Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bonsai Aesthetics

This article is copied from an article by the same name at If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to that article where there is much more information, links, pictures, etc.

Bonsai Aesthetics vary according to the style of bonsai which is sought and according to individual tastes. The discussion of bonsai characteristics may be discussed in two parts: general aesthetics and aesthetic schools.

General Aesthetics

The following characteristics are desirable in many Japanese bonsai and other styles of container-grown trees, whatever the style:


By definition, a bonsai is a tree which is kept small enough to be container-grown in while otherwise fostered to have a mature appearance. One way in which bonsai are classified is according to size. Mame are ideally less than 10 cm (4 inches) tall and can be held in the palm of the hand. Shohin are about 25 cm (10 inches) tall, while other bonsai are larger and can not be easily moved.[1]


This is the trait which all of the remaining points of aesthetics seek to create. It is a sense of physical weight, the illusion of mass, the appearance of maturity or advanced age, and the illusive quality of dignity.

Leaf Reduction

Leaf reduction is a related to the general miniaturization described above but is something which varies over the life cycle of a particular bonsai. For example, a bonsai’s leaves might be allowed to attain full-size for many years in order to encourage vigor and growth of some other aspect of the bonsai. It is usually desirable to attain a degree of leaf reduction prior to exhibiting a bonsai. Leaf reduction may be encouraged by pruning and is sometimes achieved by the total exfoliation of a bonsai during one part of its growing season. Conifer needles may be more difficult to reduce than other sorts of foliage.


This refers to the “woody-ness” of a bonsai’s trunk and branches so that they have a mature appearance. This typically means the surface is encouraged to become rough and brown. In some cases this aesthete will vary, such as in a birch tree bonsai attaining the white colour and exfoliating bark of a mature specimen.


Also known as "buttressing", nebari is the visible spread of roots above the growing medium at the base of a bonsai. Nebari helps a bonsai seem grounded and well-anchored and helps a tree look old, mature, and more akin to a full-sized tree.[1]


Ramification is the splitting of branches and twigs into smaller ones. It is encouraged by pruning and may be integrated with practices that promote leaf reduction.


Bonsai artists sometimes foster certain types of deadwood to be produced by and remain on a bonsai tree, just as such things as bare, dead branches may occur on full-sized trees. Two specific types of deadwood are jin and shari. The presence of deadwood is more optional and less typical than most of the other points mentioned here.[1]


Like deadwood, curvature is optional. Bonsai that achieve a sense of age while remaining straight and upright can be especially impressive, but many bonsai (including the stereotypical bonsai illustrated above) rely upon curvature of the trunk to give it the illusion of weight and age. Curvature of the trunk that occurs between the roots and the lowest branch is known as tachiagari.[1]

Aesthetic schools

The art of artistically growing small trees in containers may be divided into two primary "schools" of practice:

Japanese (bonsai)

The term "bonsai' properly refers only to this, the Japanese art of growing miniature trees. The Japanese aesthetic is centered on the principle of "heaven and earth in one container". In its perfection, bonsai is an expression of Zen Buddhism and expresses how the past, the present, humanity, the elements and change all are intertwined into this unique method of meditation and expression.[2]

The Japanese bonsai are meant to evoke the essential spirit of the plant being used: in all cases, they must look natural and never show the intervention of human hands. However, the art of bonsai also has strict criteria for success and rigid rules which are rarely broken. For example, tree branches must never cross and trees should bow slightly forward, never lean back.[3]

Chinese (penjing)

The Chinese art of growing miniature trees, properly called penjing, seeks to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts. Philosophically, this craft is influenced by the principle of Taoism, specifically the concept of Yin and Yang: the conceptualization of the universe as governed by two primal opposing but complementary forces. Inspiration is not limited to nature, but also from poetry and visual art, of which factor similar aesthetic considerations. Common themes include dragons and the strokes of fortuitous characters. At its highest level, the artistic value of penjing is on par with that of poetry, calligraphy, brush painting and garden art.[3]

Penjing has less emphasis on technical perfection, and the art is not as rigidly categorized as the art of bonsai, and such things as tangled roots or pruning scars (which are against the bonsai aesthete) are allowed if it fits the overall design. Miniature images places next to a miniature tree (such as miniature pagodas and tiny men with fishing rods) belong strictly to the realm of penjing and are anathema to the realm of bonsai.[3]


Zen said...

Another very informative post!
Thank you for all you share.

Rick Matz said...

Dou itashimashite.