By Karen Zhang
On a recent weekend I visited the national arboretum in Washington and marveled at the exquisite bonsai trees on display. The Bonsai Garden inside the arboretum—a huge botanical garden containing a variety of woody plants intended partly for scientific study—is divided into three parts: the Chinese pavilion, the Japanese pavilion and the North American pavilion.
Greeting by a zigzagging stone path lined by Asian plants, such as needle pine, willows and bamboos, I entered the Bonsai Garden with continuous wows. I couldn’t believe that in North America I could find something resembling the essence of a Chinese classical garden. The swallow-tailed roof, stone wall, red-wood furniture, reflection pond and above all, the miniature trees in pots, some of them aged a hundred years old.
Bonsai, literally meaning plantings in a pot, is considered a refined garden art in China. Traditionally, one would find Chinese scholars’ homes with bonsais for interior and exterior decoration — a symbol of elite status. Wandering around the Chinese pavilion made me feel as if were in Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city renowned for its classical gardens. There were illustrations on display telling visitors how Bonsai was made by the delicate hands of masters. But after seeing that, you may want to think twice about “torturing” a plant to satisfy your perfection toward beauty. For a modern sensibility, there are too many manipultaitons– wiring, twisting and replanting — for us to feel the the beauty of the bonsais is worth it.
The North American pavilion exhibits a number of bonsai done by American masters, some of whom are Chinese by ethnicity. The trees are slightly bigger and their style is wilder. I guess that gives credit to the American no-strings-attached free spirit. American masters prefer to use bulky tree trunks like bald cypress and juniper. One bonsai was so upright that it reminded me of a strong silver sword piercing the sky.
I saw in the arboretum brochures a few names of Westerners who were introduced as the Bonsai Garden keepers. Some of the bonsai trees in the North American pavilion were created by them. I understand this is how Americans present what they learn about the traditional Asian culture, and how they incorporate the Chinese bonsai planting skills with American aesthetics. As a Chinese, I think it’s great to see East Asian culture presented so beautifully in America.