It is the epitome of one man’s passionate sacrifice; a Korean pig farmer’s dream blossomed into reality.
Planted with more than 2000 bunjae (bonsai) trees of 100 different species, it is the largest garden of its kind in the world.
More than 40 years of backbreaking effort has made Korean gardener Mr. Bum-Young Sung an icon in reformist China, where the Communist Party’s embracing of economic and cultural reform has revitalized interest in its centuries-old culture, planting seeds for the regrowth of the delicate art of bunjae.
Commonly known in the West as bonsai, the name of the art which took root and flourished in Japan, bunjae first originated in China more than two thousand years ago and was developed as an art form in Korea during the Koryo Dynasty (AD 918 – 1392).
But it is believed to have been introduced to Japan as early as 611 by a Korean gardener called Rojagong. According to the Japanese Record of Ancient Events, after creating a pond and garden in the Kingdom of Baekje on the Korean Peninsula, Rojagong was sent to Japan to build a pond at Horyuji Temple and another at the emperor’s palace during the reign of Suiko (592 – 628).
Over the years, thousands of journalists, many from Korea and China, have also visited. Chinese journalists have lauded Mr. Sung’s work ethic.
Some have called his creation a miracle, others, “the most beautiful garden in the world.”
Visiting dignitaries have included former president of China, Jiang Zemin; former Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone; Secretary of the Worker’s Party of North Korea, Yong-Soon Kim; Minister of the People’s Armed Forces of North Korea, Il-chul Kim; and former U.S. ambassador, James T. Laney.
As a young man in his 20s fresh out of the Korean Army, Mr. Sung first visited the volcanic island of Jeju in 1963. Between establishing a successful tailoring business in Seoul, he left his growing family to re-visit Jeju more than 30 times over the next five years before finally buying land in the island’s north in 1968, which would eventually become Bunjae Artpia.
The local villagers thought him a “freak” and called him crazy as he cleared the rugged volcanic landscape by hand, and with no electricity or running water, set about establishing a farm on which to raise pigs and cattle to generate an income and produce fertilizer.
Though Cheongwon Farm was established in 1968, it would be another 24 years before Bunjae Artpia would be opened to the public.
At 71, Mr. Sung maintains a humble humility when talking about his life’s work.
His face, smoothed rather than furrowed by years of work in sun, rain and snow, wrinkles into a soft smile as he talks of his beloved bunjae trees and how they are pruned and tended.
It was ten years before Mr. Sung’s wife and family moved south from Seoul to live on Jeju Island and share a life of hardship, far removed from their previous existence in the fast-moving cosmopolitan capital. It was a move that nearly ended their marriage.
She chose to take the children with her back to Seoul, but the night before the family’s planned departure, she read her husband a poem with her eyes full of tears, reassuring him of her commitment to stay, forever. It was called “Youngjuwon — God is in the Artpia forever” and its engraved verses have since become part of the garden.
When the Asian economic crisis threatened Korea in 1997, it also nearly spelled the end of the garden. Admissions plummeted and in October, 1998, the bank ordered Mr. Sung to sell.
”I could not sleep,” he says. “I asked many banks for money. Yet, they said that trees could not be collateral.”
“Every morning, I prayed and prayed on seeing the sun: ‘God, please let me have no ill feeling against other people. Let me do what I am doing now. Let me live like a tree until I go to you.’ Then, I worked again as usual. I built up the stone walls to protect the trees from cold wind.”
As Bunjae Artpia went up for auction, bunjae lovers from all over Asia rallied to Mr. Sung’s cause, offering support and donating funds to ensure the garden would continue to grow under his care.
In February 2000, Mr. Sung injured his back and was hospitalized for the fifth time, underwent an operation and was bedridden for 40 days. He received flowers and phone calls from well-wishers and emails and letters of encouragement from around the world.
The art of bunjae has formed Mr. Sung’s philosophy on life: through pain, there can be beauty.
He is horrified with the suggestion that the practice of bunjae — where pot-bound trees have their growth stunted by regular trimming of their roots and their branches often twisted and shaped with aluminium wire and rods — amounts to torture.
“Growing a tree based on the physiology and nature of the tree is like giving character to a person. It requires the affection, technique, time and effort of a dedicated grower.
“There is no person who does not like something beautiful.
“Growing bunjae is like raising children with strict discipline.
“As endless agony and patience are required to raise a person to become an intelligent and productive citizen, it requires affection and effort to grow a tree into a beautiful bunjae.”
High stone walls made from volcanic basalt protect the garden’s trees from the freezing winds that blow off the East China Sea in winter and stone pathways weave through a wonderland of exquisite bunjae, subtly placed in a landscape of carefully trimmed lawns, quiet, meditative areas and tumbling waterfalls.
Feature ponds lie dark and still between stands of decorative red pines. The ponds are filled with large, multi-coloured goldfish which, with the stamp of a tourist’s foot, form a surging carpet of glittering silver, yellow, orange and golden scales as hundreds rise to the surface in search of food.
Carefully displayed around the garden are many of Mr. Sung’s artistic gems, bunjae created by his own hand, or collected from all over Korea and transplanted into the garden or into decorative pots.
Visitors wander for hours and stand in awe of a 30-year-old pear tree no more than 40cm high bearing full-sized fruit, a 70-year-old Korean quince tree of the same stature, a 500-year-old juniper tree and a gnarled, twisted yew tree in its 200th year.
“I don’t believe it’s a paradise, but many who visit say so,” he says. “For myself, I still have more work to do here.’’
But amongst the trees, in the shadows thrown by the soft shafts of afternoon sunlight, it’s difficult to define Mr. Sung from the garden.
Perhaps that is his intention.
* Compiled from an interpreted interview and the book The Spirited Garden, Bunjae Artpia, The story of a farmer and his love for trees, stones and life, by Bum-young Sung.
Photo “Mr. Bum-young Sun prunes a tree” © Vincent Ross
All other photos © Bunjae Artpia