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     "Although descriptions of gardens and parks...are common in pre-T'ang literature, the essential characteristic of smallness is lacking.  What can one say about this?
     "...There are, however, many pre-T'ang works that discuss various curious objects; most of them are published in the Han-Wei cong-shu [Han-Wei ts'ung-shu, compiled by scholar Cheng Rong (1573-1619)].  They make no mention of [miniature landscapes].
      "Yet the earliest T'ang documents show that the fashion for miniature landscapes was so developed that it must have had an antecedent.  Another reason that it cannot have appeared suddenly is that the technique of dwarfing plants required long experimentation before it was perfected.  Are we looking at some foreign technique introduced to China during the [early] T'ang?  This is possible.  It is always easy to suppose a foreign origin for something for which we lack native documentation.  Nothing permits us to verify this...
     "...The linguistic fact of the existence of the term jia-shan [ chia-shan ] (artificial mountain) is curious.  If miniature gardens had from the outset been cultivated on a natural base (earth or rock), this term would scarcely have arisen.  The expression xiao-shan [ hsiao-shan ] (little mountain), attested in a T'ang text by Wei Tuan-fu, could have entered into general use.  [Among the objects described by him at a sale of a collection of antiquities were 'two little mountains of green jasper that, when soaked in wine, took on a splendid green-blue sheen.']  The attributive jia [ chia ] (artificial) reminds us of representations in all sorts of material (bamboo, wood, bronze, terra-cotta, porcelain, and so on).  In fact, we do know of certain objects -- as essential as miniature gardens for the room of a scholar -- that were originally made of 'dead' materials (bronze, terra-cotta, porcelain) and only later created out of natural rocks, sometimes even with the addition of plants.  These are the boshanlu [ po-shan-lu ], or incense burners in the form of mountains..." 
(Stein, Rolf A.  The World in Miniature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 41 and Note 81 on pg. 284).
        cf. "Different kinds of stones were used for the construction of jiashan ['imitated' or 'man-made' hills and rockeries] [in Yangzhou].  The commonest were greyish stones, Taihu shi, yellow stones, huang shi, and white stones, xuan shi (Zhu Liang, 2002: 136).", per "The Culture of Yangzhou Residential Gardens" by Vena Hrdlickov√° in Lucie Olivov√° and Vibeke Bordahl (ed.)  Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou (Denmark: NIAS - Nordic Institute of Asian Studies; 2009), pp. 80-81.

      "Even after reading many Chinese works that might presumably have mentioned this matter, I still cannot provide a satisfactory answer to this question.  Obviously, I cannot claim to have exhausted all the literature on the subject.  Everyone knows that it is vast.  But one piece of negative evidence comes to light: the art of miniature gardens is treated in none of the great familiar Chinese encyclopedias, which are in other respects so complete.  It is well known that one can use the Chinese encyclopedias to put together rapidly a huge amount of documentation of an amazing depth on many other topics (for example, by using the Gujin Tushu Jicheng [Ku-chin t'u-shu chi-ch'eng, Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings from the Earliest to Current Times, c.1725], the Ko-chih ching-yüan [Mirror of Scientific and Technological Origins, 1735 by Ch'en Yuan-lung], and so on).  In addition, the very terms p'en-tsai, p'en-ching, and the like are not listed in historical dictionaries such as the Shih-yüan, the Shih-wu chi-yüan, the Shih-wu yi-ming-lu, and the Shih-wi yüan-hui.  The only dictionaries to mention them are the Ci Hai [Tz'u-hai, Compendium of Phrases, literally "An Ocean of Words and Phrases," an encyclopedic dictionary first published in 1915, most recent edition 1999] and the Ci yuan [Tz'u-yüan, Origins or Sources of Words, 1915, edited by Lu Erkui, mainly words used before 1840], and they are modern.  Far from tracing the terms back to before the T'ang, they place them...during the Sung and the T'ang." 
(Stein, pg. 23)

      We are thus still left with a small problem: even if the term penzai did originate earlier, what explains its absence in the historical dictionaries and similar works which Stein was, indeed, able to review?

     Akey C.F. Hung in his "'Penzai' or 'Penjing' That is The Question" article ( Bonsai, BCI, Vol. 43, No. 4, October/November/December 2004, pg. 43) states that
     "Perhaps because the term 'penzai' cannot be found in any ancient Chinese literature and is a 'foreign term' imported from Japan, it was not included in the earlier editions of the two most authoritative dictionaries, namely Ci Hai and Ci Yuen.  For example, there is no entry for 'penzai' in the 1962 edition of Ci Hai.  The term 'penjing' on the other hand was listed in both dictionaries.  As I pointed out earlier, the two Chinese characters for bonsai have an artistic connotation to the Japanese.  But these same characters, which are pronounced penzai by the Chinese, do no convey the meaning of any form of art.  I therefore believe that it is infelicitous to use this imported term penzai for Tree Penjing.  Furthermore, bonsai does not include Landscape Penjing.  Even Tree Penjing is different from bonsai.  Therefore, it is equally inappropriate to forsake the traditional term penjing and use bonsai for this ancient Chinese art..."

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      "While at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow looking at old icons, I spotted 'The Transfiguration' by Theophanes the Greek...  The painting shows two very stylized bonsai, very green and small plants and two very small pots; each plant plus pot being barely 2 x 4 inches on an icon 3 x 5 ft."

      "...What I remember was that the two plants were actually in free fall.  They were not inside in any crevices or animal hides [as some have suggested in response to the original post].  Many items in the icon seemed to be in a stream/flow from top of the icon to the bottom.  The plants seemed to be somewhat separated from the pots.  The color of the plants was a very strong green and the pots were a much more muted brown.  Too bad that taking of pictures is generally forbidden in museums, so I can't provide any further detail."

(Ed. Spanns, Grand Rapids, MI, in post to Internet Bonsai Club October 1, 2003; and his private email to Pat Patterson, Oracle, AZ, as she posted to the group October 5, 2003)

      From the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Pereslavl, this tempura on wood piece measures 184 x 134 cm (72 x 52-3/4").  It is based on the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ as described by Luke (9:28-36).  This Internet image of the icon can be found on

The Transfiguration

The subject tree portion in natural light and as a negative.

The Transfiguration (detail)
The Transfiguration (detail, negative)
      Theophanes (c. 1335-c.1410) was of Greek origin and worked in Constantinople and other cities before coming to Moscow in 1395.  Previous to this he lived in Novgorod, beginning in 1370.  "It was the novelties of the last remarkable phase of Byzantine art, which coincided with the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, that [this accomplished artist] brought to Russia.  With him came gradual changes in Russian painting; portraiture became more naturalistic, faces and garments softened, fresh combinations of colors were introduced, movements became rhythmic.  Theophan was a great master of coloring and knew very well how to produce pleasant and bold effects.  His frescoes compositions were artistically distributed and each figure he painted received a natural look, strikingly different from the previous ascetic rigidity.  He painted from memory and with his inner feelings, rather than constantly referring to existing examples as others of his time did.  He added to his paintings bits of real life and scenes from simple human relations [ emphasis added ].  The passage that he used for background contributed to the reality of the message that his frescos wanted to transmit.  Theophan not only brought to Russia all these novelties of the reborn Byzantine art, but for the more than three decades that he lived in his adopted country, he did much to propagate them, and trained scores of young Russian painters."
      Only some of those works he produced on Russian soil have survived and he is therefore included in the history of Russian as well as Byzantine art. 
      The richest source of biographical material is a 17th-century copy of excerpts from a c.1415 letter from the monk and hagiographer Epiphanius the Wise.  He describes Theophanes, whom he knew well, as "a renowned wise man, an expert philosopher... a famous book artist and the best artist among all the icon painters.  He indeed was an El Greco, great and with the traditional Greek instinct for beauty, and yet always unpretentious, who enriched art throughout the world more than anybody else." ("Grove Art Artists' Biographies, Theophanes the Greek," ; "Russian Art and Architecture Through the Centuries, Theophanes the Greek," ); "Theophanes the Greek (ca.1330-ca.1410)," )

      So, what inspired Theophanes to place what appear to be two Japanese bonsai into a New Testament-themed religious icon which dates to the beginning of the 15th century Russia?  Wouldn't full-grown olive trees on the mountainsides be truer to the story?  The portrayed miniature trees don't seem to be potted olives -- what are they?  The artist's brief biographies do not not indicate that he travelled any farther east than Moscow.  Where was he introduced to the concept of miniature potted trees?  Did he know of monks at some Russian or Byzantine monastery who raised dwarf potted trees, either from knowledge from Asia or independently developed?  What do the trees symbolize in relation to the story of the Transfiguration?  Were the trees, indeed, included in the original painting or were they later add-ons?  (Which raises additional questions as to when and by whom they might have been added -- although we have no evidence that these were amendments to Theophanes' work.)

Per an e-mail to RJB on Nov. 1, 2010 from Sascha in Frankfurt, Germany, reproduced here, this Anomaly is solved: NOT BONSAI

"The bonsai trees in an old Russian icon are obviously surprising.  To discover their true meaning we should take a look on other images of the Transfiguration - Patrick Comerford did in his blogspot (q.v.).  What we will find there is, that trees seem to be a part of the iconography of many Transfiguration scenes.  Patrick does unfortunately not give us an idea about their meaning within this theme, on the other hand we could surely find a special one -- if looking for more seriously.  The fact trees are there and the fact they are part of different images of different icon painters let us assume there must be a special meanning.  Maybe we simply cannot read these symbols any more and should get in touch with Dan Brown`s symbol expert Tom Hanks?

"But leaving the meaning question, the point is, that in all Transfiguration images with trees these are growing in the ground and only in the your mentionned one of Theophanes they seem to look like bonsais for the first view.  Well, Patrick gives us brilliant copies of your image and a very similiar second icon, also attributed to Theophanes.  Both of them do give us the idea, that these trees are not potted ones but trees growing out of a hole in the ground or a cave.  We do see this also, if we take a look at the [larger] caves to the left and the right, where we will find some men inside.  All holes/caves are painted in a very similiar way so we should cancel the thought about bonsai.

"The Theophanes trees look Japanese for us, because they are in a way abstract and our eyes remember to know them as bonsais because they see a special style in them.  The other trees in the other images are in a complete other way abstract.  So, this is Penjing style?

"This anomaly is a human one, telling us the story of seeing things our eyes want us to see.  Without the pot there is no way to keep it as a bonsai in the meanning of a 'trained' or 'potted' tree to whatever purpose.

"Last but not least I would ask in a different way about the 'Russian bonsai' to catch the path to another answer: what would a contemporary viewer say about the trees?  I assume, he would read them as a symbol and in this context the form of representation does not matter, as long as it gives the impression 'tree' to the viewer.  What task does a p o t t e d tree therefore have?

"Maybe Theophanes simply felt aspired by his own tree collection and added his most beloved ones in this icon.  The Russion bonsai monk?  Well, this would be an anomaly!  And perhaps the stuff for a new Dan Brown adventure."

      This last paragraph is obviously written with a twinkle in Sascha's eye.  The very human trait of "Pattern Recognition" has thus come into play here.  This illustration-out-of-time apparently is solved, especially in light of Patrick Comerford's examples of many other depictions of this same subject also having some sparse vegetation on the side of the mountain.

      For the sake of future researchers we shall leave this entry here, now framed in a different shade of gray than the rest of this article.

      "I hadn't [seen the above], but I have been looking at those trees and thinking they look an awful lot like bonsai.  I think they are simply naturally dwarfed trees, but they make you think.  Russian icons are very abstract in nature, especially in this time period, and elements are not shown in true proportion.  Human figures are different sizes based on importance.  Natural elements such as trees are there basically to fill what would otherwise be an empty space, but they wouldn't be large enough to distract from the subject at hand."  Posting on Facebook 03-26-16 by Rev. Craig Lewis Cowing, a bonsai enthusiast and long-time student and replicator of orthodox christian icons, when RJB pointed out the above analysis.

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