Dr. Amy Liang on pg. 99 of her book The Living Art of Bonsai (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1992) states that  "The term 'bonsai' is used in a famous ode of the Eastern Chin Dynasty entitled 'Returning Home.'  It was written by T'ao Yuan-ming (365-427 A.D.) upon his return home to his hometown Lili after resigning an official post.  He wrote the two Chinese characters 'p'en' (bon) and 'tsai' (sai) in the section about enjoying the beauty of wild chrysanthemums.  This is the earliest known record in the world of the word 'bonsai.'  T'ao Yuan-ming was also the founder [sic] of the South China (Hua-nan) school of bonsai."

        Akey C.F. Hung in his "'Penzai' or 'Penjing' That is The Question" article ( Bonsai Magazine, BCI, Vol. 43, No. 4, October/November/December 2004, pp. 42-43) negates this assumption with the following:
        "First of all, Tao Yuenming never used the term 'penzai.'  I checked all of his writings and could not find the term anywhere.  There is a painting depicting Tao Yuenming and six friends enjoying the autumn color of chrysanthemums with several pots of this flower in the background.  However, this painting was created in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D. ) and potted chrysanthemum was not developed until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D. ).  Tao Yuenming did enjoy growing chrysanthemums and most Chinese are familiar with the famous lines 'I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge, see the southern mountain, calm and still' in his 'Drinking Wine Poem, No. 5' (English translation from The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry by Burton Watson.)  But he never planted any chrysanthemums in the pot.  Therefore, the assumption that Tao Yuenming first used the term penzai is simply a widely circulated rumor."
        This matches what RJB's researches have uncovered regarding Tao Yuenming and possible early use of the term.

        Tao Chien [T'ao Ch'ien] (original name Tou Yüen-ming or Tao Yüanming, tzu Yüan-ling) is generally considered one of the two or three greatest pre-Tang dynasty poets.  Although his great-grandfather had been an illustrious statesman and general, the fortunes of the house of Tao declined rapidly, and by Chien's birth it was into a poor family in Jiangxi province.  His father's name is unrecorded.  Tao was born into one of the most chaotic and violent periods of Chinese history.
        Even during his life, though, Tao was a noted poet and essayist.  Many of his one hundred and twenty or so extant pieces could be considered philosophical, yet were written in a simple language and straightforwardness that speak from his heart directly to the reader.  He scorned the more ornate language and the obliqueness favored by many of his contemporaries.  This was a time when the Daoist reaction against rigidly traditional Confucianist art and literature produced inspired imaginative works, the likes of which had not been seen in seven centuries.  Tao was the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience.  This led to the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.
      He maintained relations with Hui-yuan's Lu-shan monastery and became the first in a tradition of Chan figures who stood outside the monastic community and thereby challenged the students to free themselves from the unenlightened striving of that life by seeing that they are always already enlightened.  Tao was also an official, holding numerous but never long-lived posts.  At one point he was even adjutant to a general who later became an emperor.
        Tao is noted for having established a type of landscape poetry known as t'ien-yüan (fields and gardens), a pastoral foil to the wilder scenes of the shan-shui (mountains and rivers) tradition.  Farming, symbolic of his ideal life of simplicity, self-sufficiency, and self-reliance is a favorite topic.  Drinking, which releases the true self from all worldly worries and social inhibitions, is another.  His series of twenty verses on "Yin chiu" (Drinking Wine) contain some of his best-known lines and works.  His popularity has remained high throughout the centuries, and his influence on such literary giants as Du Fu and Su Shi was often noted.   Following the Tang, the great Sung poets found virtually all of their interests anticipated in the profound simplicity embodied in Tao's bland voice.  And the ability of his work to inspire this kind of admiration has continued through the centuries.
        His chrysanthemum garden has been a popular motif both in poetry and in painting for over a thousand years, and his description of a return to this garden after several years of absence is accounted one of the classical works of Chinese literature.
        Originally cultivated here at least 400 B.C.E. , chrysanthemums were believed to be full of magical essences and thus were first grown for their medicinal properties.  They were a valued ingredient of the Daoist elixir.  One story told how the people of Nanyang in Central China drew their drinking water from a stream where the flowers grew.  Essences from these plants seeped into the water, and the Nanyang residents all lived to be a hundred.  Tonic wine was brewed from an infusion of the petals and fragrant chrysanthemum tea was good for the health, popularly believed to promote longevity.  The yellow-flowered chysanthemum was the first to be mentioned, and white and other colors became popular fron the Tang dynasty (618-906) onwards.
        Now, there is a technique often used in small city gardens to give an illusion of greater space.  This concept of "borrowed scenery" ( jie jing ) makes use wherever possible of buildings, trees, or natural scenes which are physically outside of but visually within either a garden or a courtyard within a garden.  The scenery beyond is both a background for and an integral part of one's garden.  Even the distant horizon could thus become part of one's own miniature recreation of a natural landscape.  (To the Japanese, it would be known as shakkei )
        The concept of borrowed scenery can be found at least as early as Tao's writings, specifically, from the 3rd in a series of 8 groups of verses which comprise his "Drinking Wine": 
...Wherever the mind
dwells apart is itself a distant place.

Picking chrysanthemums at my east fence,
far off, I see South Mountain: mountain

air lovely at dusk...

        (Lu Mountain, which is symbolically renamed to have a mythic stature as the embodiment of the elemental and timeless nature of the earth.)
        Now, the Chinese saw in the flowers something more than simply decorative and useful objects.  They sought a meaning and expressiveness in these silent beings, and if the meaning was in many cases rather freely constructed, it was nevertheless calculated to strengthen and deepen the appreciation of the living symbols of the vegetable kingdom.  And it helped, of course, to establish their importance in the gardens.  This view of natural objects was thoroughly symbolic, and thus opened up quite other possibilities of artistic interpretation and use of such objects than a more objective or "scientific" way of looking at them would have done.  The connection between the cultivation of flowers and their representation in art has therefore been intimate in China.  What was valued most in the flowers was the same as that which the artists sought to capture and express. 1

        And so, the problem with the contention that Tou Yüen-ming was a proponent or even a founder of a particular school of dwarf potted tree culture is the sheer lack of evidence: the oldest known [to us] graphic depictions of dwarf potted trees date at least three centuries after Tao.  There is not yet any credible proof that written evidence about this gardening art is any older than the Tang dynasty either.  See also hereFei Jiang-fang, a legendary magician during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.) who is famous for shrinking landscapes down, was primarily alluded to in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Whether his doings were allegorical, the basis from which penzai later arose, or a mythical relating of the origins of dwarf potted trees cannot be determined.  But in and of itself his story does not provide proof of the existence of this gardening art earlier than the Tang.  Yes, the shallow basin pen which we know today as our bonsai pots have been around for millenia, but currently we are without any verifiable demonstration of dwarf potted trees being created before the seventh century.  And even considering that it was Wu Yee-Sun who apparently first mentioned the Tou-penzai connection, we still must delay acceptance of this as an early point in our art.  If our colleagues, especially in China, do know of any earlier evidences, PLEASE correct our vision and share with us.


1.    Nienhauser, William H., Jr. (ed.):  The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 1986), pp. 766-768; T'ao Ch'ien  The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch'ien (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press; © 1993 David Hinton, the translator), pp. 5, 7, 8, 9, 86, 89, and 52 which contains the above quoted South Mountain verse; Wu, Yee-Sun   Man Lung Artistic Pot Plants (Hong Kong: Wing-Lung Bank Ltd.; 1969, 1974.  Second edition), pg. 25, 62, 63, "The name (pun-sai) originated in China during the T'sun Dynasty (265-420.)  Tou Yuen-ming (365-427), a noted poet and essayist as well as a government official of that period, 'unwilling to bow to his superiors because of five doou (pecks) of rice' (about 50 kilograms, being his monthly pay in kind), resigned from office and retired to his native village to enjoy a quiet farm life.  His personally cultivated chrysanthemums in pots, well known at that time, may well have marked the beginning of pot plants."; Koreshoff, Deborah R.  Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications; 1984), pg. 4 has an abbreviated version of Wu's information.;  Yi, O-nyoung  Smaller Is Better, Japan's Mastery of the Miniature (Tokyo: Kodansha International, Ltd.; 1982.  First English edition 1984), pg. 75, which gives the quote as "I pluck a chrysanthemum and gaze off at the Southern Mountains." ; Bremness, Lesley  The Complete Book of Herbs (New York: Viking Studio Books; 1988), pg. 8; Thacker, Christopher  The History of Gardens (Berkeley: University of California Press; 1979), pg. 55 gives the verse as "I plucked the chrysanthemums besides the hedge In calm I found the southern hills."  A painting of T'ao by Kao Feng-han (1683-1747) shows the poet "outside a small country cottage, with pines, plum and bamboo growing informally behind and beside his garden, which is thick with chrysanthemums, and he walks among them, seized with inspiration."; Sirén, Osvald  Gardens of China (NY: The Ronald Press Company; 1949), pp. 34-37, which includes the "Now, the Chinese saw..." quote; Keswick, Maggie:  Chinese Garden: History, Art & Architecture (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; 1978, Academy Editions, London), pg. 181; Sullivan, Michael:  The Arts of China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1967, 1973, 1977, 1984.  Third Edition) , pg. 87, "Typical of the age is the poet T'ao Yüan-ming (365-427) who, though forced several times to take office to support his family, retired whenever he could to his country cottage where he grew his own vegetables, drank excessively, and read books, though he said he did not mind if he failed to understand them completely.  This was not merely escape from political and social chaos; it was escape into the world of the imagination." and b&w illus. pg. 239 Fig. "291 Huang Shen (1687-1768+), The Poet T'ao Yüan-ming Enjoys the Early Chrysanthemums.  Album-leaf.  Ink and colour on paper."

cf. Lesniewicz, Paul   Bonsai: The Complete Guide to Art & Technique (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press; 1984), pg. 13, which states that "At about the same time as the mention of pun-ching, or miniature landscapes with rocks and trees, a form still very popular in China today, we find the first reference to pun-sai during the Ch'in dynasty (221-206 BC) [sic] : it was Ton Guen-ming; a famous poet and high-ranking official, who, having grown weary of affairs of state, retired to a peaceful country living where he began to cultivate chrysanthemums in pots.  This may have been the beginning of pot plants, but it was to lead on to the miniaturization of trees."; Chan, Peter  Bonsai: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees (Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press; 1985), pg 21 gives name as "Tong Kwo Ming"; also, Du Cane, Florence The Flowers and Gardens of Japan (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1908), pp. 203-204: "We are told of a great man in the days of the Min dynasty who, tired of struggling with the world and life, gave up his rank and retired to some forgotten spot, entirely in order to enjoy the sight of the chrysanthemum in his garden and a jug of wine; and the greatest delight of his life was to see the flowers bedewed in the morning light, and to exchange his poet's faith and love with this 'nobleman of flowers'."

       Other references that repeat some version of Tao originating the term penzai include the "Bonsai in Evolution" information board at Fuku-Bonsai Center, Hawaii; and Bonsai Today, No. 24, pg. 9;

cf. Sunset Bonsai (1994, 3rd Edition), on pg. 8, "The word 'bonsai,' rendered in two Chinese characters, appeared sometime around A.D. 400.  Furthermore, the text that contained the word made reference to the practice of bonsai as existing before the start of the Eastern Chin Dynasty in A.D. 317."; Gustafson, Herb L.  The Bonsai Workshop (New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.; 1994), pg. 19, who notes without further comment that in China "There is evidence that P'en Tsai was already well developed before 2000 B.C." [sic] and that "By the year 200 A.D., established styles of dwarf trees were associated with all the major cantons or provinces of China."; Lesniewicz, Paul and Hideo Kato   Practical Bonsai, Their Care, Cultivation and Training (London: W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd.; 1991), pg. 8, "Not only the smallest bonsai landscape but also single bonsai trees can be traced back a long way, in China back to the Ch'in dynasty of AD 265-420.  Even before the year 1000 in the Sung dynasty pun-sai is described in poetry, and in specialist pun-sai literature the training of bonsai is discussed."; Webber, Leonard  Bonsai For the Home and Garden   (North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers; 1985), pg. 1, "By the time of the T'sin dynasty, 265-420, the art of bonsai, or penjing as it is known in China, was being described in literary writings, and mentions continue to be found in the writings of the Tang dynasty, 615-906."

Originally on this web site as http://www.phoenixbonsai.com/BigPicture/Anomalies.html#TaoYuenming