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 Post subject: Defining Bonsai
PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2005 1:38 pm 
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Defining Bonsai
by Will Heath

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Bonsai and photograph by Vance Hanna


What 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:

NOUN:
pl. bonsai
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.
________________________________________

ETYMOLOGY:
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."


Last edited by Will Heath on Fri Jan 25, 2008 11:44 pm, edited 6 times in total.

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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2005 2:25 pm 
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Bonsai to me:
a little tree in a container that touches my soul.
If it speakes to my soul much it is bonsai art.
It does not matter at all how it does it as long as it does it.
greetings
Walter


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2005 9:06 pm 
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Will nice article I very well written.
would have to say that in my opinion,
Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."
could be a good definition for bonsai.
But then who is to judge if the tree was artistically created. Many people have different views on what is or is not art.
But I also like what Walter has to say
Walter Pall wrote:
Bonsai to me:
a little tree in a container that touches my soul.
If it speaks to my soul much it is bonsai art.
It does not matter at all how it does it as long as it does it.

To me all art whether it be bonsai, paintings, sculpture, or whatever it must "speak to me" or "touch my soul" if you will, in some way.
That is how I know what art is to me.
However, what is art to me may not be art to someone else.
I have seen many bonsai that I did not consider art, more like a stick in a pot, or "Blah", but it still spoke to me in that way. So then is it actually art?
Quite a dilemma I find my self in oh to often.
This is my first post here at the projects so I will keep it short.
-Paul


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 7:14 am 
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Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."

Hi Will, concise accurate definition but it omits perhaps one element, the aesthetic relationship of plant and pot or slab to form one coherant story. regards from wales, Andrew


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 12:38 pm 
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Andrew Lenden wrote:
Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated in a container."

Hi Will, concise accurate definition but it omits perhaps one element, the aesthetic relationship of plant and pot or slab to form one coherant story. regards from wales, Andrew

Good point, Andrew. How about the following:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated and displayed in a container."
Cheers,
Carl


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 2:25 pm 
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"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated and displayed in a container."

Very nicely done!


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 9:03 pm 
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Will Heath wrote:
"A living, artistically created, idealized vision of a tree, cultivated and displayed in a container."

Let me break this down.
Living.
No question about this.
Tree.
Yes
Artistically.
What is art? We need to define art here, so that everyone is on the same page.
Idealized.
Does that mean an ideal tree? That's not good. Some bonsai don't look like ideal trees at all, and yet they are great bonsai.
Cultivated in a container.
I cultivate them in the ground before I display them in containers. Is that wrong?
Displayed in container.
No question here.
So, as we can see, the "artistically", "idealized" and "cultivated in containers" are subjective. Subjective definitions don't have much value other than to stimulate one's imagination.
The only thing I can really vouch for is "live tree in pot". Isn't that what the word "bonsai" means?
Cheers,
Attila


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 10:19 pm 
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Quote:
Artistically.
What is art? We need to define art here, so that everyone is on the same page.

This is so true. There are many types of art. Are we talking naive art here?
From encyclopdedia Britannica:
Art : a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination.
Naive Art : work of artists in sophisticated societies who lack or reject conventional expertise in the representation or depiction of real objects. Na?ve artists are not to be confused with hobbyists, or ?Sunday painters,? who paint for fun. The na?ve creates with the same passion as the trained artist but without the latter's formal knowledge of methods.
So to me I guess Bonsai is: A living vision in a pot.

A Friend in bonsai
JOhn


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Dec 23, 2005 11:17 pm 
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Quote:
Naive Art : work of artists in sophisticated societies who lack or reject conventional expertise in the representation or depiction of real objects. Na?ve artists are not to be confused with hobbyists, or ?Sunday painters,? who paint for fun. The na?ve creates with the same passion as the trained artist but without the latter's formal knowledge of methods.

This is an interesting concept, though I find it easier to apply with a few decade's hindsight than in real time. In real time, it can be harder to distinguish the underappreciated naive artist whose genius has yet to be appeciated from the devoted but ultimately hopeless hack who will soon be mercifully forgotten. After all, Henri Rousseau was not exactly embraced with open arms by the artistic establishment of his time.
But to take the definition literally, just about any bonsai artist working in a western idiom without the benefit of a Japanese apprenticeship is a naive artist. Would you go so far as to say this?
With my best regards,
Carl


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Sat Dec 24, 2005 1:47 am 
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Attila Soos wrote:
Idealized.
Does that mean an ideal tree? That's not good. Some bonsai don't look like ideal trees at all, and yet they are great bonsai.

Attila,
Perceiving something as "ideal" and making something that you envision as ideal, are two different things altogether. I am assuming that we both agree that a bonsai should look like a tree. I am also assuming that most artists attempt to create bonsai that they envision or imagine as ideal.
Now if we put the word idealized in context with the rest of the definition the word idealized is not independent but is used in conjunction with the words "vision of a tree." So we are not just creating an ideal tree, instead we are creating an idealized vision of a tree, there is a difference.
The words together have a meaning that is not apparent when they are used alone.
Artistically - In an artistic manner.
Idealized - To make or envision as ideal.
Vision - The manner in which one sees or conceives of something. A mental image produced by the imagination.
Respectfully,
Will


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Dec 24, 2005 5:34 am 
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The creative assembly of different artisticly selected, designed or cultivated elements (which must include a plant and a container) to form a stylized image of (a) natural tree(s) or landscape?


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Dec 24, 2005 12:07 pm 
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' I am also assuming that most artists attempt to create bonsai that they envision or imagine as ideal.'
Will,
this is a typical notion of the Western Traditional School (American) and the Japanese Traditional School. You take it for granted that this is mainstream.
It is not so anymore, at least in Europe.
The Modern School tries to envision the unique tree, the most extreme tree. This is exactly the opposite of ideal.
The Post-Modern Schools get rid of this 'ideal' altogether. They create a most natural tree, most credible tree, a tree wit a lot of character etc.,even a really ugly but impressive tree. Bonsai Pop Art creates a shocking image sometimes. And more will follow.
'Ideal' is seen as old-fashioned in some quarters.
crucify me
Walter


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 24, 2005 3:08 pm 
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Quote:
But to take the definition literally, just about any bonsai artist working in a western idiom without the benefit of a Japanese apprenticeship is a naive artist. Would you go so far as to say this?


I think that I am just saying that most people think of bonsai in the Japanese since. They see a tree in a pot and if it doesn't look like Japanese style then it must not be bonsai. They start criticizing it straight away. If they would look at the tree and let that tree speak to them and let it tell them something then they would not criticize it as much.

Some may see something that others may not only because one has an open mind and sees something that is not there which touches their spirit and one is stuck seeing bonsai as a certain style or what should be there. They want to pick the tree apart instead of seeing the good and beauty.

Don't get me wrong, I am guilty of seeing trees as bonsai and not as trees. I taught myself as bonsai being formal, informal, windswept, all the styles that have been in every book that I have read. I try to copy those styles instead of letting the tree take me to the next level.

Seeing something in that tree that makes me feel good in my soul.
This is bonsai to me I guess.

A Friend in bonsai
John


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sun Dec 25, 2005 12:18 am 
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Quote:
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.


I think the quote above seems to diminish the fact that it's not whats in the pot so much, but the way the plant is handled within the pot. I have seen many rose bonsai. In fact some very good ones. While I have never seen a tomato bonsai, useing a tomato plant as an analogy that it may not be considered as bonsai may be wrong.

Should we add to this list gardenia, Hydranga, camellia? These are just Flower plants. How about a bonsai tomato plant. If grown long enough it gets a very woody trunk. In fact here in Fresno, I have grown tomato plants for up to three years in the same pot, just cutting them back in winter and letting them regrow in spring. The same with jalapeno plants, which by the way get really gnarly trunks and great branches if cut back regularly.

Personaly I don't find jade plants as true bonsai either, but I am sure there are many here who would wish to debate that one!

It is up to the artist to provide the "see". The plant is immaterial, its just the medium by wich we create our art.

Best regards, Merry Christmas, Al


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Mon Dec 26, 2005 10:50 am 
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Walter Pall wrote:
'Ideal' is seen as old-fashioned in some quarters.
crucify me
Walter

Crucify you? I'm too busy being crucified to pound nails myself. ;)
I wonder if I chose my words poorly? "I am also assuming that most artists attempt to create bonsai that they envision or imagine as ideal.' were poorly chosen and do not represent my original definition and you are correct in stating that this is incorrect. Nice catch, thank you.

By no means did I mean to say a bonsai is or should be an "idea" tree or a representation of an "idea" tree.
What I said and what I meant to convey is that a bonsai is an "idealized vision" of a tree. I am sure that you will agree that creating a "idea tree" and creating an "idealized vision" of a tree are two completely different things altogether.

Will


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