John Naka on Bunjin – Gi – Bunjin Style

Posted by on Dec 29, 2005 in Articles And Stories

2013-03-22 17.07.03

Notes From John Y. Naka
(originally printed in Golden Statements, March/April 1993)

Introduction to Bujin Style

A bonsai style commonly called bunjin style in America or simply bunjin. However, one should know the meaning and understanding of bunjin. Bunjin means literary man, man of letters or literati. Opposite of bunjin is bujin which means soldier or military man, or in the old days in Japan it would mean a Samurai or Bushi. Opposite characters are bunmin which means common civilian, and soujin which means priest. If not formulae in Japan, they almost sound alike. Amazingly, all of these – bunjin, bujin, bunmin and soujin are related terms to bonsai.However, bunjin describes the most outstanding, elegant, refined, simple and artistic, a personal concept among author, poet, poetess, artist and calligrapher. So, named after this bunjin, for bonsai it is called bunjin-bonsai or bunjin-gi(bunjin-ki), gi or ki means tree.

Concept of Bunjin Style

It is very difficult to explain what is the concept of bunjin style, (bunjin-gi or bunjin-bonsai.) It is no doubt unique and a special kind of bonsai. It is said that it?s almost another individual kind of subject such as Saikei, Bonsai, Bankei, Suiseki and Sansou or Yasou or Sanyasou (wildflower.) About 150 years ago in Japan, there were clubs called “Kei Bonsai Kai”, which means light, but not opposite of heavy; it means not too serious, easy going, not too sophisticated or casual. Thus, is a Bunjin Bonsai Club.

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Characteristics of Bunjin Style

1. It has shape or form but there is no definite pattern
2. It has no patter, it is irregular and seems disfigured.
3. In Japanese way, they are able to just drink and enjoy tea very casually with just Yakuta Kimono on. Not to use silverware and linen napkin in a more sophisticated manner.
4. It is like food that has no taste at the beginning but the more you chew the more flavor comes out. When you first look at bunjin style there is nothing exciting about it, it is so skimpy and lonely. But the more you observe it the more the tree quality and natural traits will come out. You will feel something from inside of your mind, and not only through the surface eyes.
5. It looks like it is struggling for its survival, or a form of agony. The tree itself should not be in this condition, in reality it should be healthy. The shape or form may indicate struggle but not health. It seems to be a very cruel method but it is only concept. Its appearance should not be too serious nor easy, it should be free, unconstrained, witty, clever, humorous and unconventional. A good example for this is a study of any of nature’s tree that has survived some sort of problem or disaster.
6. To avoid uselessness, the ultimate final form or shape is a very important technique.
7. It should portray a simple abstract painting, Senryu, Haiku, poem, music and song.
8. Shape or form is from wind, weather, not too rugged but more graceful.
9. It is a dream, an abstract. It is an extremely advanced, significant bonsai design.

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Techniques and Methods of Bunjin Design

1.Remove the useless part and excess branch drastically. Leave the least amount and indicate or exaggerate its natural beauty and characteristic trait.
2.No matter how casual the methods, the tree still should be well conformed.
3.Bunjin style is the art of space. Significant space should offer tremendous imagination.
4.Not too particular on shape and form, but not a messy freedom (sloppiness.)
5.Tree must be aged in order to express the greatness of bunjin style.
6.Not too particular about rootage, trunk tapering, trunk size and height proportion, branch arrangement or availability of apex as other bonsai styles. Yet it should be an impressive subject.
7.It should be controlled by trimming and pruning its branches. Also controlling the amount of fertilizing and watering so its trunk will not lose its grace and delicacy. It must not give a powerful and strong appearance.
8.Material for bunjin style can be started from an old “don’t know what to do” type bonsai.
9.It is helpful to know Kanji (Chinese or Japanese characters) to design this style.

History of the Bunin Style

At the end of Tokugawa shogun period (1868) and beginning of Meiji era (1869) bunjin style was started by well known Japanese bunjin artists such as Sanyo, Chikuden, Taigi and Chokunya, who admired and seriously studied Nansoga (Nanga) also known as Souther Song (Sung) Painting or Southern Chinese Folk Painting. Eventually it influenced horticulturists who started to design trees in Nansoga (Nanga) painting style. This was the origin of the Bunjin style. Japanese bonsai art was also improved to the present Japanese bonsai culture from original Bonkei – Hakoniwa type of bonsai which was brought into Japan by Buddhist priest thousands of years ago. The bunjin style suggested and lead the way to contemporary Japanese bonsai as the natural beauty of bonsai (Shizerbi Bonsai.) They not only admired plants in natural form but they also conformed this to become a living art.

Initially Nansoga or Nanga (1127-1279) was studied from Kaishien-Gaden (or Keshi-Gaden) famous painting art book. Most bonsai compositions (shape or style) and words have been based on this art book, such as Chokkan, Kengai, Zogi, Sokan, Sankan and etc.

Join us in January for a talk and demonstration by John Boyce on Bunjin style. The demonstration tree will be raffled off, and comes from John’s personal collection.

1 Comment

  1. Two Pines, Before & After, plus a Short Treatise on Bunjin | Bonsai Bark
    Mar 15th, 15

    […] to write a treatise on bunjin, but we’ve come this far, so why not? Here’s a quote from an essay on bunjin by John Naka: “It looks like it is struggling for its survival, or a form of agony. The tree […]

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