This article was written by Mr. Xuenian Han (韩学年), a well-known Lingnan penjing master. It was published in Mr. Shaohong Liu’s (刘少红) “The World of Penjing” (盆景世界), the most widely read online penjing magazine in China with over 135,000 subscribed readers. Both Mr. Han and Mr. Liu gave me permissions to translate this article and share it with English readers on how this new style was developed.
Ficus microcarpa is a native tree species in the Lingnan region. As a fast growing tree and an ability to grow in a broad range of habitats, it is widely cultivated in urban and rural areas. In the Pearl River Delta, especially in villages and towns along the river, banyan trees with broad canopies provide shades and are popular with villagers, where they could gather and cool themselves during the hot summer days.
Ficus has large, powerful tree trunk and wide spreading, old gnarly roots. Since Lingnan penjing practitioners often model their trees based on close-range observations of how trees grow in nature, thus, the Banyan style was born. Ficus is a popular species for Lingnan penjing, whether the material is field grown or collected, key banyan features are artistically recreated and portrayed in a grow pot. There are many excellent examples of banyan style penjing.
Ficus have aerial roots, when these roots touch and anchor themselves onto the ground the tree would continue to grow outwards, creating a forest-like image even though it is just a single tree; and this is the familiar banyan image. Since ficus is a strong survivor and adapts to myriads of environments, there is another tree form from which these two “root-on-wall” penjing were based upon, and I will discuss how I created them.
Figs are eaten by birds, and their seeds are scattered via bird droppings. If such a dropping were to fall into rock crevices or cracks in walls, they would root and grow when the surrounding humidity is high, and aided by rainfalls and fogs. They take roots in buildings and houses. These roots are very destructive and are usually removed. However, in some out of sight or abandoned corners and crevices, their presence is tolerated or ignored, and they eventually grow into trees that look different from the typical banyan.
Under these adverse conditions, such ficus does not grow into a large tree as its priority is to send out roots seeking for nutrients and to anchor itself onto the surface it is growing on. These roots criss-cross each other, sometimes bulging out from the wall, sometimes burrowing deep into the crevices. This creates a tree form which the locals called, feirong, 飞榕, literally means a Flown-in or Flying Ficus. (Translator’s note: It is so called because the seeds were dispersed by birds. In this translation the local description, feirong, is used to retain the vernacular flair of its Cantonese origin).
With the passage of time and as the substrate deteriorates, feirong continues to thrive, a testament to its tenacity to survive. It is a natural selection at works, survival of the fittest. Feirong can be found in several prominent tourist spots, such as the ancient ruin of the Hujiao Shajiao Fort; the Qing dynasty city wall ruin in Lianhua, Guangzhou; the 500-year old Nanfeng Ancient Kiln in Foshan, etc.
Sights of feirong clinging onto walls are quite common in our region. In the long history of Lingnan penjing, there is never a penjing created based on a feirong image. In my penjing pursuit, I often put on thinking hat and sometimes come up with crazy ideas like: “Can I recreate this unique and beautiful image of a feirong in a penjing?”
My inspiration came in 1987 when I saw a Chinese ink brush painting in a “Guangzhou Literature and Art” magazine; it depicted a group of old, gnarly but vigorous growing ficus clinging firmly onto a dilapidated wall. This black and white painting captured the survival spirit of a ficus, a stark contrast between a broken wall and the powerful roots, a familiar and ubiquitous scene in our region.
This painting inspired me. Although there is already a root-attaching-to-rock style penjing (translator’s note: this is not a root-over-rock style frequently seen in bonsai, this penjing style has either one or a few long, thick roots growing along a tall stone, plunging from the top of the stone to the bottom of the pot), none captured a feirong. I thought it would be a break-through if I could create such a scene in penjing. However, I was not sure how to proceed with it, whether it would be possible or not, and sometimes doubts if I could succeed? Those thoughts swirled in my head. There was no physical penjing model I could copy from, I just kept on thinking.
What is penjing? It is a visual art of growing artistic looking tree in a pot which primary function is to serve as a carrier for the tree. Without a pot (pen), would I be able to call it a penjing, a “potted scene”? Feirong has to be on a wall, not in a conventional pot. But I needed a wall which could also function as a pot. It had to look natural and aged, able to bring out the spirit of a feirong and at the same time allowed it to grow. The design required out-of-the box thinking and creativity.
Traditionally we think of “tree, pot and stand” as integral parts of penjing, and in that relative order of importance. In this case, I reversed the order, putting pot (container) first, then the tree, and lastly the stand. My priority was to make a functional “pot”; if I could do that half of the battle was won, I only had to find a suitable ficus to grow on it.
I was building my house in early 1987, and was decorating the walls with reproduction antique ceramic tiles. Suddenly it donned on me I could use these tiles to make the “wall”! I went ahead and made a cement wall with a trough at the back according to dimensions of the tiles. After plastering the tiles onto the cement wall, a jagged “wall” was completed. This was the first but important step in this creation process.
After the completion of the wall-basin, I found a ficus tree I had, reduced its height to just above the lower section, made a hole in the wall and planted the ficus. A year later, the planting took shape but far from what I envisioned. Although more growing years were needed, it was, nevertheless, my second milestone in creating a feirong penjing. Although exposed roots is the most important part of a feirong penjing every trunk and branches have to be carefully grown in proportions. The “root-on-wall” feirong took shape 10 years later, I named it the “Survivor”, and exhibited it for the first time in the 1997 “Hong Kong Cup” Bonsai Exhibition held in Guilin, Guangxi.
In the “Survivor”, I used a tree that was originally trained for other purposes. Although it developed exposed roots, they were not as powerful and tenacious like those seen in a naturally occurring feirong. Therefore, the “Survivor” can only be said to have a feirong look, but lacked its struggling, tenacious life force.
In 1997, a penjing friend told me he saw a feirong that might be suitable for a “root-on-wall” penjing. He brought me to where the tree was growing. It was a dormitory building marked for demolition. This ficus grew close to a ditch and was lush green; the wall was covered with roots running in whichever directions they chose. By coincidence, a resident of this dormitory was my former colleague, and whe told me this ficus had been growing there for more than 20 years.
I studied and committed this material in memory, a new design began to congeal to feature the root base prominently. I then built a wall specifically for this tree. In the “Survivor,” I built a wall-pot first, found an ordinary ficus and force-fitted it onto the wall; looking back the result was barely satisfactory. This time, I found a feirong tree, and built a taller wall-pot to accommodate and show off wits spreading root system. My second attempt of a “root-on-wall” ficus was done in reversed order.
After about seven years of cultivation, I succeeded in creating my second feirong “root-on-wall” penjing. It was a step forward, it was a much better looking penjing, meeting my expectations more than the first “Survivor”. I called this second creation, “The Fittest”, and submitted it to the 2004 6th National Penjing Exhibition held in Quanzhou, Fujian.
These two works, the “Survivor” and “The Fittest” were inspired by a natural occurring landscape. The processes in creating these two feirong fulfilled my dream during my long penjing journey.