A Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum) bonsai, Japanese Collection 52, on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum. According to the tree’s display placard, it has been in training since 1895. It was donated by Prince Takamatsu. By Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons
The tiny figurines are called mudmen and mudwomen and they are used with bonsai to emphasize scale. There are many websites devoted to bonsai and one can find these ceramic figurines on most of them. Traditional figures show elderly men and women in native dress, sitting or walking, or performing tasks. Also common are buildings, bridges, and lanterns.
The figure to the right is from a site called Bonsai Boy of New York
. It is four inches tall. The figure below, showing a woman trimming a bonsai, is from the same site. In addition to the figurines, the dishes bonsai are grown in are also ceramic…some rustic looking earthenware, others elegantly decorated porcelain.
As we know, the art of bonsai is ancient. “The container known as the pen originated in Neolithic China in the Yangshao culture as an earthenware shallow dish with a foot,” according to Wikipedia. “Penjing generally fall into one of three categories classified by subject matter: Tree Penjing, Landscape Penjing, and Water and Land Penjing. Japan’s bonsai tradition (bonsai being the Japanese pronunciation of penzai) is derived from penjing.” The origins of the art of growing tiny trees is shrouded in myth, but the most recent knowledge that is certain comes from the Tang Dynasty. “Penjing seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts,” according to the site. Taoist ethics and its sense of opposites are involved, too, through the receptive yin and dynamic yang. One site that sells bonsai figurines is Mini Forest. In addition, the Bonsai Exhibition of the Hong Kong Flower Show is a good place to see these assemblages, created by people who are experts in the tradition. Here are some photos from a 2011 bonsai show, Figurines in Penjing.
I was very curious about the production end, though. Most of these figures today are mass-made and the prices can be embarrassingly low. I fear what the workers are making because the figurines go for so little, as with the ones offered on this site. According to Arts by Hand, traditional hand building of bonsai figurines gave way to slipcasting and the use of press molds. Also, “Pen’Jing is apparently experiencing a revival in modern day China,” states collector Myron Redding. “It is a nearly lost art form that is once again becoming popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.” Redding states that the figures that were originally made by press mold sometimes show the fingerprints of people long gone. Describing the pieces, he says, “After the torso was released from the mould, the head, hands and legs or feet would be added.” He explains that “hair, hats, beards and other items would complete the ensemble. As a finishing touch, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced to add further detail.” The article by Redding is quite good. It is clear that he is a collector who has a great love for the craftmanship of antique penjing. If you are interested, take a look, as he goes on to talk about types and colors of clay and glazes originally used. Evidently, the mudwomen are highly sought after and are a rarity. If you are interested in collecting antique mud figures, click here for a how-to. Further, I am posting a video of a man making fine figurines.