring out the beauty of the trees. The styling goes with the particular material at hand, the tree’s growth characteristics and its natural rhythm such that an observer would have a comfortable feeling when seeing the penjing.

Yang travels throughout the country, purchases large quantities of penjing materials and outstanding trees.  When a tree catches his attention, he is relentless and would not hesitate to spend large sum of money acquiring it.  Within the penjing trade circle, Yang’s actions have impacts on the Chinese penjing market.

Building of Suiyuan Garden and Fulfilling a Life Long Dream

Born and raised in Suzhou, Yang is imbued with traditional Suzhou cultural influences.  Although born poor, his had a wish that one day he would be able to build his own garden like people from the past, who had built famed gardens such as the Can Lang Pavilion Garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden etc.

“I always dream of having my own penjing garden. I would be very contended if one day I could own a 5- or 6-acre land with a pavilion for tea drinking while enjoying perhaps a hundred pots of penjing.” Yang said.  But in 2003, his business had further expanded that he bought a 40-acre plot in South Suzhou, and used 15 acres to build his dream penjing garden, which was completed by the end of 2004.  He finally fulfilled his dream.  A calligrapher friend wrote him a scroll containing these four words: “Sui Yuan Zhi Zu”, which means “be contended for reaching one’s wish”.  He took the first word, Sui, from the scroll and named his garden “Suiyuan”, meaning “Reaching One’s Wish Garden”.

A scene in the Suiyuan Garden.

Suiyuan is a traditional Suzhou style garden.  Entering the main gate, the first scene that meets our eyes is a bridge with three bends, ziz-zaging and hovering above the water; across the bridge is a hill made out of rocks, next to a clump of lush green bamboos.  After crossing the bridge, the vista opens up with a veranda on the right and a tea pavilion on the left, right in the middle is the main theme of the garden with beautiful penjing followed by a growing area; all in all, there are over a thousand pots penjing.

In the tree growing area, this author noticed a beautiful Japanese black pine bonsai on display.  Yang explained it was there for comparisons.  He said, compared to Chinese penjing, Japanese bonsai has three superior qualities: aged trees, more advanced care techniques, and the artist is more dedicated in creating the tree than us, but we have our strong points: we have more and better raw material trees, our art and cultural backgrounds are strong”.  Yang believed in another 10 years, our penjing will be more beautiful than those in Japan.

Another scene in the Suiyuan Garden

First Exhibition with Astounding Results

Since 2002, Yang put almost all of his energy into the art of penjing, yet he always treats it as a hobby.  Besides styling them personally, he invited Mr. Pan to his garden once a month to critic and to help in improving the trees’ artistic qualities.  Over the years, he had also invited other well known masters, such as Xu Wang, Ren Xiaoming, Li Chonghong, Cheng Cheng Kong etc. to critic and work in his garden.  Yang enjoyed his penjing and was not interested in participating in shows until last September and after much prodding by friends; he entered the 2008 Changzhou Show as his first trial.  Beyond his expectations, he won two gold, a silver and a bronze medals.  Encouraged by these results, he entered the 1st China Tang Feng Penjing Show and won gold medals in the Special, First, Second and Third Divisions; and several more golds in the 7th Chinese Penjing Show. 

Five-Needle Pine (Pinus parvifolia),.Height: 90 cm. 

1st Chinese Tang Feng Penjing Show Special Division gold medal award.

For a first time participant, winning gold medals in three major shows is unheard of. Yang is a modest man; he smiled and said jokingly that he won those prizes because the judges wanted to encourage “a new comer and beginner” into the shows.

Yang was recently elected the President of Suzhou City Professional Penjing Society.  He said this honor came from the supports of Suzhou penjing circle friends; he also felt that he has the responsibility of working with his colleagues to raise the standard of Suzhou style penjing and put it back into its historical influential position among the top penjing schools in China.

Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thurbergiana). This penjing is named: “Qian Gu Song Hun”  (Eternal Pine Spirit).  Won a gold medal in the 7th Chinese Penjing Exhibit.

Chinese Antique Pots Returned Home

Yang has many hobbies.  Besides penjing, Yang also collects scholar rocks and antique pots. As we all know, penjing is made up of three elements: a tree, a pot and a stand.  A good penjing needs an appropriate pot to bring out its beauty.  For Yang, the purpose of having good quality pots is to complement his penjing.  During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese have been importing and collecting Chinese pots for several hundred years.  In the last few years, due to the lull Japanese economy and several prominent antique pot collectors have passed away, these led to a decline in the Japanese antique pot market.  Many collections became available for sale.  When Yang heard of it, he went to Japan and began his buying trip; “ I only used half a year’s time and bought what the Japanese collectors took a few hundred years to acquire”, Yang said.  He then took me to his pot collection room and pointed to a pear-skin textured red clay rectangular pot with cloud feet, and said, “ This pot was made by Chen Wenju, a famous potter during the Qing dynasty’s Yonzheng period (1723-1795). According to literature, this pot was already famous during the mid Meiji period (1879-1889).  In Bonsai Pots and Suiban, a book published in 1947, this pot was considered the best among the best of antique pots.  In the 90’s, a Japanese collector, Mr. Takagi, offered 10 million yen to buy this pot but the owner refused to sell it.  When I saw in the April issue of KinBon magazine that this pot was for sale at 6 million yen, I was very excited and contacted the seller immediately, and bought this pot.  It finally came home after being overseas for over 200 years.”

Pear-skin textured red clay rectangular pot with cloud feet.Dimension: 35cm×26cm×14.5cm. Suiyuan Collection.

Yang spent a huge sum of money collecting antique pots.  Besides the financial aspect, he said the task was not easy and needed persistence.  Once he wanted to acquire an antique pot from a Zhangzhou collector in Fujian Province, he spent 8 months tracking his where about and finally got him to agree to sell the pot.

These days, Yang’s focus is penjing.  He moved from the city into Suiyuan, and rarely spent time on his company’s operations.  Most of his energies are on penjing and antique pots.  He felt his penjing and pot collections are just at the beginning stage.  He hopes in 3 years time, when he turns 60, he would have enough high quality penjing and antique pots that he would be able to formally open his garden for people to visit.

“To me, penjing is purely a hobby and I really love them.  If you ask me what benefits have penjing brought me? I would say there were moments when I felt restless, I went to my penjing and they calmed me down and brought me peace and happiness”, Yang said.

Translation: Hoe Chuah

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The following Chinese antique pots are from the Suiyuan collection:

Four-foliate peach flower color clay jardiniere with landscape painting in black.  Dimension: 76.5cm×65cm×44.5cm.

An extra large early Qing Dynasty (1644-1795) pot with a polychrome glaze landscape decoration over plum flower color clay body (the only example known in existence in China).  Dimension: 74cm×57.5cm×40cm.

Early Qing Dynasty dark color clay rectangular pot with a horizontal band. Dimension: 56.5cm×35.2cm×21cm.

Early Qing Dynasty dark clay rectangular pot; four character mark: “Wei Shan Zhui Le”. Dimension: 35.5cm×21.5cm×9cm.

Early Qing Dynasty red clay rectangular pot, one pair.  Potter’s mark: Xiao Shaoming.  Dimension: 30.6cm×30.6cm×15cm.

 

Mid Qing Dynasty (1796-1861) blue jun glazed multi-foliated pot. Potter’s mark: Ge Mingxiang. Dimension: 53cm×11.5cm.

Mid Qing Dynasty extra large purple clay hexagonal pot with overlaid clay-painted landscape.  Dimension: 78cm×44cm.

An extra large early Qing Dynasty wucai (five-color or famille verte) glaze pot. Dimension: 62cm×34.2cm.

Late Qing Dynasty (1862-1911) cinnabar color clay rectangular pot with bulging waist. Four-character mark: “Ai Xian Lao Ren”. Dimension: 30.5cm×20cm×7.5cm.


Republic Era (1911-1949) yellow clay pot with carved colored bird and flowers.

Carver’s mark: Ren Ganting (Translator’s note, Ren Ganting (1888-1969) was a famous artist and was considered one of the best carvers of zisha stonewares).  Dimension: 39cm×23


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