Defining Bonsaiby Will HeathBonsai and photograph by Vance HannaWhat is Bonsai?
The question above seems easy enough, yet this very question has led to many great and heated debates in the world of bonsai, both on and off line.
The word bonsai, being adopted from another language, somehow lacks a solid, undeniable, concrete meaning that is needed in order to better understand or explain our art form to others. The word leaves too much open for interpretation or misinterpretation.
The word bonsai defeats the very purpose of definitions as it leaves much more unsaid, than said. This could be because of cultural differences or inherent flaws in translating, either way, I will leave that debate for others to decide and focus only on trying to expand the current accepted definition of bonsai.The Fallacy
Whenever someone explains the word bonsai they invariably state that the translation is literally "plant in a pot or tray." While this is somewhat true, it is not quite correct in the sense that a rose or a tomato plant in a pot would also qualify as a bonsai under this definition, which is a flaw with defining bonsai in this manner, it fails to separate what we "see" as bonsai from any other plant in a container.
Many beginners in this art will grasp onto this definition and use it to justify their own attempts at bonsai. No matter how badly styled, no matter how silly, no matter what others may say, even a seedling growing in a pot qualifies as bonsai to these individuals, because they meet the "plant in a pot or tray" requirements in the commonly accepted definition.
Bonsai is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition http://education.yahoo.com/reference/di ... try/bonsai
as follows below:
1. The art of growing dwarfed, ornamentally shaped trees or shrubs in small shallow pots or trays.
2. A tree or shrub grown by this method.
Japanese, potted plant : bon, basin (from Middle Chinese b n) + sai, to plant (from Middle Chinese ts j, tsaj)
We can see here that Bon is translated from Chinese as "basin" and sai as "to plant" (to plant in a basin) while The Japanese translation is simply "potted plant."
This is where the translation breaks down since it is obvious to most of us in the art that bonsai is indeed more than just a potted plant. The herbs in the kitchen window, the African violet on the table, and the hanging ivy in the living room would all be bonsai under the commonly quoted definition.
But wait, it even gets a little more ridiculous when we remember that bonsai is a combination of two words and like many other words, they have different meanings depending on how and where they are used.
According to the Japanese to English Dictionary on http://www.freedic.com
the word bon, used alone, can also mean mediocrity, Lantern Festival, Festival of the Dead, or tray.
Sai can also mean difference, disparity, years-old, how!, what!, alas!, companion, cut, debt, loan, difference, planting, hold (a meeting), or son, my son.
Bonsai, depending on the usage besides just "bonsai" can also mean mediocrity, ordinary ability, and a Buddhist priest's wife!
While it is a given that mediocrity exists in many bonsai attempts and many beginners have no more than ordinary ability, I don't think these other definitions help us at all. They are posted here as an example of how words, once translated can take on a meaning that they were never meant to have. To define bonsai based solely on translations could lead people to think we are posting pictures of Buddhist priest wife's instead of trees.Seeking More Meaning
Most become aware of the difficulty of fitting what we know as bonsai into such a wide definition. Many have attempted to define bonsai but the proposed definitions always seem to fall slightly short or are so long and complex that they are quickly dismissed.
Bonsai is obviously more than just a plant in a pot but what separates it from houseplants or other container plants? Are there attributes that define what we see bonsai as? Are there shared common traits that what we call bonsai all have? I believe that we can break it down into a short list and then define bonsai with a shorten combination of all that bonsai is as I have listed out below:
1) Bonsai resembles but does not copy a tree in nature; instead it presents a vision of a tree.
2) This vision is artistically created.
3) The vision should be an idealized vision.
4) It should be cultivated by mankind and not just growing in a field or on a mountain and it should be grown in a container, be it a pot, slab, or mesh pot.
5) A bonsai should not be restricted by size or be referred to in a manner that may be taken badly, such as "dwarfed".
6) It must be living.
After much thought on this subject and determining how best to separate bonsai from houseplants and what bonsai actually means to me, I have come up with a single definition for consideration.Bonsai"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."