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My Bonsai Thought




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In the picture, there is poetry

In the poem, there is meaning

In the silence, there is movemen

In the movement, there is rhythm-

Some people say that my bonsai are contaminated penjing, and that my penjing are not authentic. Before going further, I would like to explain the difference between penjing and bonsai. Are penjing the same as bonsai? Is there a difference in concept and philosophy?

The answer is: Yes– and No! It depends on the context we are discussing. This has long been a controversial issue since there are few articles written about penjing by competent sources from China. Confusion on this matter can be seen in books, articles, and in online discussion forum threads. In these instances the two arts are considered to be the same — simply a matter of translation — but at other times they are referred to as two different art forms. So what is the truth?

Let’s start from the basic understanding of the words, “bonsai,” (Japanese) and “penjing” (Mandarin). Pen = pot, jing = view or landscape. penjing means “landscape in a pot”. Bonsai in Japanese means ” planted in a pot,” which if translated into Chinese is penjai or penzai. This simply means “plant in a pot.” Any plant that is in a pot is called penjai. So penjing does not have the same meaning as bonsai, as we understand it today. What we call bonsai, in Mandarin is called shujuang penjing. In articles and discussion, the word shujuang is usually left off, leaving just the word penjing. So, in a very general context, bonsai is the same as penjing because we all know what we are talking about – by eliminating the word shujuang. But in a specific context, penjing is different from bonsai.

Penjing has a broader context in this art form with its own specific nuance. Shujuang penjing (bonsai) is just one of the styles in the broader penjing art. There are shanshui penjing (rock penjing), bigua penjing (wall-hanging penjing), shuihan penjing (water and land penjing), shushe penjing (tree and stone penjing)-etc-The basic philosophy of penjing is “Yuan yu je zan, Gao yu je zan,” which means “Inspired by nature, admired as superior to nature.”

With penjing we try and recreate the beauty of nature without eliminating the imperfections of nature. There is a great deal of creative and natural freedom in how the artist may do this with penjing. The soul of penjing is revealed more in the whole presentation; the thematic message, the symbolism and poetry. The presentation is natural, without too much of the aesthetic depending on the anatomical details of the tree. Penjing is involved more with a subjective expression, with very strong individual emotional references. Anatomical perfection is not a main requirement in penjing because nature is imperfect. The technical engineering skill important to bonsai is not so important in penjing. Instead, the application of skill should be relevant to the tree only in order to successfully convey the thematic message to viewers. The essence of the whole principal in Penjing is “Hua jong you se, se jong you yu; Jin jong you dong, dong jong you diao,” meaning “Inside the picture, there is poetry, inside the poem, there is meaning; in the silence, there is movement, in the movement, there is rhythm.” The objective aspect of penjing is to follow the phenomena of natural imperfection. The subjective aspect is based on balancing the presentation of the captured moment from nature with the implicit message of the theme. In the presentation of the message, nuance and symbolism should be used to accent the overall presentation. This fact requires imaginative interpretation by the artist and viewer.

What I am doing with my own work is to combine the objective aspect of bonsai with the subjective aspect of penjing, the beauty of the structural refinement of bonsai with the inner beauty of the symbolic presentation of penjing, all to lend a unique nuance to the result. In my opinion, the term “authentic” has no relevance to art. An artist should be able to make his own statement of character and identity. I am not trying to create my own style, but rather trying to find new, innovative possibilities based on my own applications of aesthetic concepts. There is no absolute in art and beauty. For appreciation of artistic creation to occur there should be an emotional interaction between the art object and the viewer. This requires communication between the art object and the viewer.

If there is a strong Chinese flavor in my work it is simply a reflection of my personal taste and interest in Oriental philosophy, like poetic Chinese calligraphy or the sentimental and melancholy Tang poems.

As has been said before, art is a living thing that continuously interacts with life through those who view it. The medium of bonsai is also a living subject that changes according to the rules of nature and horticulture. So the rules of bonsai art are based both on the rules of natural phenomena and the whims of individual and societal convention. My definition of beauty may not be the same as someone else’s definition of beauty. Interpretation and perception of beauty are very individualistic. It depends on the viewer’s background, knowledge, culture, local social values, experiences, even the current condition of the viewer’s emotions.

My work is a reflection of my personal feelings and attitude. In making bonsai, I am not too concerned with the final destination, but rather with the joyful process. I enjoy the slow process of revealing the character and identity of the tree — a process that brings my life into parallel with the tree’s life journey. This sort of endeavor is more of an active meditative process and the cultivation of a soulful relationship with the artistic medium, instead of simply a superficial exploration of the medium. The communication between my medium and me may not take place with verbal communication, but there is an echo of understanding, nonetheless.

My address :

Jl Batu Tulis VIII No.27-A

Jakarta 10120 – Indonesia

Tel. + 62-21-34833358, 34833359 Fax. + 62-21-3459486

Mobile: + 62-816 808399

EMails: or


More information……go to Page : Introduction

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14 Responses to “My Bonsai Thought”

  1. on 10 Apr 2007 at 3:15 pmPeter Evans

    Robert, This is the most inspirational site I have ever seen on line.
    It has left me questioning my current involvement with Bonsai. One part says “stop” but the other says “you can do better”.
    I think the tree at the opening of “studio” is the most awesome piece I have ever seen.
    It has everything, Elegance, Power, Soul and Potential. If I had to downsize, this would be the tree to do it with. Just to keep the one!.
    Thank you for sharing, Regards, Peter.

  2. on 18 Apr 2007 at 9:01 pmRobert S

    Thanks Peter…you CAN do it !

  3. on 03 Jul 2007 at 10:22 pmKen Martin

    Hi, Robert-

    I love your work and appreciate your bonsai thought. My bonsai work leans strongly toward penjing as well, and when I learned of penjing I found my work flowing even more in that direction. In a way, blending bonsai and penjing is like cooking in two styles that are alike in some ways but different in others, and finding new flavors in the mix that are not found in either form alone. The world is a more beatiful place because of what you do.

    Ken Martin

  4. on 23 May 2008 at 8:47 amShaukat Islam


    Your article has provided me with a new perspective in understanding Penjing better.
    Your thoughts on your creations combining bonsai and penjing will be of immense help to me.


  5. on 10 Jul 2008 at 1:30 pmArmando Dal Col

    Dear Robert, I like so much what did you write.
    Your sentiment about the spirit of the Bonsai and the Penjing is very accurate. I acknowledge the presence of God!


  6. on 10 Jul 2008 at 7:42 pmRobert Steven

    Thanks Armando,

    My second book “Mission of Transformation” will be published end of this year and will be available at Stone Lantern (;
    and my third book “The Five Schools of Chinese Penjing” will be published next year.

  7. on 03 Oct 2008 at 11:57 pmBohori

    Dear Robert,thanks for your support at Kota Bharu Kel M,sia.I love your work about bonsai.Every bonsai that you ever work on entirely change the appearance of the bonsai tree.Because of you we are now understand more detail about bonsai,thanks (forgive my bad english)

  8. on 17 Feb 2011 at 10:03 pmfacebook

    i love it

  9. on 18 Feb 2011 at 1:09 amCharles Mashburn

    I think that the bonsai that I practice is primitive folk art compared to this.

  10. on 15 Mar 2011 at 7:28 amLand'andi kemal

    Its goot writing knowledge & understanding I think its very inportant in enjoying the artwork penjing/bonsai. I enjoy your writing ! Thank you !!

  11. on 01 Apr 2011 at 9:29 pmarsyadvilla

    Dear Pak Robert,

    I finnaly wrote your profile and using some picture from your site here. Please find it in my site.

    Thank you very much.

    Regards from Bekasi – Indonesia

  12. on 01 Sep 2014 at 10:10 amBronwyn Bossley

    Hi Robert
    Saw your demo in Queensland the world is watching we are with you
    Cheers Bronny

  13. on 01 Sep 2014 at 10:11 amBronwyn Bossley

    Hi we are watching along with the rest of the world

  14. on 13 Mar 2015 at 2:23 pmbonsai jateng

    salam kenal pak :v

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