My take on Southeast Asia bonsai vs. Japan & the West

Cajunrider

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I grew up in Southeast Asia and the concept of bonsai there is a bit different than that of in Japan. For the US & the West, a lot of the concept of bonsai is from Japan so for simplification on this singular aspect I'll just combine the two.

Most if not all the people here are more familiar than myself about Japanese bonsai so I will not discuss it further.

In SE Asia, the concepts of bonsai, topiary, and espalier are merged together. Trees are trained and pruned often to achieve a certain feel. Some of the rules about development of ramification are followed but others sometimes are ignored. For example, there isn't the nearly hard set rule of taper. As a matter of fact, in many cases inverse tapers are even encouraged to achieve unique shapes. The same goes with roots. The roots are developed to form shapes such as claws or even feet and legs of animals, birds or even human. The trunk, branches, and roots are often contorted to form shapes of toads, deer, tigers, and women etc. Other things that are also common are certain themes. For example in Vietnam the common theme is to develop "hòn non bộ" that shows the 4 primary jobs form of "Ngư (fisherman), Tiều (lumberjack), Canh (farmer), Mục (animal tender). This means we have to put a bonsai of tree(s) in a water/forest feature that allows for placement of small figurines that signify these jobs. There are many such themes that have roots in both traditions and religions that are often depicted in bonsai.

As I attempt to do bonsai in Japanese concept, I keep getting lured into the forms of those in SE Asia where I am from. Although my journey is just starting, the ride promises to be interesting.
 

Mike Hennigan

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This is really fascinating, I really don’t know anything about bonsai in Southeast Asia. But every time I see pictures or video of bonsai from these countries I am always fascinated. They make some really amazing trees, but disctinctly different from their Japanese counterparts. I couldn’t really identify what exactly made them different so it’s exciting to hear some of the principles of Vietnamese bonsai and how their own culture plays into the aesthetics.

I think it’s good for us western bonsai practitioners to learn more about the southeastern Asian styles of bonsai, because hopefully it will help remind us that we are not Japanese either. And that we can apply our own culture and aesthetics to forming a unique identity for North American bonsai or European bonsai etc.

When bonsai culture was first established in the USA everybody was making Japanese trees. So many deciduous trees styled as pine trees in the Moyogi style. I respect this in Japanese bonsai since it is tradition and can be done well, but have to admit that nothing makes me cringe more now than seeing westerners style deciduous in this way.

From what I can tell, it seems to me that the trends developing the identity of European and North American bonsai revolve around honoring our natural environments. Instead of looking at pictures of Japanese bonsai and mimicking them it seems more and more artists in the western world are looking outside to actual trees to reference their design. Weather it is Walter Pall and others in Europe fully embracing dead wood and scars on deciduous trees or Ryan Neil working heavily with natives or those artists developing flat top bald cypress. Or those styling coastal conifer species with the branches moving upwards instead of down to reflect their environment. I wonder who was the first westerner to bend conifer branches upwards and how much flack (s)he got for it. ?.

Would love to hear more about what contributes to bonsai design in Southeast Asia, thanks for sharing!
 
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In Thailand (Phuket especially) i noticed an overwhelming number of root-over-rock bonsai where the rock had been entirely consumed by the 'trunk' and roots (deliberately), and the rock was now elevated 8-10 inches off level of the soil.

I often found myself looking at a tree whose trunk line looked like an octopus standing tall on it's legs: a massive bulge where the rock had been engulfed (the head), standing on thick 'muscular' roots (the legs). Of course, every octopus had a tree growing out of it's head.

In the Philippines, I noticed an equally high number of trees 'standing' on their roots, but without the rock in the trunk.

To be candid, at the time these trees hardly fit into any of the categories that I was familiar with as 'bonsai'. But I'm not one for labels, so i didn't really care then and I don't care now whether these trees are 'bonsai' or not.

To the people i spoke with in these two countries, looking at bonsai, or the presence of a bonsai tree, is in some sense spiritual in a way that I would not be able to describe.

I would not want to generalize based on the 6 or 7 people i spoke with, but it seemed to me like the art was for them far less technical or 'nerdy' than i like it to be. I am curious if this is generally the case.
 
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The Japanese tend to take a concept and take it to the Nth degree. So it is with wrapping gifts and products, flower arrangement, automotive manufacturing, bonsai, and just about everything else (including smoking and drinking). For some of us westerners, it's a little too much of a good thing, so we are developing our own style. I'm sure it's the same with southeast Asia.
 

Anthony

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The island here is fertile and the climate is mild.
Trees tend to be variations of informal. leaning and formal.
For most trees here, if your heartwood is exposed, death
follows,

Mostly European paintings /drawings [ Ruisdael, Rubens, Dutch Landscape.....]
are the influence and our island's Nature.
Using Grow and Clip, but not really Chinese Ink Paintings.
Perhaps just Western eyes looking at trees.
Good Day
Anthony
 

Cajunrider

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I grew up in Southeast Asia and the concept of bonsai there is a bit different than that of in Japan. For the US & the West, a lot of the concept of bonsai is from Japan so for simplification on this singular aspect I'll just combine the two.

Most if not all the people here are more familiar than myself about Japanese bonsai so I will not discuss it further.

In SE Asia, the concepts of bonsai, topiary, and espalier are merged together. Trees are trained and pruned often to achieve a certain feel. Some of the rules about development of ramification are followed but others sometimes are ignored. For example, there isn't the nearly hard set rule of taper. As a matter of fact, in many cases inverse tapers are even encouraged to achieve unique shapes. The same goes with roots. The roots are developed to form shapes such as claws or even feet and legs of animals, birds or even human. The trunk, branches, and roots are often contorted to form shapes of toads, deer, tigers, and women etc. Other things that are also common are certain themes. For example in Vietnam the common theme is to develop "hòn non bộ" that shows the 4 primary jobs form of "Ngư (fisherman), Tiều (lumberjack), Canh (farmer), Mục (animal tender). This means we have to put a bonsai of tree(s) in a water/forest feature that allows for placement of small figurines that signify these jobs. There are many such themes that have roots in both traditions and religions that are often depicted in bonsai.

As I attempt to do bonsai in Japanese concept, I keep getting lured into the forms of those in SE Asia where I am from. Although my journey is just starting, the ride promises to be interesting.
Here is an example of using trees as expression in art.
 

Michael P

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Thank you. These remind me of European topiary in which shrubs and trees are trained and clipped to resemble animals and other figurative representations. Not to my taste, but I can still admire the skill necessary.
 

Cajunrider

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The aesthetics of some of the work may not be to your taste or mine but hidden in them are the advanced techniques and their applications that we can use to express our own creativity.

Furthermore, some of the figurines have traditional folk lores behind them. For example the one depiction of two men playing chess under a tree is about the story of a chess player who happened upon two spirits playing a game. The player was entranced with the out of this world moves and stood to watch it. When the game was over and he returned to the village, he found out that several centuries had passed. All his family members were gone and there was nothing left but a legend of a man captured by spirits in the jungle. Of course the moral of the story is that vices will cost you your family. Bonsai anyone :) ?
 
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just.wing.it

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Very cool and interesting, though I agree with Adair....not to take anything away from that work.
It is kind of like beer, to me....or whisky...
I like my beer to taste like beer, not coffee, or limes...and I like my whisky to taste like whisky, not cinnamon or apples.
I like my bonsai to look like bonsai (or natural trees).
 

Anthony

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@Cajunrider ,

grew up with that tale - Brother-in-law did it as a painting.
Here is the oil sketch.
It is called - TIME

But the Chinese version, has him re-find his descendants.
And the guy was a wood cutter, who meets two playing chess.
In the image one is an immortal, and the other is the monkey
king.
The wood cutter eats a sweet meat and a 100 years passes.
Good Day
Anthony

col sketch.jpg
 

Cajunrider

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Very cool and interesting, though I agree with Adair....not to take anything away from that work.
It is kind of like beer, to me....or whisky...
I like my beer to taste like beer, not coffee, or limes...and I like my whisky to taste like whisky, not cinnamon or apples.
I like my bonsai to look like bonsai (or natural trees).
It is my taste as well to want my bonsai to look natural. However, those trees have some what of a car wreck quality that make me look and say whoa.
 

Cajunrider

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In the end though it is still us using our knowledge to bend nature to our will. Then we try to pretend that we ever do it at all :)
 
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Anthony

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Like Tai Chi,

the flow of the Universe. Work with the tree and it will
be easier, not bend to the will.

Look to the trees, and study.

Imagination is the brain reshuffling the images already
studied.
Happens naturally, just tap into it.

Work with the tree.
Good Day
Anthony
 

Anthony

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Please be aware that there are those who have been
growing Bonsai for x years.
And those who for x years are simply repeating year
1 over and over.

For an example, unless a heart wood is naturally durable,
and is over 35 to 50 years,
No epoxy or other treatment will preserve it, especially
if it is near the soil.
[ Learnt that from Jerry Meislik / Bonsai Hunk - Google ]

So the young in Bonsai will copy the driftwood technique
and waste endless time trying to keep it from decaying.
That and the Japanese trees have driftwood some 6 or 8 or
more thick.
Not some poor Juniper that is 1 inch thick with white wood.

A wise man chooses his battles.

When you arrive in Pennsylvania seek out those truly 40 to
60 years in Bonsai and ask questions.
Good Day
Anthony
 

Ryceman3

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Penjing?? Not entirely sure I know enough about it but that was my first inclination after viewing some of the images. Whatever you want to call it I stopped and looked... super interesting!??
 

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