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Power Bonsai

A trip to Shanghai’s botanical gardens and the Garden City of Rugao

Ofer Grunwald travels to China to be part of the emerging bonsai scene. The invitation of Sae Won Kim, of the Korean Bonsai Growers’ Association and sponsorship of Prof. Amy Liang made this amazing trip possible.

Rocked to the core

Months back, I was talking with a friend from the German bonsai community who had recently returned from a visit to China. He talked extensively of the bonsai he saw there, the profound impact it had on his view of the world and of what it means to do bonsai. Essentially, he said, he had always had an idea of what good bonsai was for him. He knew which trees he liked and why he liked them. He knew which designs moved him emotionally. During his trip he encountered bonsai that were very different from the designs he knew and liked, yet they still created an enormous aesthetic and emotional impact on him. This experience rocked him to the core.

  1. A unique Juniperus formosana hayata in Rugao.
  2. Stylish people enjoy stylish trees.
  3. The magnificent entrance to the main bonsai museum in the International Gardening City, Rugao.
  4. An overview of the Shanghai International Youth Forum exhibition.

Bonsai evolution

I found his story fascinating — not only did it echo many of my own sentiments, but China is generally becoming one of the most interesting arenas of bonsai evolution in the world today. So naturally, when the opportunity came to visit two cutting-edge bonsai projects in China, I immediately said ‘YES!!!!’ (I believe I did actually use that many exclamation marks).

China is becoming one of the most interesting arenas of bonsai evolution in the world today


The trip started in Shanghai, where I was very happy to meet my partners for the wild ride through the emerging bonsai powerhouse that is China – Jan Culek, from the Czech Republic; Dario Mader, from Switzerland; Balint Tirpak, from Hungary; Max Engels, from Germany; Louison Leroy, from France; and Andrew Robson, from the US.

This crack team of the up-and-comers of Western bonsai, had been assembled for the Shanghai International Youth Forum of Bonsai, hosted by Shanghai Botanical Gardens and its newly-renovated bonsai garden. The event, brainchild of Sae Won Kim from Korea, would bring this group of Western artists together with leading young talents from China, Taiwan, and Korea, for two days of exhibition, demos and talks.

  1. Paths lead the way at the entrance to the Shanghai Botanical Gardens’ new bonsai garden
  2. Artistic director of the exhibition in Shanghai and provider of many of the trees on display, Mr Shi Peiyuan with one of his creations
  3. One of the exhibits inside the main bonsai museum of Rugao
  4. This incredible juniper is displayed at the museum
  5. A trident maple in Rugao

The Shanghai Botanical Gardens are a vast expanse of botanical wonderment in the heart of Shanghai’s hyper-urbanism. The Gardens’ newly re-opened bonsai garden, however, is truly a thing of beauty. Meandering paths, leading to hidden courtyards and quiet alcoves, seem to strip away all sense of time and place, drawing visitors deeper and deeper to become blissfully lost in quiet bonsai contemplation.

The serene calm of the bonsai garden was hilariously contrasted by the hustle and bustle of the Youth Forum event. The exhibition was set up in a less formal, contemporary fashion, which made for some very effective, engaging displays. Of particular note was the display by Mr Mitsuo Chishima from Japan, who specializes in super-mame bonsai smaller than the size of a fingernail. Mr Chishima also makes all the striking ceramic pots and stands for his miniscule creations, and the artistry of them is nothing short of astounding.

  1. Pomegranate (Punica) at Rugao.
  2. Shops surround the main museum in Rugao.
  3. In an exhibition-like presentation, stylish shops display their wares at the main museum

Bonus ‘buy’

After the symposium, the 20 local and international demonstrators were put to work in a hectic two-hour demonstration that pushed their skills to the limit. The local crowd seemed to enjoy the event greatly and were particularly excited to see the Western group at work. The demo over, we rescued one of our group from the clutches of a middle-aged Chinese woman who was already haggling with the Gardens’ staff to buy him. Then we were off on the second leg of our trip.

The second part of our tour would give us a sneak peek into one of the major bonsai projects that will be unveiled in China in a few years — the Rugao International Garden City (IGC). The IGC is a massive project, spanning 20 square kilometres, being developed as a national agri-tech centre. At the heart of the IGC is a huge bonsai and garden production complex, at the centre of that is a jaw-droppingly beautiful bonsai museum, as well as a market.

a. The massive line-up of 20 demonstrators, after a hectic two-hour demo session
b. Mr Wan Li is head of the company responsible for the ambitious project taking shape in Rugao

Bonsai shopping

While the rest of the group was quickly put to work on another demo, I took time to explore the row upon row of artisan studios, display gardens, and shops. The bonsai project at Rugao is nothing short of an awe-inspiring display of national strength, applied with the utmost care and attention to detail. Everything about the place was impressive — from the architecture to the level of craftsmanship of the bonsai artisans. The thought and care that had gone into the project was even evident in the selection of juniper foliage being grafted, which was probably the best that any of us had ever seen.

As the trip drew to a close and we started making our way back home, I couldn’t help but think back to that conversation of a few months earlier and of the deep impression that China had left on my good friend from Germany. After the dizzying experiences of that week, I could only agree that China is definitely poised to make a deep, lasting impression on the global bonsai scene.

The exhibition was set up with fewer formal displays than normal; this created a calm and serene atmosphere.


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Publication dates

English language edition 2024Publication Dates
IssueE-MagazineEuropeRest o/t World
2024-1 #186 | #209- January /FebruaryJan. 1, 2024Jan. 15Jan. 22
2024-2 #187 | #210- March / AprilMar. 4Mar. 18Mar. 25
2024-3 #188 | #211- May / JuneMay 6May 20May 27
2024-4 #189 | #212 -July / AugustJuly 1July 15July 22
2024-5 #190 | #213- September / OctoberSep. 2Sep.16Sep. 23
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