Aristocratic Chinese were unconcerned about rules or whether or not someone liked their penjing. These were personal, private efforts that reflected the owner-trainer's artistic abilities and created in a non-competitive and non-commercial setting. The basic principle is that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and that the opinion of the owner-trainer was the only one that mattered.
Creating artistic pot plants was a joyful hobby. It wasn't necessary to be serious or create beauty. It was perfectly proper to create "ugly" or "monstrous" plants. Such trees became topics of interesting, light-hearted conversation amongst friends. For some, finding an unusually shaped tree was the start. In other cases, a design utilized very young limber seedlings that had their trunks shaped into Chinese calligraphy characters.
In Chinese history there was a Period of the Warring States in which each party was represented by a zodiac-type symbol. In creating peace, a mythical dragon was created that was a composite of each of the symbols with the head of a bull, antlers of a stag, scales of a snake, claws of an eagle, etc.
The Asian dragon became the symbol of the Chinese Emperor and is often depicted fighting the flaming pearl which represents evil. Unlike the feared European Dragon, the Asian Dragon is a beloved symbol. The following penjing was created to suggest the the Chinese Emperor protecting his subjects.
Training began about 1977 with the design selected to feature and emphasize the extremely vigorous Natal Banyan (Ficus natalensis) roots. The photos were taken in a style that is popular for exhibiting penjing in Hong Kong with fresh new leaves and with older leaves removed. This allows viewing of the trunk, branches, and exposed roots.
Roots were unraveled, formed into a "trunk," allowed to lengthen, followed by another unraveling, adjustments, and forming a longer "trunk" with an angular rock helping to create a strong buttressing root base. From the left side the roots have the most massive appearance. This is a second attractive view with the extraordinary "root-trunk" framed by a normally dense foliage background.
Every effort was made to have a lot of air space in the "root-trunk" design. Ficus roots tend to tighten and thicken; and if created with little or no air spaces, the roots will fuse to form a solid trunk with less character or interest. The "root-trunk" was to represent a mythical dragon so it needed to have unpredictable twists and turns.
"BENEVOLENT DRAGON" is also attractive from the "back" side with some of the more massive roots contrasting with smaller roots. There's a feeling of conflict and dynamic action from this angle. The concept of shaped trees to represent an idea or philosophy is very common in Chinese penjing but rare in Japanese bonsai. Chinese love to create stories and have fun and this is often expressed in their "artistic pot plants."
In peering under the canopy at the "root-trunk," it's easier to see the variation in thickness of the different roots. Even though this penjing has a major single theme, every effort is made to create interesting details that would be enjoyed when studying the plant from every possible angle. Unlike Japanese bonsai, aristocratic Chinese penjing do not have styling classifications and there is a greater amount of originality.
Natal Banyan leaves are about 6" long. As the bonsai develops more branch ramification, leaf size reduce to about 1 1/2" long as shown here. With periodic leaf stripping, leaf size can be reduced further. But when developing smaller leaves it's necessary to maintain a higher level of fertilizer to prevent branch die-back.