Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss Bunjin or Literati because, the old adage of ‘less is more’ comes into being due to the sparseness of foliage and presentation of this particular style.
Introduction – according to bonsai master John Y. Naka in his book ‘Bonsai Techniques’, “The Bunjin style of bonsai is so free that it seems to violate all the principles of bonsai form. The indefinite style has no specific form and is difficult to describe however, its confirmation is simple yet very expressive.“ Bunjin is the Japanese terminology for this particular style, which first appeared in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.)
Bunjin or Literati – specimens were predominantly conifers, but as time passed deciduous species began to appear for example. Flowering and fruiting varieties Magnolia, family Magnoliaceae and Bougainvillea, family Nyctaginaceae. The edible fig Ficus carica and crab apple Malus pumila are commonplace as is ficus ginseng Ficus retusa, silver or weeping birch Betula pendula; there is no rule to state which species can or cannot be used.
Bunjin are usually tall with slender trunks that can be shaped according to the artist’s interpretation or conception of the style, but it should be remembered that there are different classes for bonsai heights. Small bonsai Kenshitsubo 2.5 cm to 8 cm, Shito 5 cm to 10 cm, Shohin 5 cm to 15 cm and Mame 10 cm to 20 cm. Are in reality too small to be considered for Literati, because they cannot do justice to the style, although there may be differences of opinion on this consensus.
Komono 15 cm to 26 cm can be used, but foliage has to be minimal with thin trunks otherwise the tree will not look aesthetically correct; a balance has to be maintained because, the tree is the picture and the pot is the frame in which it sits. Other classes suitable for Bunjin are the medium size range including, Katade-Mochi 25 cm to 46 cm, Chumono-Chiu 40 cm to 90 cm, Omono-Dai 76 cm to 122 cm, Hachi-Uye 102 cm to 152 cm and Imperial the largest and most majestic of all Bonsai between 152 cm and 203 cm.
However, not every tree species is suited for Literati design for example, Horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum and Norwegian maple Acer platanoides because of their leaf size. There is a consensus that by constant pruning leaf size can be reduced and there is truth in this logic, but can they be reduced enough to be considered for Literati design; probably not.
The image below is a Bunjin black pine Pinus thunbergii in the Chinese Collection on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in the United States National Arboretum; it was donated by Stanley Chinn. As the image shows the viewer’s eyes are first drawn to the pot relatively small, a round unglazed feminine container that suggests a delicate approach softening what can be deemed a masculine composition. The trunk’s movement twists and turns right, returning left where the apex with its drooping branches gives the sense of balance, which is simple yet expressive.
The next image depicts a Bungin Chinese Juniper Juniperus chinensis also housed at the United States National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, it has been given the Sharimiki treatment or ‘dead wood’ style of bonsai. This tree is planted in an unglazed round feminine container giving a delicate appearance. Sharimiki/Jin treatment suggest that the tree has befallen some catastrophe at some point giving the onlooker an appearance of age, although it is only 37 years old. Trunk movement slants right returning left near the upper part of the tree with the apex in direct line with the trunk’s base as it rises from the soil; foliage is compact giving the impression of a balanced composition.
Designing deciduous Bunjin can result in problems due to their vigorous growth, mature trees are not as supple compared to coniferous, trunks can splinter or crack and branches are easily broken. Shaping is achieved by constant pruning and wiring, which can only be done after sap rising has concluded (end of spring depending on your particular zone) and then all wiring has to be monitored to avoid indentations in the bark. Scarred trunks and limbs render the tree redundant as a bonsai moreover, there are other points to be taken into consideration for example.
(a) Distance between the potential buds, (leaf nodes) if they are too far apart foliage will look open and sparse. (b) Leaf size, if the leaves are too big as with fronded (fern-like) types such as Jacaranda Jacaranda mimosifolia, Royal Poinciana Delonix regia, Honey Locust Gleditsia triacanthos and Mountain ash Sorbus sp. they will look out of context. The principle aim of Literati is ‘less is more’ meaning the foliage should be relatively compact and sufficient but not overbearing.
The final image is of a ‘Gumbo Limbo’ Almacigo Bursera Simaruba a deciduous species native to tropical regions of the Americas. The container a round unglazed feminine pot at first glance seems hardly sufficient to house such a large specimen, but this is what designer has opted for; which enhances the large bulbous lower trunk and it’s nebari. As the viewer’s eye line moves up the trunk we notice a slight kink to the right, above this point the trunk turns sharply to the left then back on itself with further movement to the apex. The lower branch is carefully shaped and positioned to fill the void at the first acute bend with the remainder of the foliage supporting the composition.
These three Literati/Bunjin examples are the result of what can be achieved from studying a specimen to ascertain what potential it holds for this type of style, which is quite unique in bonsai. Thus far we have discussed some of the classic designs found in the catalogue of bonsai styles and there are many more to consider, but at this juncture we will pause the discussion concluding with the controversial and infamous ‘Tanuki‘ design. Until next time, BW, Nik.