Styles of Bonsai and Penjing

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Style names are used in discussing bonsai and penjing. There are three fundamental styles: single tree, group or forest tree, and landscape. Within the single tree style there are five style subcategories.

Single tree styles (shared by bonsai and penjing)

There are many styles of single tree bonsai and penjing. Most single tree bonsai and penjing can be categorized in one of the following five basic styles based on the trunk’s posture. The artist focuses on revealing the inherent nature of the plant material rather than forcing a tree to exemplify a certain style.

Formal Upright (bonsai term)
Upright Trunk (penjing term)

Formal upright

Formal upright

Recognized by a straight trunk with the apex directly above the roots.

Represents a tree with steady, purposeful, upward growth, benefiting from little environmental stress or competition.

Intent: calm and balanced strength.

Informal Upright (bonsai term)
Curved Trunk (penjing term)

Informal upright

Informal upright

Recognized by a naturally curved trunk, having its apex located above, or almost above, the trunk base.

Represents a tree making its way upward while responding to its changing environment.

Intent: making adjustments to achieve quiet stability.

Slanting (bonsai term)
Slanting Trunk (penjing term)

Slanting bonsai


Recognized by a leaning trunk that positions the apex away from the base.

Represents a tree that continues to grow despite displacement by the forces of nature.

Intent: precarious stability.

Semi-cascade (bonsai term)
Partial Hanging Cliff (penjing term)

Semi-cascade bonsai


Recognized by a trunk line more horizontal than vertical. Most of the foliage mass is above the pot and the apex is positioned outside and below the lip of the pot.

Represents a tree that responds to wind and eroding soil.

Intent: tension and struggle; weathering adversity.

Cascade (bonsai term)
Hanging Cliff (penjing term)

Cascade bonsai


Recognized by a rapidly descending trunk line with most of the foliage mass below the lip of the pot and the apex continuing the descent.

Represents a tree growing over an abyss.

Intent: transformation by adversity.

Group and forest styles (shared by bonsai and penjing)

Trees can be grouped two, three, five, or more to a pot to convey a natural and subtle relationship between each tree in the design. These compositions usually contain a single species, but there are compositions that have two and three species. The movement of line of each tree relates to the others. Typically, a hierarchy is developed with one dominant tree and each other subordinate in turn. They are designed to convey the natural development of a stand of trees or forest. However, forests and groupings that convey a clonal growth pattern will have all the trees in the composition of the same relative height and girth. The styles of formal upright, informal upright, and slanted can be used to advantage and the trees can be windswept, placed on rock, or developed from a raft (placing a stem down in the soil material so that each vertical branch becomes a separate tree). Trees are arranged in such a manner that each tree can be seen from the front. Typically, subtle vertical triangles develop in the placement of the trees with horizontal triangles in the canopy. Because of the added challenge of relating each tree to each other to make a congruent composition, this style of design is not usually taken on by beginners. A very good book on this subject is Forest, Rock Planting & Ezo Spruce Bonsai: A Gift from Saburo Kato to Present and Future Generations, by Saburo Kato (National Bonsai Foundation, 2001).

Landscape styles (only seen in penjing)

Landscape penjing is the oldest style of penjing. It resulted from the penjing artist’s desire to experience China’s mountainous landscapes while occupying a personal living space too small to permit such a design. The size of penjing landscape allows the viewer to contemplate and appreciate an expanse of scenery in a tiny space. This style of penjing conveys the feeling of a real but distant and wondrous mountainous setting. The emphasized element is rock, which is complemented with plant material, figurines, and accessories scaled to the rock composition. These landscapes can be furthered categorized as single peak, twin peak, multiple peak, cliff, canyon, and horizontal layer styles. If the composition incorporates soil then the design is called “land penjing.” If water is incorporated along with soil then it is referred to as “water-and-land penjing.” If water is not physically present but is suggested by fine white pebbles or sand, it is referred to as “land penjing with a suggestion of water.” In all cases the composition is arranged upon a tray.