Shumu Penjing or Tree Penjing, like the art of Bonsai, places great emphasis on the proper cultivation of the trunk of the plant – tree Penjing of the literati style or Wenren Mu as it is known in Chinese is an art form that seeks to create the distinctive long, thin branches that are tapering in shape and fewer or sparser branchings. This category of penjing is different from other styles which are of a bushier looking variety.
The tradition of tree penjing was a method of self expression developed by learned men, academician and scholars based on certain basic principles. More than just rules of pruning and cultivation, to produce certain results, this is an art form.
This category of tree penjing seeks to create an appearance of refinement out of adversity. The impression to be conveyed is that of emerging from adversity without any deformity or any grotesque appearance.
Emotions such as a yearning for days past and of loneliness, rejection and being misunderstood are tried to be conveyed through this art form. The art form is also representative of the elitist Chinese scholar community and their artistic self expression of the following four characteristics:
Aloofness (Gugao): The elitist world of the scholar, who is aloof from the hoi polloi is the impression sought to be conveyed. A thin, long trunk is created to convey this impression of loneliness of spirit of the learned person.
Sparseness (Jianjie): The principle of less is more – of a refined understatement and austerity is attempted to be conveyed by fewer of smaller branches. The branches and therefore the lines of the plant may be fewer, but like Chinese calligraphy, they convey a meaning – a profound representative meaning.
Elegance (Ya): The aesthetic element of poise and gracefulness is sought to be created by the tree’s manner of cultivation. A scholarly gracefulness of appearance is conveyed.
Plainness or Austerity (Pingdan): Plainness or an unadorned subtlety is the other important element of this tree penjing. The natural look is much valued as being a superior manner to attain real understanding. Artificiality or ornateness is seen as being inferior.
One of the important physical elements used in this tree penjing is rocks. Rocks and pebbles are used to evoke scenic landscape elements such as hills etc, on a smaller scale and within the miniature confines of a shallow vessel such as a pot or a tray.