Book Review: Bonsai and Penjing (Win a Free Copy!)

I am pleased to once again be asked by Tuttle Publishing to preview a book and write a review for my blog. Like with my previous reviews, they are offering a free copy to one of my followers as well! Read through to the bottom to participate in the drawing.

The book I received this time is Bonsai and Penjing: Ambassadors of Peace & Beauty, by Ann McClellan. From the introductory email:

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington, D.C., this exquisite book tells the awe-inspiring stories of bonsai and penjing trees in the renowned collection of the National Arboretum and their critical role in international diplomacy and as a vehicle for American presidential influence.


When I go to review a book, my intention is to make a first pass just to admire the pictures. After that, I’ll make a second pass with a more critical eye on the layout and format and fonts. On my third pass I’ll take more time, again looking at the pictures, but this time reading the captions, and reading standout quotes and highlight pages. Then I finally get to the nitty gritty and read the primary text. This book totally failed my first pass. Within a few pages I was reading captions, then highlights, then before I knew it I was reading right into the text mid-chapter. In other words, I think I liked it.

I think we’re pretty much all familiar with bonsai. I remember reading about it in a National Geographic as a kid, and being fascinated by a particular tree: a California redwood (very familiar to me in my childhood surroundings) that had been in the same family for over 500 years. It was about two feet tall. Since then, I’ve seen bonsai of varying quality in stores and gardens. I even gave it a go myself once (cute at first but ultimately unsuccessful due to neglect). I’ve come across it a few times at Ikebana shows, with a side room of bonsai on display, including one that was over 300 years old. It fascinates me to no end, and I’m intrigued by the discipline involved.

Penjing was a new word to me. To the untrained eye, I gather, it’s difficult to tell the two apart. Penjing is the Chinese art form of creating miniature plantings, and predates the Japanese form known as bonsai. It creates a complete landscape or scene, very often including rocks, and in fact does not specifically even have to contain plants at all. Traditionally, the plants used would be manipulated in ways that exaggerated unnatural shapes and provided symbolism. The Japanese movement interpreted the art with more naturalistic forms, in turn reverse-influencing the penjing practice.

McClellan goes into wonderful detail in describing some of the pieces shown in the photos. She explains how a particular bald cypress bonsai is maintained to reflect its familiar natural form, showing a comparison photo of it next to one of a natural cypress in habitat, impressing upon the reader the caretaker’s intentions in nursing along this tree in the collection. McClellan shows photos of a specimen throughout the seasons, like a spectacular pomegranate, in training since 1963, with its ancient-looking trunk and a glorious crown of summer green, autumn gold, and (my personal favorite) barren for winter. There are spectacular, spectacular specimens of penjing with rocks and tiny paths through tiny forests in six-foot-wide dishes, that you can picture yourself walking through and lying in the tiny meadows.

The book gives a unique perspective among the bonsai books I’ve reviewed and encountered over time, in that it’s specifically about the national collection in DC. There’s fascinating insight into the diplomacy behind bonsai gifting and exchange, and the deep traditional symbolism involved. McClellan tells tales of particular specimens and how their acquisitions were tied in with presidential international diplomacy. She has historical photos of presidents and diplomats with their bonsai, and the amassing that has led to the building of the museum to house the collection. You can read through the book completely in a relatively short time, but for me it’s more the perfect kind of book to read through and then have in easy reach, to pick up again and again to revisit the pictures of these amazing specimens.

The book comes available next week, on Tuesday, October 11, 2016. Pre-purchase a copy through McClellan’s website (the title above links to it, as does the photo), or order on Amazon through her button.

If you would like to win a copy of this book of your own, all you have to do is “like” this post and/or write a comment below about it or bonsai, before Sunday, October 16, 2016, at 5:00pm Pacific. At that time I will select a winner at random from those who’ve liked or commented. I’ll contact you by email for your mailing address, and send it to Tuttle Publishing to mail you a copy.

Feel free to share this post around with anybody you think would enjoy it!

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