Is bonsai changing?

by Rudi Adam

Since its early origins in China and Japan, Bonsai has undergone many changes over a relatively long period of time. These changes occurred in the actual size (early bonsai being rather large collected specimens) in the species of plant material used and the style favoured at the time, eg. literati.

Bonsai, being exclusive to a small group of rich and influential people was grown in a highly individualistic manner and taught to pupils (apprentices) by observation.

It was only after World War 2 that Mr. Yoshimura, in an attempt to explain the art of Bonsai to us 'Westerners', introduced written classifications and he divided Bonsai into the five groups or styles that we know today. This group classification, coupled with the discipline of branch training, epitomised for him the difference between Bonsai and ordinary potted plants.

The resulting classification and rules are still with us, causing some division among growers in their interpretation and strictness of application. One must remember that fixed rules take the art out of the art of Bonsai. To my mind there are no rules - those writings of Mr Yoshimura should rather be viewed as guidelines to the betterment of the art.

The formulation of these I rules I was nevertheless one of the most memorable highlights in the history of Bonsai and an invaluable teaching aid to all not really acquainted with oriental philosophy.

Another highlight as far as I am concerned, happened in March 1934 when Bonsai was officially recognised as an art form For the first time Kokofu Bonsai Kai was invited to exhibit its work to the public at UENO PARK Art Gallery. The first exhibition of Bonsai outside the Orient was held in LONDON in the year 1909. It is reputed that at this time some Bonsai had already been grown in the British Isles for some years.

The adoption of Bonsai by the Western World after World War 2 began with the first book in English by Mr Yoshimura. As Bonsai grew in popularity, so also did the publications (books and magazines) over the past 40 years, with an absolute flood in the last five years, each telling the new bonsai grower which rules to follow, but most of them ignoring artistic freedom.

RULES MUST BE SEEN AS GUIDELINES ONLY At the same time let me hasten to the defence of these rules. They are necessary to instil the sense and knowledge of asymmetry (foreign to our culture) into the new Bonsai fundi. Even for the more experienced grower these same rules come in handy when faced with a multiple choice.

Since the introduction of Bonsai to the other continents more changes have occurred. New plant material and their growing habits dictate these subtle changes. (Who had ever heard of the Baobab style etc.?) At the same time innovations emanate from Japan. Emphasis on movement in the design of all styles is now in fashion. Greater use of flow lines is evident in the new designs.

IS BONSAI CHANGING? --- Yes. New tools new techniques, new approach, new styles all to the betterment of our art form. Stagnation is the worst enemy, change means new life.

The strict disciplinary code of our social life has been left behind in the Western world since the end of the last century and in Japan since the end of World War 2. The new era is more casual in its approach to life as well as in the art forms, Bonsai being no exception There is an explosion of new ideas in our world, bringing with it new styles and combinations of old and new, but all of them more fluid in their approach.

MOVEMENT not RIGIDITY is the new battle cry. You may join this revolution, but know your history and build on its solid foundation.

It is inevitable that some outrageous designs will come to the fore in the coming years. Do not be misled even in the new approach good balance and aesthetic appeal must prevail and be recognised as quality.

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Random Bonsai Tip

When a tree has reversed taper or a narrowed 'waistline' above the nebari, you could do an airlayering just above the narrow section; or you could damage the cambium layer by either hammering gently with a mallet or by piercing the bark right into the cambium with a sharp object eg. scissors or an awl. You could also make deep incisions along the grain of the bark, where the healing process will cause scarring which would then thicken the trunk.