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© Mo

Let’s Talk About Bonsai

- Boh Chit Hee -


In the early 1950s while still in high school, I unintentionally trimmed a small plant that was growing in a tin pot. Shortly after, many small branches grew from it, which was quite beautiful, and this aroused my interest. Having done some horticulture at home during the Japanese Occupation, I knew the basics of transplanting; so when I came across the fragrant flowering Wrightia religiosa, I took it home and planted it. The flowers bloomed when it grew to a foot in height. To create more branches, I trimmed the first nodes on the branches and removed the leaves – soon, new branches grew and then flowered. After many experiments, I found out that budding occurs 30 days after the leaves are plucked, and blooming begins 35 days after. Deeply fascinated by the Wrightia, I began to seek its cuttings everywhere. At that time, many Malay households had this species growing in their backyard. When I asked to buy some, they gave them all to me instead.

In those days, I had no knowledge of bonsai – I was only interested in admiring flowers and enjoying their fragrance. In the late 1950s, there were stalls selling bonsai on the sidewalks of Tanglin Park and Chinatown. I inquired about them and was told that these had been brought back from China to be sold as gifts for the Lunar New Year; and would not be sold after the festive month. But at one spot in Chinatown, more than a dozen pots sat on wooden racks over the small drain in front of the five-foot-way for many years, and they were for sale all year round.

The sight of those bonsai made me think of the transplanted Wrightia at home. Initially I planted the Wrightia to imitate the “traditional” bonsai style, where I would discard those that were not straight enough, as well as excess trunks and roots. In the early 1960s, I chanced upon the book “Guangzhou Bonsai” at Shanghai Bookstore and was deeply fascinated by the famous works of the likes of Kong Taichu, Su Ren, Mo Minfu, Su Qiao and Huang Jin. Some of the notable works like “艰苦阅历”(jian ku yue li), “傲骨”(ao gu), “勇然拂青天”(yong ran fu qing tian), “横眉冷对千夫指”(heng mei leng dui qian fu zhi), “疏林樵唱晚”(shu lin qiao chang wan) were ideologically powerful and highly artistic, closely bound to our social lives. After seeing these, I realised that my own works were lacklustre in comparison. However, it was difficult to take the first step in transforming (or modifying) them. In all honesty, I could not set my hand to it because naturally grown bonsai was full of changes and bore no definite shape; so I obeyed nature’s will and preserved them this way to this day. The Wrightia has a strong will to live – even the discarded trunks and roots that I had placed aside under the flower stand sprouted many new branches. This is a growth ability rarely possessed by other tree species.

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Picture 1

Perhaps it is my love of nature that has nurtured a wealth of emotions in me. Perhaps it is the time I’ve spent communing with the forests, hills and sea that have granted me a limitless artistic vision. I discovered that the many small twigs growing on the exposed roots are like trees growing on a mountain, e.g. (Picture 1). When combined, they become a continuous undulating perspective, e.g. (Picture 2): “Our Rivers, Our Mountains - How Manifold Their Charms”.

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Picture 2 • 194 cm Long

On this basis, previously discarded trunks were restored to resemble cliffs, and the twigs growing from them became trees on the cliffs. When combined they became cliff faces with the river flowing in-between. This Bonsai (Picture 3) was originally titled “From Both Banks, the Constant Howling of Gibbons Fills the Air”, but it was later renamed “The Crushing Waves of Golden Sand River Warm the Cloud-high Cliffs”, evoking memories of the Long March.

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Picture 3 • 90 cm Long

In Bonsai, there is a style called the “Rock-clinging”; where the tree is planted on a piece of rock. If the rock is large and the tree is small, it can be interpreted as a mountain view. This style uses two materials - rock and tree. The earlier method (Pictures 2 & 3) of using trunks and roots employs only one material – the tree. This style does not present or showcase the shape of a single tree, but uses trees as a medium to express the landscape.

In 25 years, since 1953 to 1978, I have grown from knowing nothing about bonsai to creating a style of my own. It integrates nature, literature, the Wrightia as material, and time. In this style, it takes less than five minutes to grasp the craft – how simple and engaging it is. This also shows what it meant by making the best use of things.

Bonsai art lacks literature’s ability to express its own meaning. Everyone knows that all artistic creation must rely on observation, lived experience, and encapsulation of life to determine the work’s social purpose; and that purpose is then conveyed in the respective artistic language. The language of bonsai is the most constrained among the many arts. Therefore, in the creation of bonsai, we can only study a specific region over a period of time to recognise its tree formations and elements of scenery and humanity, and establish conventions of which trees broadly represent which regions, which environments, which related connotations. Whether one is creator or audience, one must apply the process of ex nihilo connections, by restoring the work into nature and letting it regain its purpose in the world. I feel that a bonsai’s relationship with human society is the most primary one, and works such as “艰苦阅历”(jian ku yue li), (later renamed “疏林樵唱晚”) (shu lin qiao chang wan) are all created and enjoyed from a social perspective. In isolation, it is just a plant, a tree – lacking meaning. Consider Picture 4 “Recitation of Autumn in Jiangxia” and Picture 5 “Contention of Beauty in the Heavens” (connecting roots style) – the trees are light in meaning, but the scenery is strong in significance.

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Picture 4 • 108 cm Long

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Picture 5 • 125 cm Long

In terms of creation, there are two major categories of bonsai - the natural formation and the man-made formation. The man - made style uses technique to create certain fixed form like clouds, hemispheres, triangles, alphabets / characters and so on, with obvious human touches. The natural style avoids traces of human craft as much as possible, capturing the tree’s natural shape, without specific techniques. Following rules drawn from observing the life cycle of trees, and from appreciating the freedom of all natural things - this is the natural way. The works are ever - changing and can be integrated into nature, strengthening people’s imagination in connection with nature, and reaching a state of unity between nature and man which transcends the physical realm.

As the boundaries of the bonsai language are vast, the scope of imitations in bonsai (not mimicking Nature) is wide too. “Imitators” pick out strengths and ignore weaknesses. The conical style of bonsai, such as the conifers, grows mostly in northern regions with four seasons. These trees are steadfast, bold and strong, enduring pressure and cold - one of the Three Friends of Winter - bearing strong personifications. However, regardless of species, the ‘imitators’ will apply this style to any tree. While not impossible, this type of purposeless imitation constrains the content of the original tree, so that the general public cannot recognise the true face of the species; and those who can recognise it blurring the memory of Nature’s artistic vision. I feel that this style of work tends towards demonstrating the plant’s health and lushness, its neatness and stability.

Tree species and their postures are not completely the same - they are bounded by their regions. Mimicking a species, to elicit recognition and appreciation of the region’s natural environment, to arouse a sense of its limitless beauty, to strengthen its social meaning - these are the main purposes of bonsai creation.

Imitation is one of the techniques of artistic creation, but it must be based on improving the quality of artistic content. Many creators of the deadwood style do not give considerations to region, environment, and tree species – to them, every tree is suited to have this style and this is a bad example of imitation. The deadwood hails from dry areas, sandy areas, wind-swept areas, barren areas; resulting in branches that can endure pressure and rot, they are structured and sturdy and do not break away when withered. Tropical rainforests experience frequent rainfall, grow fast, have loose structures, are used to heat and humidity, can breed insects and bacteria, and rot easily. When stripped of bark, many of the dead branches have already rotted. Therefore, the deadwood is not a characteristic of tropical trees.

I once attended a grand bonsai exhibition in the tropics that featured works cultivated after the “cone shape” style. In some, the deadwood was even the main feature. With Japanese music playing in the background, it made people feel like they were setting off to the Northern regions. There was not the slightest tropical flavour – losing the greatest meaning of bonsai exchange.

Overall, divorcing Nature and mankind’s social relationship, to create and appreciate bonsai in isolation; will inevitably limit the content meaning of bonsai and hinder bonsai’s service to human society.

01 January 1998

(Translated from Chinese)


Picture 2 • 194 cm Long

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