Article 81 – ‘Covert versus Overt’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss the art of deception – what is real and what is not.

Introduction‘Deception is an act or statement which misleads or promotes a belief, concept, or idea that is not true.’ According to U.S. naval intelligence officer Barton Whaley deception is comprised of two parts, dissimulation covert, hiding what is real and simulation overt, showing the false. Deception is not a modern trait, it has been in existence for thousands of years in for example, religion, politics, finance, art and journalism; now the finger is pointing towards bonsai horticulture.

The art of bonsai – began in China in the 6th century known as Penjing, (also called penzai) it is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. Diplomats and emissaries from Japan and Vietnam who visited China were amazed by what they saw and purchased many specimens subsequently returning home where most of their plants died, due to the lack of required horticulture knowledge. Why these diplomats and emissaries did not receive instruction on plant husbandry is unknown.

As a result during the same period Chinese Chan Buddhist monks visited Japan to teach in the monasteries, activities included introducing Leaders-of-the-day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments befitting men of taste and learning. Hence the knowledge handed down was a closely guarded secret and remained thus – even the Chinese and Japanese immigrants to America in the mid 19th century brought their knowledge of miniature tree cultivation but, were reluctant to share their technical skills, their perception was that westerners were not permitted the extensive knowledge and instruction regarding horticulture development.

From what has been said here thus far, we note that the Penjing masters (Chan Buddhist monks) were the elite of society and their technical horticultural knowledge was not for the peasant class. Even the Japanese elite adopted this perspective – were they protective of the skills and technical knowledge or simply being tergiversate, from the Latin root word tergiversari’ meaning ‘to turn one’s back” or more figuratively ‘to be evasive’ hiding the truth.

In more modern times the 1960’s onwards if one wanted to gain the technical knowledge Japan was the destination and centre of learning and many students and citizens from various countries worldwide went to there to study in the nurseries; with many becoming apprentices. The Japanese bonsai masters soon realised that such knowledge was much desired and travelled to other continents, bringing the knowledge to those desiring to learn.

Is age important the general perception among many is that for a tree to become a bonsai it has to be ‘old’, which is a misnomer; admittedly there are bonsai that are old for example. Bonsai specimens from the seventeenth century do still exist and one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 400 years old, is one of the national treasures of Japan housed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5 needle pine Pinus pentaphylla v. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast.

‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ by shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu

Other bonsai that depict signs of age are ‘Yamadori’ – the definition of Yamadori in short is ‘collecting plants from the mountains’, the collected specimen is then carefully and skilfully trained into a work of art and is the most coveted type of Bonsai because of its unique characteristics. But, not all Yamadori are old some are as young as 20 years of age whilst others can be 5 times this and more.

As stated a tree does not have to be old to become a bonsai, a young tree if planted from a seed can in the right hands be skilfully turned into a bonsai in approximately 5 years thus giving the impression of age. (Although much depends on the species) Some of the best bonsai artists include Qingquan Zhao, Kunio Kobayashi, Ryan Neil, Peter Chan and Graham Potter whose demonstrations on design can be witnessed on their ‘youtube’ channels.

Covert or overt – the question is are we deceiving the populace in our attempts to change a tree’s structure from a mundane appearance into a work of art by the many methods that are often implemented; there are those whom would argue that we are, because we are taking it out of context and not leaving it in its natural state as nature intended. But in the wild, nature itself has created many tree specimens into various shapes and forms.

The first fictional work regarding bonsai The Tale of the Hollow Tree, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

Thus came the perception that nature could only become beautiful if shaped according to human ideal; no doubt this topic will be debated further, but for the moment we will leave you with this thought: is bonsai horticulture covert or overt? Until next time, BW, Nik.

World’s oldest bonsai a 1000 y.o. FICUS at Crespi – Italy

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