Before he left China in 1986, Che Zhao Sheng’s shifu, or teacher, said to him, “After you go to the United States, share some of our Chinese culture with them if you have a chance.” The shifu was a penjing master, the man who taught Che the art of creating miniaturized trees and plants in pots, pruned and constricted over time to take the shape and spirit of their full-size siblings.
Today, more than three decades later, the student is fulfilling that legacy, and in a major way. Che is specialist gardener for the penjing court, the Verdant Microcosm, in the newly expanded Chinese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
A spry 69-year-old with a broad-brimmed straw hat and a water bottle tucked into the side of his workman’s pants, he is surveying the 21 penjing brought from his home garden, plants that have been unloaded in a cluster on the ground. He points out the varieties — Chinese elm, olive, ficus — then suggests we go look at one of his favorites down the hill.
The court is composed of winding paths, whitewashed walls and occasional pieces of gnarled Taihu rock imported from Lake Tai in China. We pause before a twisting