Step inside this old general store and you’re in ancient China. Known locally as the “Chinese Bonsai shop”, it’s the Lingnan Penjing Academy of Australia, an unexpected find in the heart of the quiet, historic village of Lue, 25km east of Mudgee, in central western NSW.
Lingnan Penjing Academy, Lue, NSW
Here, Philippe Tot, proprietor and master practitioner, has created a place of simple beauty, where people can learn the Chinese Bonsai-like technique known as “Penjing” (the ancestor of modern Bonsai), as well as meditation and other ancient Chinese cultural practices and philosophy. Visitors can take time to enjoy the beauty of the trees, and buy one to take home.
Philippe Tot, proprietor and master practitioner
Display shelves- just a few of the trees on sale last Christmas
In the traditional Chinese Study Hall, ancient tools, pots and plants hundreds of years old, and Chinese decorations and furniture, are displayed. It’s a cool, quiet place where the only sounds may be the Chinese music softly playing, and the trickling of water in the fountains.
Traditional Penjing tools
Behind the Study Hall there is a shop which sells pots and other requirements for the creation of the beautiful Penjing trees.
Philippe’s various practices- meditation, herbalism, philosophy and the cultivation of the trees- form part of a whole system and lifestyle which he has mastered over many years. When Philippe was 7 years old, his neighbour, an old Chinese man, began teaching him how to shape the trees, cultivate and nourish the soil and capture the trees’ energy and movement in a form which embodies beauty and the harmonising of opposites.
Philippe had found his life’s passion. He went on to work, and eventually become curator of the Penjing collection, at the Darling Harbour Chinese Garden, Sydney, where remained for almost 20 years before setting up his Academy in Newtown in 2009.
Since then over 500 students have passed through Philippe’s training courses. Philippe is highly regarded in Guangdong province, China, and the wider Penjing world. Largely due to Philippe’s efforts outside China since the 1990s, and more directly since the Academy was established in 2009, Australia has become a hotspot of Penjing activities and a major centre of excellence in Penjing.
Chinese Elm, in winter
Philippe’s Newtown Academy was highly successful, but with a young family, a “tree change” beckoned, and he relocated the Academy to Lue in 2017. The Academy offers students a place where they can find their passion, study, and embark on a path of self-discovery.
Some of Philippe’s favourite trees for Penjing are the Chinese Elm, crepe myrtle and Chinese maple. These all grow well in the central west.
Philippe’s Penjing are cultivated in a variety of approaches but, unlike modern Bonsai, he does not use set styles to approach design. Rather he uses nature’s laws and simple categories including “One tree”, “Water and Land”, “Mountain Water” and “Dynamic”. Each tree has its own story to tell, showing life’s activities – a history of growth, discard and rebirth.
Chinese elm in summer
Some of the trees on display are over 100 years old, and many are potted in antique Chinese pots from the 1860’s to 1920’s.
The technique is displayed rather than hidden.
Wood and wire shape and support the trees.
Traditional styles of pots for Penjing
Philippe has embraced natural resources of the Lue area- locally collected rocks and soil, dam water, moss and herbs. The soil is particularly useful for Philippe’s 100% organic approach as it contains a diverse range of minerals which, mixed with a special ingredient of beneficial bacteria, dam water, and other ingredients, produces the dynamic and self-sustaining soil for the trees.
The Penjing trees are sold with care instructions, which include regular watering with green tea or honey water, to encourage the bacteria.
A Penjing cedar decorated for Christmas
Philippe’s courses run for 8 weeks each (2 hours per week) or on weekends. Hobbyists and more serious students, and all levels of skills, are catered for. The courses cover in-depth principles in Theory, Practical in Chinese Penjing, Inner Healing and their associated Philosophies as well as meditation exercises. The Academy currently offers 36 grades.