© 2002-2016  Robert J. Baran

This Page Last Updated: February 21, 2016


What we don't know about all of this easily rivals or surpasses what we do.  It's a matter of perspective.  (And we are aware that some of these questions do not precisely delineate a topic.  Their subjective readings/interpretations by you add dimensions to the inquiry.)   If you have any answers or corrections or additional questions, please contact .  All who are and will be interested in this international gardening art thank you.

(Special thanks to John Ruger from Brookhaven, PA, for a couple of insightful comments in the earliest days of this page, especially regarding the "Clip & Grow" technique and also Chinese painting influences.) 


Are there any other tomb paintings depicting magical miniature landscapes?

Yan Liben's Tribute Offered by a Vassal (mid-7th century) depicts foreign-appearing persons bringing strange-shaped rocks, some in trays.  Was this because the person receiving the tribute was fond of such things already or could these be original gifts which may have started something?  Evidence of native Chinese gardens with rockery predates this work, but what is the earliest a container landscape can be identified elsewheres?  Which vassal state is represented here?  To which Chinese ruler is the tribute offered and was this a one-time occurrence or a repeated event?  Who specified that these rocks be given at this time -- or on other occasions?  Were the articles of tribute recorded and what became of the records?  (Per Laufer, Berthold  Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.; 1909; 2nd edition 1962), pg. 278: "The Kung hsien pu hui k'ao (T'u shu chi ch'êng, Vol. 547 shih huo tien), enumerates all tribute gifts sent to the Chinese Court."  The Ch'in-ting ku-chin t'u-shu chi-ch'eng (full name) (Historical Encyclopedia of the Ch'in / Collection of pictures and writings from antiquity and the modern period compiled by imperial command) was published in Xangai in 1726 with 5,020 volumes, per, pg. 1.  How comprehensive is its listing of tributes from the Tang dynasty?)  What became of the rocks?  If, less likely, this is all just a fanciful depiction, what is the symbolism and origin of the concept? 

What pots or portrayals or landscapes will be uncovered in yet-to-be discovered or excavated sites, especially along the Silk Road?  What has been discovered that hasn’t been recognized or announced?

Did anyone from the seventy nations which traded with Tang China ever set down a description of the garden arts of that period and place?  Specifically, of course, were the magical miniature landscapes ever mentioned?  Did any of the foreign invaders throughout Chinese history who saw art, along with its appreciation and patronage, as a form of that ruling power's legitimacy pick up on dwarf potted trees or viewing stones and continue them as a form of art after leaving China?

Why does the tree in the corner of the early 12th century work Peeping at the Bath look so modern, especially in light of later portrayals of seemingly less developed penjing?

Which of the "nondescript" bonsai in the woodblock prints are of the bunjin -style, which are primitive other styles, and which are simply generic hachi-no-ki? Are there any portrayals of trees which no longer exist but were famous in their own times?  What famous trees are we not aware of?

Who was the actual source of inspiration for Zeami's Hachi-No-Ki character, Tsuneyo Genzayemon?  What personal experience did the playwright have with dwarf potted trees?  What is the earliest version of the tale and what story details does it contain or lack?  Because of familiarity with the tale, did a landowner ever accept a dwarf potted tree or suiseki as payment from a tenant?  Is there a Chinese native equivalent to Hachi-No-Ki?

Did any ancient poet-hobbyist record a dream he had had about a favorite or ideal tree?

What other idioms, folktales, songs make reference to dwarf potted trees or other magical miniature landscapes?

Are there any scrolls which show mulitple life stages of the same tree, possibly with a branch later pruned and made into a rooted cutting and smaller tree?

What portrayals of extant compositions were originally commissioned?


What is the most unusual known pot (a human skull? since one of the Japanese meanings of " bon " is that)?

Was there ever a pot made with the ashes of a teacher which was then used to house one of his trees?

What is the oldest pot in existence which was specifically crafted for use with a dwarf tree -- rather than, say, an incense burner which was "retrofitted"?  

How many pots from the 1898-1904 U.S. auctions are still in existence?  

What was the largest container ever made specifically for dwarf landscape use?  What was the largest marble or concrete slab similarly crafted?  What was the earliest use of marble and then concrete for this?  What was the most unusual material used for such a slab?  When and where was the first marble container used for a magical miniature landscape?  What was its predecessor's original created purpose?

When and where was the earliest "creative pot design" competition held?  Who won and what did the container look like?  What container styles were once popular but are now out of favor or even forgotten?

What could the results reveal of a large-scale inventory of the containers held by various temples, museums, private collectors in China, Japan and elsewheres?  What are the most represented sizes, shapes, colors, and kilns?  The rarest?  How might these counts compare with actual production numbers if such a thing could ever have been recorded?  What is the rarest piece and when/where was it crafted?  What percentage of Chinese wares now reside in Japan or elsewhere outside of China?  Are there any specimens of non-drained landscape trays in these collections?  When and where were the first of those crafted?

What documented histories exist for the various antique containers in private collections or those, say, of assorted temples and museums?

"Kyuzo Murata, at his bonsai nursery in Omiya, had a red, unglazed [old Chinese] tray priced at 500,000 yen."  ("Japanese Containers Old and New" by E. Wayne Irvin, Journal, ABS, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1971, pp. 8-9; approx. $1,389 to $1,623 at the time, per "Fixed value of the yen to the US dollar" and "Yen and major currencies float" in Wikipedia's article "Japanese yen.")   How and when did Murata acquire it and what became of it?  What other nurseries/masters have such antiques and how were they acquired?  Are there documented histories of any of the trees which once resided in any of these?  Old graphics of these pots?

What can a chemical analysis of soil residue from various antique pots tell us about the species and cultivars of plants raised, types of fertilizers or soil mixes used?

Was a bronze pen ever used as a container for a miniature landscape, possibly a dry garden?

How were pen used as serving dishes for these -- all the time or just for special occasions?  Were they acting as platforms for spirits to come and populate the minature magical landscapes?  Were they foundations for the newly dead (e.g. Prince Zhang Huai) to reside in this depiction of the ideal land?

Did any antique bronze collectors ever comment about how old pen might be related to penjing pen?

When was a drainage hole first used in a pot for a dwarf tree?  What specifically caused its use?  Was this already a horticultural/container plant feature?  Could a plant in a cracked-pot have done better than its intact brethren?  Could the addition of drainage have been solely dependent on which species was being cultivated (especially so in climates were water may have been more scarce)?

What caused bonsai pots to be made in the first stock sizes -- ease of carrying about?

Are there any large/landscape trees whose origin was as abandoned potted trees that survived and rooted through the drainage hole or broken container?

Are there any large/landscape trees whose origin was as dwarf potted trees, damaged during war or storm, which were then "put out to pasture" or otherwise given a protected but open-ground existence due to their previous special or celebrated form?

Did any potted trees become so rootbound that they shattered their containers?

Has a natural dwarf tree growing in a large rock ever been so collected that some of the rocky matrix in which it was growing was fashioned to become the very pot in which the tree then lived?

Was a wooden container ever made from the parent tree whose seed was sprouted (or cut branch was rooted) and subsequently trained to be a dwarf potted tree?  Or a container made up of strips from dead bonsai -- or even made from pieces trimmed away from a plant from which a bonsai was then derived?

When was the earliest that a coral rock-planted dwarf potted tree was made in the Philippines?  What background did the designer have?  How long did that style last and were any exported to China or Japan?

Abalone shells were used as pots by the poor.  What other shells or natural containers (gourds, hollowed burls, etc.) were used even briefly?  Who first used an abalone?  What were the various sizes -- largest and smallest shells used?  What other shells were used?  Just with azaleas or other plants as well?  What soil mix was used?  What was the longest a plant survived on a shell?  How many shells were in use at the "peak" of the interest?  Are there any woodblock prints or folktales about that?  Are there any remnants in a current family's archives?

What potter threw or otherwise made the most containers in his/her life?

Have any antique pots been hidden inside the shell of a simple-appearing newer pot for safeguard or smuggling purposes?

What is the kaleidoscope of trees and styles that have graced each of our pots or the wardrobe of containers that have dressed up each of our trees?


What was the most unusual lacquered tree root stand used for bonsai display?  Perhaps with multi-plant shelves or with lines that blended exceptionally well with the tree on display?  What was the earliest a lacquered tree root stand was used for display of a penjing or scholar stone?  What is the earliest that one of these stands was brought over to Korea or Japan?

When was the earliest held private exhibition in each country? large private collection? public exhibition?  (See also Nations.)

What type of packing was used to securely transport trees to the early shows -- or were most shows held at the same location where the trees were raised?

Just as there are stories about officials searching the countryside for interesting large garden rocks for the imperial gardens, are there any similar tales of "recruitment" of already potted trees for service in the palace and courtyards?

Were the largest penjing used in palace courtyards exclusively "strong masculine" symbolic trees?  Were other chosen plants symbolic of particular eras of power or virtues cultivated?

Are masterpiece trees more filled/composed with symbolism than younger, less experienced culturally-aware creations?  And just how much symbolism, history, cultural criticism, expression of beliefs or feelings, etc. can be found in a masterpiece composition?  "Commentary" on folk tales recreated accurately or with pre-literate aids.

The study of driftwood patterns in natural jin / shari and annual rings in light of the plant's original orientation while growing in the wild can provide some meteorological and geobiochemical information, but what else?  "To see the universe in a grain of sand": tradition and method of collecting, placement of front/back, schools of styling, soil mixtures, nutrition, etc.

When were mudmen and other figurines first used?  For magic? to indicate scale? simple decoration? as a miniature monument to a teacher who designed or found the tree?

Over the centuries, how important was the placement of magical miniature landscapes in consideration to an auspicious season or location for a given composition?  In other words, could some compositions be displayed more prominently during certain seasons, while they would have to be "merely" in the general collection during inauspicious times?


What early tools were used for digging or designing, for what purpose, when & why discarded, are there any extant and possibly unrecognized?  What is the oldest tool still in existence which was specifically created, or modified at least, for this art?

What ever happened to the very first concave cutter Masakuni and Murata designed, and how many versions did it actually go through before production started?

Were there ever any Masakuni tools made but then withdrawn from production?

What was/is the Chinese equivalent of Masakuni -- the top of the line developer and at least one time leading manufacturer of implements for penjing composition creation?

What is the largest population of plants pruned by a single set of tools used by a master or student?

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