Bonsai is a Japanese art form that has transcended from the Chinese art of penjing over a thousand years ago. The term bonsai may be loosely used to reference the art of making miniature-scale trees but actually, it is more than an art form.
Bonsai utilizes horticultural techniques along with artistic applications to cultivate miniature replicas of trees as they’re found in nature. The tradition has been refined over the last millennium to reflect the aesthetic qualities found in nature through balance, simplicity and harmony. The aesthetic element of age is also predominantly symbolized in bonsai, utilizing various techniques applied to the design and cultivation of each creation by the artist. Symbolism is also employed to describe the relationship between the stylized bonsai and trees found in nature.
Bonsai uses the medium of symbolism to communicate ideas and emotions. The meanings of these symbols are often incomprehensible to the naked eye. An understanding of Japanese aesthetics can help you appreciate the rich symbolism in bonsai art.
Growing and caring for bonsai plants are using a combination of horticultural techniques and artistic applications. The goal is to create miniaturized versions of trees and plants as these are seen in nature. The practice and the art of making bonsai has been actually refined over centuries to reflect the aesthetic qualities in nature through balance, harmony, and simplicity.
Another element that it predominantly presented and symbolized in bonsai is age. Various techniques have been used to cultivate bonsai trees to create that aged appearance in miniature trees. Again symbolism is used to describe the relationship between bonsai trees and trees that are found in nature.
Balance in bonsai aesthetics
One of the first things that you will notice when you view any bonsai tree presentation is the presence of balance. This is a very important element in bonsai aesthetics. The shape of a triangle is used in overall design because the shape symbolizes strength and stability.
But rather than following the rules of symmetry in Western cultures and using equilateral triangles, bonsai use the isosceles triangle. The isosceles have unequal sides and this creates asymmetry. In various Eastern art forms like flower arranging, paintings and bonsai making, asymmetry creates “sabi” or deliberate imperfection. And this is considered a more natural sense of balanced and is much valued in Japanese culture.
A triangle and its equal sides may seem passive and motionless. Asymmetrical triangles like an isosceles triangle create a sense of moment which symbolizes the continuation of life. This natural occurrence is very significant in Japanese culture as with other cultures as well. It represents movement, freedom, and continuity.
The simplicity in every bonsai design
Simplicity is found in almost all things in Japanese culture. Their homes, offices, art, gardens, buildings, architecture and even their way of life, all evolve in a simple way of living and looking at things. Simplicity also epitomizes Japanese sensibilities and their respect for nature.
In bonsai, simplicity is found in the design of the tree as well as the container that houses the tree. Even the color of the pot or container is in a neutral tone which expresses simplicity found in nature. Bonsai predominantly focuses on the principles of aesthetics. It simply states that nature and creation should remain free from unnecessary ornamentation and the bonsai showpiece should remain as the focal point of the piece.
Bonsai pieces, no matter how simple or profound, has a sense of simplicity. The piece is usually the center point and the grower or bonsai master uses artistic skills in deviating the eyes of the beholder to look at the simple beauty of bonsai. From the intricate aerial roots, the curves and creases of the trunk to the lovely plumes of leaves and flowers, there is balance and simplicity in the bonsai design. There’s no need to use a colorful pot or add ornamental elements on the soil. The tree is already strikingly-beautiful on its own.
The harmony of different bonsai design elements
Harmony is highly-valued in Japanese culture and is seen throughout the composition of the bonsai. There is downgraded elegance in bonsai that supports Japanese philosophy that something with less power may have a greater effect.
Bonsai growers pay special attention to creating unity in shapes and textures. This helps contributes to the overall sense of harmony in nature, a dominant theme in bonsai growing. The curves of the bark, the fluid lines of the branches all symbolize the harmonious co-existence of all the elements. You will also find crooked corners and jagged edges in the bark or branches which symbolize difficult moments in life.
Harmony is very evident in Japan’s conflict-avoiding culture. It is explained in the concept of “wa” which translates to “harmony”. Japanese laws, rules, customs, and manners emphasize the need to prevent conflict as much as possible which, of course, has its positive and negative effects. Japanese people tend to prioritize harmony in groups and strive hard to create a harmonious place to live in. An example of the effects of a group harmony is the low crime rate in the country. Generally, people tend to get along well and are rare to see anger expressed between two individuals.
Harmony in Japanese culture is symbolized in bonsai. The different elements that create harmony in a bonsai piece represent the different opinions of people. When group harmony is maintained, good and lasting balance and peace will reign.
Age in the aesthetics of bonsai
Age plays a significant role in the aesthetics of bonsai. Carefully manipulated characteristics of the tree’s roots, trunk and branches symbolize different stages of life, especially those marked by age. For instance, exposed roots give the appearance of erosion and age. Trunks that break the surface at an angle and continue with the tree growing in series of circles, produce the illusion of age, and symbolize triumph over the elements of nature. A trunk with a smooth texture and without blemishes impresses upon the viewer, a sense of youth and vitality. In contrast, scarred and gnarled trunks are symbolic of old age. A dead tree trunk placed strategically within the composition can symbolize the continuity of the tree’s evolution. Bonsai trained with thick lower drooping branches appear to be old, while branches that grow upward have the opposite effect by symbolizing the vigor of youth. Full and luscious growth also symbolizes the health vitality of a young tree. Sparse growth is used to support the other characteristics of age.
No doubt that there is beauty in aging and age plays a very significant role in the aesthetics of bonsai. The tree’s roots, trunk, and branches are carefully manipulated to represent the different stages of life.
Exposed roots in bonsai provide the appearance of age and erosion. Trunks that break the surface at an angle and continue with the tree growing in circles express an illusion of age. This also symbolizes the many triumphs in nature like severe weather, dry seasons and even the onslaught of pests.
A trunk with hardly any blemishes and with a smooth texture emphasizes youthfulness and vitality. On the other hand, scared and gnarled trunks represent old age. Some bonsai presentations may have a dead tree trunk included in the design. This represents the continuity of the tree’s evolution.
You may have branches that are trained to droop which represent old age. On the contrary, branches that are trained to rise up creates an effect of youthfulness and vigor. Also, bonsai trees with full and luscious growth symbolize the vitality of a young tree while sparse growth symbolizes the opposite.
In Japan, the elderly are treated with respect. Just like bonsai where a mixture of youthfulness and aging is presented, many Japanese families have several generations in one roof. This is believed to be one of the many reasons why the elderly in Japan live longer compared to the elderly in other countries. In fact, there are now more elderly people (over 65 years old) in Japan by any age group. Experts point out that the reasons for longevity include strong community bonds, eating a healthy, low-fat diet, low stress and plenty of exercises.
There are beauty and respect in old age, as much as there are many regards for beauty and the symbolism of age in bonsai.
The symbolism associated with type
There are a variety of styles and types of bonsai and each one has a distinct meaning and symbolism. Each small detail sends a message that contributes to the larger story found in the ongoing creation. And it’s not just all about the bonsai tree, even the container and the accessories are carefully chosen to represent the many colors found in nature.
Bonsai are differentiated by styles and types, with each one represented in nature. The chokkan appears upright, with a straight trunk, symbolizing a healthy but isolated tree. The windswept appearance of the fukinagashi is representative of a tree continuously affected by strong winds, often found near the shore or on sparsely-populated plains. Cascading bonsai trees symbolize their full-size counterparts often found in nature growing on the sides of cliffs.
The art of bonsai is robust with symbolism and meaning where everything means something. Each detail sends a subliminal message, contributing to the larger story encompassed within the ongoing creation. Container and accessory colors are carefully chosen to represent the hues found in nature. Twists and turns in branches symbolize age and the journey through time. The types of trees used are symbolically significant as well. Even bonsai displays (link to displaying bonsai trees page) are carefully choreographed to represent proportion and harmony. While some symbols appropriated to bonsai appeal to its mythic nature, much of the symbolism intends to communicate the aesthetics that make up the art of bonsai.
For instance, the chokkan is an upright bonsai presentation with a straight trunk. This symbolizes a healthy tree however it is isolated from all other trees. The fukinagashi is the windswept presentation and it symbolizes a tree that is continuously affected by strong winds found near the shore or a sparsely-populated plain. On the other hand, a cascading bonsai presentation symbolizes trees that grow along the sides of cliffs. Plants and trees face hardship in surviving these very hard circumstances.
Bonsai designs and types
This is very popular broom style bonsai design that is suited for deciduous trees with extensive and fine branches. This design oozes simplicity because it’s straight and upright. This does not continue to the top as it branches out in all directions at about 1/3 of the height of the tree. The branches and the thick leaves create a ball-shaped crown which makes a stunning sight during the fall and winter time.
This is a formal upright style that is a very common form of bonsai design. The chokkan style occurs in nature especially when the tree is exposed to lots of light and does not face the problem of other trees. For this style, tapering the upright-growing trunk should be clearly visible. The trunk must be thicker at the bottom and must grow thinner with the height of the tree. And at about ¼ of the total length of the trunk, branching should begin. There should be a single branch at the top of the tree that looks like a crown of leaves. The trunk should not span the entire length of the tree.
In the informal upright design, the trunk grows upright which looks like the shape of the letter “S”. This style is common in bonsai as well as in nature. The tapering of the trunk should be clearly visible; the base of the trunk is clearly thicker than the higher portion of the trunk.
Slanting bonsai style
The slanting bonsai style is the result of wind blowing in one dominant direction. It is also when a tree grows in the shadow and must bend towards the sun, the tree will lean in one direction. The leaning style should grow at an angle of 60 to 80 degrees relative to the ground. In this style, the roots are well-developed on one side to keep the tree standing.
On the side where the tree is leaning, the roots are not as well-developed. The first level branch grows opposite the direction of the tree to create a sense of visual balance. The trunk may be slightly bent or completely straight. The trunk remains thicker at the bottom than at the top.
Cascade bonsai style
This design depicts the natural appearance of trees in nature on a steep cliff. The tree bends down as a result of snow or falling rocks. This is quite a difficult design to maintain in bonsai because it opposes the tree’s natural tendency to grow upright.
This type of bonsai is planted in tall pots to support the tree’s cascading growth. The tree grows upright for a small stretch but then the trunk bends downwards. Meanwhile, the crown of the tree grows above the rim of the pot. The subsequent branches grow alternately left and right on the outermost curves of an S-shaped trunk. The branches should grow out in a horizontal manner to maintain the balance of the tree.
- Semi-cascade bonsai style (han-kengai)
Semi-cascade bonsai style
The semi-cascade bonsai style is quite similar to the cascading style and is found in nature along cliffs and near the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards or sidewards. But unlike the cascade style, the trunk in this style will never grow below the bottom of the planter or pot. The crown is located at the bottom of the rim of the pot. Eventually, branching will occur below the rim.
Literati bonsai style
In this style of bonsai, the tree is found in areas that are densely populated by many other trees. As you can see, the competition is very fierce that the tree can only survive by growing taller and stronger than others. The trunk grows crookedly and does not branch out because the sun only hits the top of the tree. To make the tree look tougher, the branches are joined or removed from the side of the trunk. This is a symbol of the tree’s struggle to survive in nature. The trees are planted in small round pots to emphasize the design.
- Windswept bonsai style (Fukinagashi)
Windswept bonsai style
This is a windswept style is a good example of trees that struggle to survive. The branches of the tree grow to one side as the wind blows constantly in one direction. The branches may grow out on the sides of the trunk however these will eventually be bent to one side.
- Double trunk style (sokan)
Double trunk style
This bonsai style is common in nature and may not be very common in bonsai. The tree trunk branches out into two main trunks; both trunks grow out of one root system. It is possible to have one trunk smaller than the other and the other trunk thicker than the other. The thicker trunk will grow nearly upright while the smaller one will grow out in a slanted manner. Both trunks will create a single green canopy of leaves.
Multitrunk bonsai style
This style is similar to a double trunk style but it has three or more trunks. All the trunks here grow from a single root system and is basically just one tree. All the trunks that grow from the main trunk form one crown of leaves where the thickest and the most developed trunk grows at the top.
Forest bonsai style
The forest bonsai style looks like a multi-trunk but these trees don’t grow from one trunk. These trees grow from individual trunks and are arranged in one large pot. The most developed tree or trees are planted in the middle of the set. One the side of the arrangement are few smaller trees that are planted in a staggered pattern. The design has been styled to look like an actual forest.
Growing on a rock bonsai style
In the real world, trees that grow on a rocky terrain are forced to search for nutrient-rich soil using their roots. The roots may grow in cracks and holes. The roots tend to naturally protect themselves from the sun with a special bark that grows to cover them. The roots will also grow over and around obstacles; over a rock or tile or anything that will be in their way. Taking care of a seki-joju style is actually no different from growing other bonsais except that you must take care of the bonsai roots as well.
Growing in a rock bonsai style
In this style, the roots grow in cracks and holes of rocks. There is not much room for roots to grow and absorb nutrients from the soil with this formation. The tree will not grow well in this condition, therefore, you must fertilize and water the bonsai often. There is not much space to store water and nutrients in this setting as the bonsai grows in a shallow pot with a rock in the middle of the setting.
Raft bonsai style
This bonsai setting is placed in a cracked tree; all the branches are pointing outward and upward. The roots of the trees will provide enough nutrients for the trees to survive. As the new roots grow, these take over the function of the old root system. The old branches point to the air become trunks with more branches due to improved delivery of nutrients in the system. And as the new trunks grow, these contribute to one single canopy of lovely leaves.
Shari bonsai style
The shari bonsai style is all about trees developing a bald or barkless area on their trunks as time passes by. The barkless part is usually due to harsh weather conditions. The bald part usually starts from the area where the root emerges from the ground and this grows thinner and thinner to the top. The barkless part can be bleached using sunlight. This becomes a special feature of the tree. Some growers also remove the bark with a sharp knife and bleach the exposed new bark with calcium sulfate. This speeds up the bleaching process.
All the efforts involved in growing a bonsai relies on the understanding of the physiology of the tree that you are trying to grow. You must understand how a tree grows and the factors that affect its growth to shape your tree accordingly. Bonsai art creates a pleasing balance in form and maintains a respect for the physiology of shaping.
Bonsai art evolves in symbolism and meaning. Every element in a design means something. Each detail creates a subliminal message and the larger story contributes to the creation of the design. From the roots, trunks, and branches, every little detail has meaning. Bonsai also takes its design and inspiration from nature as well as cultural and environmental influences.
Every bonsai display is carefully choreographed to create proportion and harmony. And the most common symbolism are balance, simplicity, harmony, and age. These symbols are evident not just in bonsai but also in real life. Learning about these symbols will help you create a healthy, strong and well-designed bonsai tree.