John Boyce Demonstrates the Bunjin Style

Posted by on Jan 18, 2006 in Articles And Stories

January Meeting Notes

BSSF started the new-year off with a talk from longtime member John Boyce about the intricacies of the bunjin treatment. Bunjin, also called literati- after the intellectual elite who lived simple lives of contemplation, are elegant and deceptively simple compositions that rely on few elements to portray much.

Red Cedar

While there are many trees in the wild that can serve as models for the designs of bunjin bonsai, for many people it is also helpful to study the forms of trees that the literati created in scroll paintings both from Japan and China. John urged members to return to the Asian Art Museum for the second half of the scroll painting show that is currently running and to study the forms of the trees that appear in those scrolls. Inspiration can also be found in such places as calligraphy, ikebana and kanji characters.

Grey Bark Elm

John’s demonstration material was a tall, skinny Hollywood juniper which had a subtly twisting shari, (a strip of exposed deadwood) along much of the height of the trunk. The tree started the evening with only a few branches and ended it with even fewer. With junipers it is possible to split the lifeline of the tree without killing either of the halves; the top was split to bring down part of it as a back branch with the remainder forming the crown. It is important to note that a tree cannot be considered bunjin simply because it is tall and thin; cutting most of the branches off a tree that is not bunjin will almost never result in a pleasing composition. In many cases however, wonderful bunjin trees can be created from material that has been neglected or overlooked.

Colorado Blue Spruce

John emphasized that bunjin is a treatment, not a style, because it is possible to adapt any of the traditional styles to bunjin: formal upright, informal upright, slant, and semi or full cascade. Bunjin have very little or no taper, but the trunks possess a unique character which make them interesting to the viewer. Each of the few elements in a bunjin composition speaks loudly, thus it is important that each element be well considered and that the relationship between elements is harmonized. There is a sensitive balance between the trunk and branches that when properly composed will make a bunjin tree look effortless.

Cork Bark Black Pine

The proportion of positive to negative space in a bunjin style tree is much different from that of other trees. In regular trees the space will be filled by mostly foliage, where in bunjin the foliage occupies a much lower proportion of the overall composition. The shape and size of the open spaces is just as important as the shape and size of the branches; thus one has to attend to the shaping of the negative spaces between branches during creation and refinement. More than once, John has remarked “that is a nice little space” when looking at a bunjin.

Bunjin Satsuki Azalea

The practical aspects of cultivation of bunjin trees differ little from that of other bonsai, however, there are a few key differences. Because of the elegance and delicateness of a bunjin, and the subtle and interesting curves of its trunk, it is important not to allow the trunk to become too thick. The foliage should be kept sparse and pinching should be attended to carefully so that over the course of many years the trunk does not become too fat to properly portray a sparse feeling. This is doubly important since the subtle virtues that the bark of a tree gains over many years are vital to the completeness of the bunjin treatment. The small size of a typical bunjin pot also makes it important to be attentive about watering as you might be with a shohin.

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