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 juniper tree a few feet high, positioned on a stone pedestal, dramatic against a creamy wall. Its elegant, broad canopy flows from a weathered trunk. Che is anxious to finish installing the other penjing in time for previews, so we head back up the hill. It looks like the other gardeners are on break, so we continue our interview in the shade of the pavilion that overlooks the landscape.
Born in Guangzhou, China, Che started studying penjing when he was 26. He practiced with Lu Zhi Quan, the son of noted master Lu Xue Ming, in Guangzhou, and later became a student of Master Lu himself. In 1986, Che immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in San Gabriel.
“When you first arrive as a Chinese [immigrant], you’re penniless,” he says in Chinese. “You have to be willing to do all kinds of work.” He’s taken jobs in restaurants, he’s worked as a residential gardener. He started as a volunteer at the Huntington, helping to develop and to tend to a small collection of black pine penjing.
“When we began building the Chinese Garden,” says