Dwarf Potted Trees in Paintings, Scrolls
and Woodblock Prints


(to the year 960 C.E.)

The Work:      Tribute Offered by a Vassal / Bringing Tribute ( Zhigong tu ) (c. mid-7th century C.E. ) depicts a scene of at least twenty-five men presenting gifts to the court.  Three of them each carry long columns of rock, equivalent to three or four feet in length and perhaps six inches in diameter.  Each stone is riddled with hollows.  (In a cropped view, one particular specimen apparently has some flowers growing from it -- but when viewing the larger scene, one can see these are actually ground plants juxtapositioned behind the rock.)  Three other persons are seen bringing exquisitely shaped rocks.  These are perhaps equivalent to between twelve and eighteen inches high, arranged in a light brown/tan oval container of from nine to twenty-four inches in length and three or four inches in depth.  (These gifts bear a striking resemblance to some of the landscape penjing we know today.)  Behind each of the two smaller rock carriers on the left is a fellow carrying an elephant tusk.
            These two left-most men have beards, wear uncolored full-length cloaks, and appear to be of Mediterranean heritage.  One has sandals and a covered head; the other is barefoot and has an uncovered head.  The containers they carry have wider bases than brims.  (Almost dogfood bowl-shaped, if you will.)  The third container -- which is carried by a bare-foot and clean-shaven but balding character with a strange countenance, loin cloth and reddish wrap under one arm and across the other shoulder -- has more of the wide-brimmed serving tray look.  These non-Chinese-appearing persons bringing strange-shaped rocks: 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?  What became of the rocks?  If, less likely, this is all just a fanciful depiction, what is the symbolism and origin of the concept?

            (Now, the fortunes of the An family declined in the winter of 1746 and they decided to sell some ancient paintings and calligraphy.  Word came to the Ch'ien-lung emperor and several pieces were purchased.  Various works by famous masters had been sold to the imperial court by the An family, headed by An Ch'i (1683-1744), a Korean and the son of a servant of Mingju (1635-1708), an important minister during the K'ang-hsi period.  An Ch'i's younger brother, An T'u, was the household manager for Mingju's son, who was an official in the Ministry of Works.  An Ch'i himself was a salt merchant in Ch'ang-lu and Yang-chou.  An Ch'i managed financial affairs for Mingju's son, and in return he received special protection in the salt trade.  Because the entire operation ran so smoothly, there were gains on both sides.
            (An Chi had not only the resources to purchase masterpieces but the eye of a connoisseur.  Old families in the Chiang-nan region sought him out to authenticate their works, not infrequently offering to sell them to him as well.  One of the famous works in An Ch'i's collection was the Tribute Bearers by Yan Li-pen.  This entered the imperial collection when the An Ch'i's collection was dismantled in 1746.)

NEW DISCOVERY (late January 2012): This handscroll, now in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, bears an attribution to Yan Liben, but it is in fact a copy after the lost original, or possibly after early copies.  Probably done in the Ming or early Qing period, the present painting may substitute items prized in the copyist's day for less familiar items shown in the Tang-dynasty original.  Thus it becomes apparent that establishing a stylistic chronology for scholars' rocks may at times help clarify the dating of other media.  The three rocks on the right side of the painting resemble the narrow, nearly cyclindrical black Lingbi rocks with deep, vertical furrows highly prized during the Qing dynasty ten or eleven centuries later.
            Therefore, the question is: how faithful to the original painting is this copy?  What were the original shapes of the stones, and were there actually stones depicted in the original?

The Artist:      Yan Liben [Yen Li-pen, 600 - 673] was a minister of state and a court painter, in fact, the most celebrated painter of the seventh century in China.  He was the son and brother of two other famous artists, had been a court painter in attendance to the second Tang emperor, Taizong [T'ai-tsung], and rose to the high office of Minister of the Right under the emperor's successor.  His father, Yan Bi, served Northern Zhou and Sui rulers with his expertise in architecture, engineering, and the visual arts.  He also designed weapons, organized imperial processions, and supervised the construction of a section of the Great Wall; such duties apparently exceeding those of a court painter as narrowly defined in later times.  His two sons, Lide (d.656) and Liben, both served in Taizong's court.  As the designers of Tang imperial mausoleums, they were probably responsible for the six famous stone horses in front of Taizong's tomb at Zhaoling, which have survived as the best examples of early Tang relief carving.  Lide was less a painter than an engineer and architect.  Although he made some court portraits, it was other kinds of service -- designing ceremonial costumes, constructing palace buildings, and building bridges and ships for military purposes -- that won him the title of grand duke.
            Yan Liben's fame, on the other hand, rested mainly on his art, and he achieved even greater glory when he became one of the two prime ministers -- the other was a military officer.  A popular saying satirized this seemingly strange combination: "The Minister on the Left proclaims authority in the desert; the Minister on the Right attains fame through cinnabar and blue."  Why did Taizong, an emperor famous for his ability to select personnel, choose these two men as his chief officials?  Representing wu (military forces) and wen (literature and arts), respectively, they helped the Tang founder create History.  In Yan Liben's case, his works recorded important court events, commemorated key political figures, and illustrated the way of rulership through historical exemplars.  Although his medium was painting, not writing, he was essentially a court historian.
            "The greatest painter of his century, he was known in court as 'the divine transmuter of cinnabar and malachite [danqing shenhua].'  The title might just as well have been applied to an alchemist.  The alchemists considered that malachite could be transformed into cinnabar, itself a great elixir.  Thus, the complementary colors, red and green, which defined the painter's palette were also a main axis of the alchemist's search for immortality."
            His portraits are in the presumed Han style, which became the standard style of official court portraiture and the epitome of the Confucian ideal.  He often employed ink and color on silk, but most of his work has long since been lost.  He is reported to have painted emperors, great scholars, strange-looking foreigners, animals, birds, and even popular Buddhist subjects in the same style.  His most famous works are two lost group portraits made at different stages in early Tang history.  Right before ascending the throne in 626, the future emperor Taizong commissioned Yan to portray eighteen eminent scholars.  The work, a mural, was widely publicized, and the inscription accompanying the portraits written by one of the scholars noted the crown prince's intention of attracting public support through this art project.  Twenty-two years later, Yan Liben received an imperial commission to paint a second series of portraits known as The Twenty-Four Meritorious Officials in the Lingyan Palace (Lingyan Ge ershisi gongchen).  Taizong himself wrote the tribtue, asserting the significance of this mural in commemorating the founding of the Tang Empire.  Like the portraits of the eighteen scholars, these portraits of officials have long since vanished.
            It is said that when rudely summoned by Taizong -- whose tomb he was commissioned to design -- to do a picture, the well-known and prolific Yan had to crawl on the ground before the emperor and other officials while he worked.  Bathed in sweat, Yan sketched some ducks that were swimming about on the palace lake in front of the officials.  Returning home after his humiliation, he advised his sons and pupils never to follow his profession. 1


The Work:      Courtiers and Guests (aka "Courtiers and Foreign Envoys," c. 706) is the ink and color on plaster wall mural on the eastern wall in the middle of the passage to the tomb of Zhang Huai at Qianling [Chien Ling].  It vividly reproduces the scene of Tang officials greeting foreign envoys.  In the front are two enthusiastic court officials, and behind them are three foreign envoys.  Research confirms that the first envoy came from the Tujue tribe, an ethnic minority tribe in north-western ancient China.  This mural reflects the active exchange of friendly and diplomatic visits between China and foreign countries during the Tang Dynasty.
            Two of the servants in court attire hold with both hands penjing, artistic pot plants with miniature rockeries and fruit trees.  (There appears to be a non-essential piece of the mural missing between the two, evidence of surface degradation.)  The left-hand servant, male, carries a yellowish oval bowl, perhaps equivalent to nine inches long by an inch deep.  Two, possibly three, small pyramidal stones are in the dish.  The rightmost stone has a touch or two of aqua pigment.  On two of the stones is a small plant with a few frond-like leaves; the left-hand plant is topped with a red flower, the right with a green bud.
            The servant to the right, female, carries a pot in the form of a lotus flower.  This contains a perhaps foot tall thin-stemmed flowering plant or tree with leaves and fruits.  The gesture of these courtiers presenting the gifts suggest that these landscapes were very desirable and occupied honored positions in the mansions of the nobility of the time.

The Subject:      Prince Zhang Huai (posthumous name for Li Xian [Li Hsien], 655-684) was the second son of Empress Wu Zetian (r.690-705) and the sixth son of the third Tang emperor, Gaozong (r.650-683).  Zhang was named heir apparent in 675, but five years later was accused by his mother of plotting a coup and was banished to Sichuan.  There he was later forced to commit suicide.  Following the restoration of Emperor Zhongzong (r.684, 705-710) and the death of the empress in 705, Li Xian's title of Prince Yong was posthumously reinstated and his remains were reinterred as one of the seventeen attendant tombs in the vast double Qianling Mausoleum complex of his father -- and mother -- at Qianxian [Chienhsien] county, Shaanxi province, to the northwest of the capital city of Xian.  In 711, Emperor Ruizong (r.684-690, 710-712) further restored Li Xian's status as heir apparent with the title Crown Prince Zhanghuai.  Later that year, Li Xian's consort, Madame Fang, was buried with him and, although his tomb was not enlarged, the murals were repainted to accord with his more exalted status.
            The tomb, excavated from July 1971 to February 1972, consists of a walled compound and an earthern pyramid above ground and a tunnel that slopes down about forty-five feet below the surface to a level passageway and two vaulted chambers.  Aligned along a north-south axis, the underground complex measures about 230 feet in length.  The tomb also has four skylights, four passages, six niches, a brick corridor, an ante-chamber and a burial chamber.  The tomb passage is 71 meters long, 3.3 meters wide and 7 meters deep.  Although the tomb was once robbed, over 600 articles were unearthed.  They include various ceramic figurines, tri-colored ceramic figurines, articles for daily use and other burial objects.  There are more than 50 murals in the tomb, which occupy 400 square meters, and remain basically intact.  The murals that decorate the walls are organized to suggest a palace set within a landscape.  The top of the sloping entrance ramp presents a mounted procession and polo players in rural settings.  Farther along the ramp are two scenes of foreign envoys being received by Chinese officials and two contingents of honor guards.  As the ramp descends through three gatelike passageways, the scenery changes to suggest a palatial setting with gatekeepers, racks of spears, and eunuchs.  A wooden door once marked the point where the entranceway levels off.  Beyond this point, the floor is tiled and the murals are given over to images of palace ladies.  The antechamber and burial chamber are decorated to suggest garden courtyards.
            The larger tombs remain unopened, still hiding their treasures.  The murals in the smaller tombs also show chariots, carriages and horses; terraces, battlements and parapets; weapons, flags, banners, canopies and fans; hills, rivers, trees and rocks; birds, flowers and plucked branches; exotic animals and insects.  Using fine brushes to apply colors, the painters varied themes and expressiveness of feeling, creating many realistic images.  The drawing is free and vivacious, sketchy with just a few deft brushstrokes yet perfectly controlled and vivdly describing their three-dimensionality. 
            Each of this pair of paintings shows courtiers in front and "guests" (emissaries) in the rear, reflecting the friendly contacts between nationalities and countries.  Looking solemn, the guests stand on two sides of the passage facing the tomb chamber in conformity with the Tang ceremony of paying respects to the dead, the theme portrayed.  While ancient books mention paintings recording such exchanges, these are the first known pictures of emissaries on a mission of condolence.  At least some the figures are fairly large, approximately three-quarters of life scale.
            On the western wall of the passage to the tomb of Zhang Huai is a twelve meter-long painting, "Playing Polo" which depicts 20 figures on horse back.  With mallets in hand, the five at the head are trying to chase the ball.  The game was introduced from Persia (present-day Iran) and became very popular under the patronage of the Tang royal house.  Polo was Prince Zhang Huai's favorite sport.  All the people of the court, from the emperor to civil and military officials and even women, liked playing polo.  There were polo grounds in most of the imperial palaces and hunting reserves.  Some noblemen had their own polo grounds.  After the Tang Dynasty, polo became popular throughout the country.  It gradually diminished towards the end of the Ming Dynasty. 2


The Work:      Eighty-seven Immortals or Eighty-seven Celestials is a paper scroll picture believed to be a copy of a temple mural.    The scroll is approximately one foot high by six foot long.  Assuming a height of ten feet, this would cover sixty feet of temple wall, perhaps a panorama of three sides, say 15-30-15 feet.  (The location of the temple mural is not known to us currently.)  This procession of deities, immortals, celestial musicians, and attendants are on their way to pay respect to the highest celestial power.  The figures are walking in line, having various poses and holding different things, such as a canopy, a flag, a lotus, a lute, a sheng (a reed pipe) or a flute.  The primary and secondary figures are properly patterned, the civil and military ones are clearly differentiated.  It is really a spectacular paradise scene.
            The section of the scroll brought to our attention includes a figure on the right bearing what appears to be an odd-shaped perhaps 6"-equivalent-tall rock on a thin round tray with a short edge and possibly a figure on the left carrying a thin lobed-tray holding a small flowering plant.  It is quite possible that there are other magical miniature landscapes in the full scroll.  If nothing else, by this date the little landscapes were well-known and highly-prized enough that they were considered proper for a heavenly inventory.
            The Xu Beihong Museum is in Beijing.  Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was an outstanding Chinese artist and educator of the fine arts.  His works cover a wide range of styles and mediums, though he is best known for his horse paintings.  His collection is comprised largely of works collected by the master, works from the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties up to the May 4th Movement of 1919.  All together, there are over 1,200 art objects, 10,000 ancient books, stone inscription rubbings, bronze vessel rubbings, and prints.  Included is the expensive Tang painting Eighty-seven Immortals by Wu Daozi, which the master purchased in Hong Kong in 1938.
     (The Picture of Eighty-seven Immortals is carved on the surface of a dam of the Panshan Reservoir in north China.  Based on the work by Wu Daozi, the mural of 3,200 square meters is the largest in the world and has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.)

The Artist:       Wu Daozi (680-759) was born in Yangzhai (Yu County in Henan Province) of Han nationality.  In Chinese history, three people are revered as sages: the calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361) of the West Jin Dynasty, the poet Du Fu (712-770) of the Tang Dynasty, and the painter Wu Daozi, also of the Tang Dynasty.  Wu lost both his parents at a young age and lived a difficult life when he was young.  He learned painting from folk artists and sculptors.  Because Wu studied hard and was talented in art, he earned himself a good reputation as a painter by the time he was 20 years old.  Emperor Xuanzong invited Wu as an imperial painter in the court and named him as Daoxuan.  As an imperial painter, Wu only painted at the emperor's request, which was a big restriction for a civilian painter.  On the other hand, the court provided the best living conditions and was an outlet for artistic creativity. Wu's character was unrestrained, direct and indifferent to trivial matters, and it is known he always drank while painting.  When he painted at Longxing Temple, the temple was always packed with observers.  He moved his brush very quickly and most of his works were accomplished in a single session.
            Wu worked with a wide range of subjects, but he is mainly celebrated for his religious murals.  According to records, he painted over 300 murals, of which the recorded scrolls were 100.  The most subjects of his works were Buddhism and Taoism, but also mountains, rivers, flowers and birds.  "The Presentation of Buddha" is his most representative work which created new ways to sketch, focusing on changing and the inner spiritual strength, a kind of expressionist style.  It is said that when Wu drew the halo around Buddha's head in a mural, he only used his brushes without drafting the measurements first. 3


The Work:     Frescoes featuring dwarf potted trees were found near Hebei in the graves of nobles who lived during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960).  Discovered in 1978, these paintings have images of a variety of red blossoms arranged in floral pentsai.  Six of these are placed on a five-cornered table.  The plants, containers and stand, the three elements of the gardening art's display, result in a work of unsurpassed beauty.

Pre-Song Portrayals


1.    Liang, Amy  The Living Art of Bonsai (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1992), pg. 101 in color;

Zhao, Qingquan  Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment (Athens, GA: Venus Communications; 1997), pg. 40, small in color;

Hu, Yunhua  Chinese Penjing (Portland, OR: Timber Press; 1987) pp. 129 -130, has as "Paying Tribute" with a detail of one section;

Yang, Xin et al  Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (New Haven & London: Yale University Press and Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; 1997), pp. 60-61.

Hu, Kemin  Scholars' Rocks in Ancient China: The Suyuan Stone Catalogue (Trunbull, CT: Weatherhill; 2002), Fig. 1 with the alternate title;

Goepper, Roger  The Essence of Chinese Painting (Boston, MA: Boston Book & Art Shop; 1963), pp. 34, 244;

Hucker, Charles O.  China's Imperial Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1975), pg. 262;

Hay, John   Kernels of Energy, Bones of Earth: The Rock in Chinese Art (New York: China House Gallery; ©1985 China Institute of America), quote from pg. 49.

Sullivan, Michael  The Arts of China(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1984, Third Edition), pp. 128-130;

Fitzgerald, C.P.  China, A Short Cultural History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 1985), pg. 368;

Per Sunset Bonsai (Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Publishing Corporation; 1994, Third Edition), pg. 8, "Chinese frescoes dating back sometime before A.D.220 clearly show floral bonsai [sic] -- what we would think of as flower arrangements -- in complementary containers.  Painted during the late Han dynasty, these frescoes were discovered in the 1970's."

Fong, Wen C. and James C.Y. Watt  Possessing the Past, Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Tapei  (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Taipei: National Palace Museum; 1996), pp. 21-22.

The fact that this is a copy is per pp. 174 and 175, note 2, in Mowry, Robert D.  World Within Worlds, The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars' Rocks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums; 1997), which gives the source as Editorial Committee of the Joint Board of Directors of the National Palace Museum and National Central Museum, Three Hundred Masterpieces of Chinese Painting in the Palace Museum, vol. I (Taichung, Taiwan, 1959), n.p., no. 1.    Added to 01/30/12

2.    Webber, Leonard Bonsai For the Home and Garden (North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers; 1985), pg. 1;

Koreshoff, Deborah  Bonsai: Its Art, Science and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984), pg. 3;

Stein, Rolf A.  The World in Miniature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 1990), pg. 40;

Wen, Chin  "Two Underground Galleries of Tang Dynasty Murals" in New Archaeological Finds in China, II (Peking: Foreign Language Press; 1978),  pg. 101;

Wyatt, James C.Y. et al  China, Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2004), pp. 302-303.

Liang, pp. 100-101;

The Story of "Bonsai", The History of Bonsai from ancient times to the present, The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, issued on March 21, 2014, detail of cover;

Hu, Yunhua  pg. 128 with b&w photo;

cf. "Princess Zhang-Huai" in the caption of a different picture in Samson, Isabelle and Rémy Samson  The Creative Art of Bonsai (London: Ward Lock, Ltd.; 1986), pg.9, and the pg. 8 text which reads: "The first mention of the art of bonsai goes back to the Tsin era (third century BC): on the tomb of Zhang Huai, the second son of the Empress Tang Wu Zetian, there is a figure of a woman carrying a bonsai in both hands.";

both attendants are shown together in one picture on the "Bonsai in Evolution" information board at the Fuku-Bonsai Center, Hawaii, and also on pg. 19 of Giorgi, Gianfranco  Simon & Schuster's Guide to Bonsai (New York: Simon & Schuster; 1990);

Chan, Peter  Bonsai, The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees (Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press; 1985), pg. 144, has close-up of left servant, possibly retouched;

Zhao, pg. 40 has small in color of left servant with the tray being orange in color;

Lesniewicz, Paul  Bonsai in Your Home (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1994), color of left servant on pp. 3 and 8, taken at a slightly oblique angle;

Wen, pp. 95-98;

Sullivan, pp. 128-130;

Zhongmin, Han and Hubert Delahaye  A Journey Through Ancient China (New York: Gallery Books; 1985), pg. 212;

"Qianling Mausoleum," http://www.chinatravelfactbook.com/chinaattractions/qianling-mausoleum.asp;

Gender identification of servants based on Tang clothing styles courtesy of Dustin Martinez in conversation with RJB Feb. 21, 2002.

3.    Wei Jinsheng,  "Brief History of Penjing," 12-25-2009, World Bonsai Friendship Federation, http://www.wbff-2013.org/indexaction!pbviewbyid.action?pbcId=141, Fig. 5, accessed 07/24/2010. Image given sepia-color by RJB to better match actual scroll;

See copy of most of scroll (at least 62 figures) at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/EightySevenCelestials3.jpg;

Wells, Marnix  "Wú Dào Zî and Beiyuemiao" (Hawaii Arts and Humanities Conference 2004, revised 2005), http://www.marnixwells.com/content_downloads/wdz-hawaii.pdf;

"The Tenth Chapter," http://www.showchina.org/zgwhxl/ddjysxh/200902/t262193.htm;

"Heaven or Hell at the ROM," describes the version of this painting by Wu Zongyuan (? - 1050), who was influenced by Wu Daozi, http://www.rom.on.ca/news/releases/public.php?mediakey=hw1e6gakjl&media=print;

"Xu Beihong Museum," http://www.china.org.cn/english/31039.htm;

"Tianjin - Your Gateway to North China," http://www.chinaonyourmind.com/Destination%20Guide/tianjin.htm.
"Wu Daozi -- Painting Sage," http://china.chinaa2z.com/china/html/hall%20of%20fame/2009/20090605/20090605153103289319/20090605162245246086_1.html;

"Wu Daozi, Sage in Chinese Painting," http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_artqa/2003-09/24/content_39639.htm;

4.    Liang, pg. 99.

Hopefully this does not actually refer to The Hubei Museum's exhibition from the Marquis Yi of Zeng'?s Tombs (which dated back to 433 BC, a Chu tomb in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.)).  In 1978, construction workers at Suixian, north of Wuhan, hit upon a burial site.  They found a huge exquisitely painted casket and 22 smaller coffins, together with over 7,000 items, such as musical instruments, precious treasures of bronze, silver, gold, jade, lacquer and bamboo, plus weapons and inscribed bamboo slips.  Twenty-one women (their age ranged from 13 to 23) and a pet dog were buried with this ancient nobleman as living sacrifices, per http://www.china-guide.de/english/a_profile__of_china/hubei_province/wuhan.html.

China  960 to 1644
China  1644 to 1911

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