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 Post subject: Bonsai Philosophy - Japanese/Chinese/Western Ideas
PostPosted: Fri Jul 21, 2006 2:56 pm 
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Joined: Fri Jul 14, 2006 11:31 am
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Location: Sydney, Australia
I would like your thoughts on the issue of Bonsai philosophy - specifically whether Japanese philosophy has "more rights" than Chinese philosophy. I hope this does not become a discussion as to which philosophy is superior (though my biases should be quite obvious), but rather a discussion as to use of the word "bonsai", and its application in our various communities. About a year ago, I started a discussion on this issue at the bonsaitalk forums, from which I found myself banned from participating at that website. I hope this thread does not lead to the same conclusion.
1) At this year's Sydney Royal Easter Show the bonsai category was met with greater controversy than normal, with conflict between the Chinese and Japanese schools. As guest presenter for the Easter Show, I was at odds with the Japanese-influenced Bonsai Society and Bonsai Federation members, who felt that what I was teaching to the public was flawed. The term used by a notable member of the Australian bonsai community actually referred to the defecation of a bull, and hearing a distinguished old, old, old lady swearing at me in front of an audience of school children was both amusing and horrifying. In this year's bonsai competition, entries from both the Japanese school and the Chinese school sat side by side, and because the judge is of the Japanese school, no Chinese bonsai received a prize higher than Second in any of the 11 categories.
2) Nurseries such as mine use the Japanese word "bonsai", in place of our own Chinese word "pensai", and we do so for commercial reasons. Has the term "bonsai" evolved, in western culture, into an umbrella term that includes the tree-pot philosophies of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam? Or is "Chinese bonsai" an unacceptable term?
3) Are Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese-school growers misleading students when we teach bonsai based on the teachings of our own cultures, rather than that of Japan? Does the beginner off the street come to learn bonsai as a medium of expression, or bonsai as a Japanese artform?
So, let's try and tie these together. I am considered an "expert of bonsai". I've lectured and presented, and I'm working on a book. But I do not create bonsai in the Japanese sense. My works do not have a "front view" (I often use lazy susans in my displays, and I may change the front view several times during a display), and I do not necessarily encourage smaller leaves if big (disproportionate to a full size tree) leaves make a better visual statement. I suppose if there's one question that sums up all these points, it is "Am I a Bonsai grower?"
Just some food for thought.


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 21, 2006 5:23 pm 
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Joined: Mon Aug 08, 2005 8:04 pm
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Location: South San Francisco, CA
Quoting Andrew: " Nurseries such as mine use the Japanese word "bonsai", in place of our own Chinese word "pensai", and we do so for commercial reasons. Has the term "bonsai" evolved, in western culture, into an umbrella term that includes the tree-pot philosophies of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam?"
Andrew, I think that the term "bonsai" in the West is somewhat generic, such as "coke", referring to a cola drink, and not necessarily Coca-Cola"
Being as I'm a Californian, and have been involved in bonsai for over 30 years, I recognize that the Japanese influence has, in the past, been all pervasive. My first teacher was a Japanese-American, Bob Kato. He taught, of course, Japanese style.
Quoting again: "Are Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese-school growers misleading students when we teach bonsai based on the teachings of our own cultures, rather than that of Japan? Does the beginner off the street come to learn bonsai as a medium of expression, or bonsai as a Japanese artform?"
This is a difficult question to answer without knowing how you present the subject. Are you specific with the students as to the origin of your teaching style, or is it presented in a generic manner as an Asian horticultural art form? Or should it matter? I don't have the answer. I do find it revolting that you were cursed in a public gathering. That's inexcusable.
One of the big influences on my bonsai style and technique was the American, Dan Robinson. I saw his chainsaw styling demonstration at the 1980 Golden State Bonsai Federation convention. As soon as I got home, I bought a small chainsaw and went to work.
Dan was publicly excoriated by one of the best known Japanese-American bonsai masters who shall remain nameless here. However, after the first Kimura book hit these shores, big changes came about. The great master took up the use of power tools.
I have loved the penjing style for many years. I believe that Qingquan Zhao and Robert Steven are masters equal to any.
In the world of "artistic potted trees", we're all in the same boat. We should study and respect all cultures and ethnicities. There's much to learn from all.
Mike


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PostPosted: Fri Jul 21, 2006 6:17 pm 
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Location: Los Angeles, California
Hi Andrew,
To your questions, I would use an analogy that I think it would answer all of them in the same time.
Bonsai is in many aspects, just like religion. It is practiced in countless ways, according to one's belief system. Religion has an aesthetic side. It also has a moral side. It has tradition, style and it has a protocol. Each relgion has a set or "rules" and it also has a history, featuring a number of people representing it.
The question you are asking is "is there a particular religion that is better than the rest?"
The answer is obvious.
Now about the part where you wonder whether is appropriate to teach bonsai that is not inspired by the Japanese tradition: we can only teach others what we know best. The most important thing is to be honest to ourselves as well as to others about what we believe in. If you practice bonsai using elements of the Chinese tradition, that's what you have to teach to others. I think that it is important to give the beginner an overview of how bonsai is practiced in the different parts of the world, and then give a broad overview of what you personally believe in. By doing this, you won't mislead the student, and you also give him a choice to follow you or an other teacher.
It is also a good practice to make the student aware that although you prefer doing things in a certain way, there are other people who do things in a different way. Here you can explain why you believe in the choices you are making.
I've found that more often than not, the problem is not about what you teach, but about what people expect from you. If you make your position clear from the beginning, then people won't have false expectations. Case in point about the lady who cussed at you: she's probably had a very strong expectation about what she wanted to hear from you. When she didn't get that, she got upset. I am not defending her actions, but I believe that false expectation is almost always the reason behind discontent.
Bonsai is about love, compassion, and tolerance. Without these three, there is no bonsai. So, your teachings should reflect that in every way.


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2006 2:19 am 
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Location: Sydney, Australia
Actually, the dissatisfied lecturer actually said quite a bit more, comparing my Chinese bonsai philosophies to a "bad take-away" trying to compete with the "top-quality restaurant" of Japanese bonsai. This sort of attitude is exactly the sort of thing I dislike about what I perceive to be the "more Japanese than the Japanese" mentality of the Australian Jap-bonsai community.
It occured to me today that the term "bonsai" has indeed become an umbrella term, if only because most people in western culture who come to the world of bonsai are not looking specifically for the unique characteristics of Japanese bonsai. They come looking for "pretty trees in pots", and little else. To be honest, I believe that the idea that "Japanese bonsai" is more correct than "Chinese bonsai" is only perpetuated by those who seek to be more Japanese than the Japanese.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2006 9:36 am 
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Location: Michigan USA
Andrew Quah wrote:
It occured to me today that the term "bonsai" has indeed become an umbrella term, if only because most people in western culture who come to the world of bonsai are not looking specifically for the unique characteristics of Japanese bonsai. They come looking for "pretty trees in pots", and little else. To be honest, I believe that the idea that "Japanese bonsai" is more correct than "Chinese bonsai" is only perpetuated by those who seek to be more Japanese than the Japanese.

There is actually a rather simple explanation for the prevalent Japanese mind set in the west and that is that they got here first, nothing more nothing less.
The west was first introduced to bonsai from the Japanese and therefore the Japanese mindset took root and developed before the Chinese Mindset was introduced. There is no one to blame for this other than the Chinese who "opened their doors" to the west at a much later time.
You said, "To be honest, I believe that the idea that "Japanese bonsai" is more correct than "Chinese bonsai" is only perpetuated by those who seek to be more Japanese than the Japanese." I have to disagree and say that this was a baited statement designed to incite heated discussion.
What I practice is "Bonsai" which is a combination of all the information I have digested on growing trees in containers. I have been influenced by the Japanese, the Chinese, The Europeans, The Spanish, The Canadians, etc. Even the galleries here on this forum feature bonsai from around the world, the World View of Bonsai gallery here gives us a snapshot of the state of bonsai of basically the entire world. Bonsai is hardly Japanese anymore, nor it it Chinese.
Why the word bonsai? Because that is how the art form was introduced, billions of people recognize the word bonsai, it has indeed become generic. It is also much shorter than say an artistically designed living plant shaped to resemble an idealized vision of a tree in a container. If the Chinese would have introduced bonsai to the entire western world, we would be calling it pensai, but history writes the future, and so it is.

Will Heath


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2006 10:41 am 
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Location: Upstate New York
"Which philosophy has more rights?" Why does one need more rights? Why can'nt we embrace, understand and enjoy the differences? Even in Japan, there are different styles. What would this old woman say about Kimura?
What would she say about his pine on rock done in Chinese style and planted in a Chinese pot? He calls it Bonsai. What about the trees from Tiawan. Some look alot like what I consider Penjing, but they call them Bonsai which is fine with me. As far as your show , why would you have judges from one group and not the other and expect a different result?
As for as the grumpy old lady, send her a membership to the World Bonsai Friendship Federation.
Mark


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2006 12:34 pm 
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Joined: Fri Jul 14, 2006 11:31 am
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Location: Sydney, Australia
I'm pleased to see such acceptance of different bonsai philosophy on this site. The point of this discussion is not only to cultivate greater awareness of the different aims and objectives of bonsai growers throughout the world, but also to develop ideas towards addressing the closed-mindedness of parts of what is essentially a global bonsai community.
Just to clarify: I do not say that some in the Australian bonsai community are white people who want to be more Japanese than the Japanese to inflame. I say it, because as far as I'm concerned it's true. As a professional grower in contact with other professional growers of Chinese, Japanese and Anglo-Australian backgrounds, we are for the most part agreed that it is a small, but very vocal minority who work to perpetuate the idea that only Japanese bonsai is correct.


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