OLD CHINESE HOMES

                Although many think of bonsai as a Japanese art, bonsai has roots in the older ancient Chinese culture. Both cultures are very different, but also with strong similarities. It is dangerous to establish stereotypes as there are just too many exceptions!  Both Japanese and Chinese cultures are extremely variable.  Both can be described as "BUT ALSO" societies. 

                Example:  The Japanese are known for simple elegant designs of a tea garden BUT ALSO the complex, ostentatious Toshogu Shrine! In both societies, there is exploration into every possible specialty and if you look long enough and deep enough, you'll find every possible application! In this impossible situation, I try to create some light by creating sterotypes to show the difference between the Japanese and Chinese cultures as this directly reflects the differences between Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing.

         Recently I received photos of ancient Chinese homes from Frank Xu (Xu Shu Zhang) of Nanjing.  Nanjing is an old city that was the capital of the Republic of China before the 1949 revolution. Frank is an international businessman who represents a major Yixing pottery factory in the export of bonsai pots.Yixing is the ancient pottery town that produced many of the antique Chinese pots that were the original models copied by the Tokoname, Japan potters as they developed Japanese bonsai pots.  With Japanese pots now so very expense,  Chinese Yixing pottery have become more popular.

            Yixing pottery is available in several quality and price grades and besides bonsai pottery, they are known for beautiful teapots.  Frank usually works with wholesale accounts but can work with clubs and individuals. He handles a wide range of Chinese products including stone lanterns, gonshi (scholar or spirit rocks),  display tables, etc.  Please visit his website and contact him if interested. His email address: bonsaifrank@hotmail.com and website: www.potsforbonsai.com

Xu Shu Zhang -bonsaifrank 72dpi 3x4 vert.jpg (9945 bytes)

                I asked Frank to provide more information and this was his reply (edited for English clarity):

               " These beautiful farmer's house were built more than 100 years ago. The original owners were rich people or goverment officials. They were not destroyed during the 1949 Revolution that created the People's Republic of China nor the later Cultural Revolution because of their location in obsure out of the way countryside. Most such beautiful houses disappeared in the big cities including my family's home. China is becoming more and more open and now such old valuable houses are becoming showplaces for tourists to experience traditional Chinese culture. These photos were taken recently in She and Yi county which is located in the south of Anhui province. "

                Frank's photos show both similarities and differences between traditional Chinese and Japanese farm houses and I thank Frank for allowing reproduction on this website. These photos give a good insight into the culture as they have not yet been "restored" or dressed up like those that are part of the well travelled tourist routes.  They can be compared against photos of Japanese homes taken just after World War II before they too were restored. 

Xu Chinese house 4 72dpi 4x3.jpg (24676 bytes)            Photo 1:  An interior scene showing calligraphy and graphic scrolls similar to the Japanese. Unlike Japanese who tend to have very little furniture, Chinese have a long history of using tables and chairs.
wpe3.jpg (16256 bytes)            Photo 2:  Taken to the right of photo one, note the artistic root-trunk in the corner utilized as a display stand and the lattice window screens.  Although the designs are different, the concepts are similar. Chinese houses tend to have dirt or hard surface floors while Japanese have raised floors and walkways. This major distinction may explain some of the many differences between the basic architecture of the two cultures.
wpe4.jpg (17846 bytes)             Photo 3:  A view in the working courtyard garden. Notice the artistic potted plants in deeper decorative pots that were pruned and growing well in containers. While they represent the casual love of nature, potted plants were incorporated into daily life.  The decorative roofed archway is used to dry herbs and peppers.  Interesting stones were collected. The walking surfaces of the courtyards were hard surfaces and these were active working areas adjoining home rather than artistic gardens to be visually enjoyed from inside the house. Artistic pursuits was a natural part of a comfortable lifestyle.
wpe5.jpg (17948 bytes)            Photo 4.  Another courtyard garden that allowed the enjoyment of nature within the limits of the amount of land available. Even in Chinese rural areas,  there is a very thrifty use of land. Homes are built up against neighbors and courtyards allow air to enter. Such artistic pockets of serenity was a part of the values of the literate class that dabbled in many of the cultural arts including penjing. At a higher economic level,  there may be more servants and a larger household staff to allow the head of households more space and time to pursue penjing to a higher level. 

                   Life in China was not easy and penjing was primarily the escape and activity of only those at the highest levels.  Much of this literate class suffered in the 1949 and the later Cultural Revolution. Penjing prior to the 1949 revolution was very different from the penjing of today. Then, the finest work was associated with the most affluent and artistic literate class. 

                    This class did not perceive penjing as a business.  They did it for enjoyment and as an activity to be shared with their friends and peers.  They had the means to acquire whatever containers that were needed or available and household staff to perform the physical and plant maintenance work.  Penjing was a casual art and pastime.  In contrast, Japanese bonsai tended to be a middle-class business and craft. 

                    I sent Frank the link to the above site and it must have hit a nerve. In the following days, I received a torrent of emails, that I'll edit and share with you:

          " I could not sleep well last night after I read your information on China and Chinese culture in your beautiful website. I re-called and thought of many things while in the bed throughout the night.

           Do you know a famous writer Mr. Zhou Shou Juan? He could not write what he wanted to say after 1949. He lived in Suzhou and he had a big private garden. His penjing was well known in Suzhou and even some government leaders like Zhu De and Zhou En Lai often visited his garden to see his beautiful bonsai when they stayed in Suzhou.  But Mr. Zhou miserably died in the early years of thec Cultural  Revolution. He was badly beated by the Red Guards, his penjing were all smashed.  One day, Mr.Zhou Shou Juan took his own life in a well in his garden.

          This is the real histrory of Chinese penjing. Can you believe it? I am sorry I can't tell you much of these things that occured before as my English is just so-so.  But if you can still write and read Chinese, you can search my Chinese name and can see my many poems and essays on the internet. Attached please see one of my letter which wrote in 1992. But my old house was still demolished (pulled down) by Wuxi local government. I am sure now they regret it but it's too late!"

                Frank's photos brought back memories of our 1981 China tour led by Dorothy and Luther Young. This was one of the very earliest penjing-interest tours and we were amongst the first westerners to visit some cities. Often huge crowds gathered spontaneously when members of our group began taking and giving out Poloroid photos! Myrtle and I were the only ones from Hawaii and the only orientals in the group. We knew more about Chinese culture and penjing so were able to interpret and explain to the group what we saw. It was a shock and an experience. 

                Then, their tourism industry was not fully organized and policies were still being developed. There were efforts to herd tourists only through Friendship Stores and having two types of currency was a barrier.  But we learned to cross the line from time to time.  At other times, I was soundly scolded as I was mistakenly thought to be a Chinese tour guide.

                 We visited a site where there were acres of broken pot shards where penjing were collectively smashed.  Examination of the shards showed the very high quality of the pots and the skills of the potters.  I regret I did not take more photos, but unfortunately, even those photos that I took were ruined in a flood. Frank sent Word files of an essay and letter he wrote and this will be installed when edited and photos obtained.  He also sent the following additional photos:

Xu River village 72dpi 4x3.jpg (16169 bytes)         Photo 5.  A river town.  Many parts of China have beautiful mountain and river scenes. The houses are clustered together and all land is used.  In the foreground are lotus plants that have beautiful flowers and edible roots.
Xu stone lion-dog 72dpi 4x3.jpg (20272 bytes)         Photo 6. Stone carving is a well developed art and artifacts like this lion-dog are being salvaged as the old buildings are being torn down.  New buildings lack the charm of the old structures which are being turned into showplaces for the growing tourism industry.
Xu old house #6.jpg (24064 bytes)         Photo 7. Similar to photo 4, this seat-railing could overlook a pond or courtyard garden.  Notice the ornate carvings framing the openings. Besides being decorative, such latticework lets in light and air. 
Xu old house #7.jpg (24705 bytes)         Photo 8. A larger building with a higher ceiling shows how posts are fitted on to stone bases and how there can complex ornamentation of every surface! 
Xu window lattice 72dpi 4x3.jpg (25138 bytes)         Photo 9.  Lattice design window openings in solid walls admit light and air.  Often gardens are divided by solid walls that have very artistic lattice designs.

Xu old house #8 vert.jpg (19341 bytes)

       Photo 10.   Compare this display concept with a Japanese tokonoma display alcove to be able to note the vast differances!  Each element in a tokonoma has codified significance:   the post, base board, decorative beam, shelves, partitions, etc. 

      In contrast a Chinese display tends to be balanced and easily changed with portable components.  Whereas Japanese tend to favor odd numbers and asymetric designs, Chinese utilize both symetrical and asymetrical compositions. 

                Additional photos and text will be added in the future.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION about Aristocratic Chinese Penjing,  also see:  Yee-Sun Wu & The Spirit of Man Lung Penjing

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