Bunjin Bonsai
A Unique Shape

The name for bunjin bonsai comes from the Japanese word bunjin-gi.  However, the style is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and tradition. It is also known as the “literati” style. The names are used interchangeably.

In his book on Chinese "bonsai" Penjing: Worlds of Wonderment: A Journey Exploring an Ancient Chinese Art and Its History, Cultural Background, and Aesthetics - widely recognized expert Qingquan Zhao discusses the following 'four concepts.' He believes they best represent the quality and feel of literati trees: gugao - aloofness
jianjie - sparseness
ya - refined elegance and
pingdan – plainness

In John Naka’s Bonsai Techniques I he expressed his thoughts on bunjin.

"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. 

No doubt its most obvious characteristics are those shapes formed by old age and extreme weather conditions."

Bunjin or Literati bonsai juniperJuniper bonsai by Mike Sullivan

The bonsai shape shown here closely follows the aesthetic principles established for literati paintings. They first appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.)

Like so many bonsai, this tree has a story.  

Although it looks like it may have been collected from the wild - yamadori - it was not.  

Read the article about this juniper bonsai:  

 "A Juniper Bonsai Tree from the Beginning."

Bunjin style Scots Pine styled by Walter Pall, GermanyWalter Pall's Scots pine literati

Bunjin Bonsai Guidelines

Juniper by Michael Hagedorn

Bunjin bonsai has no precise rules, however, not just any weirdly shaped tree will workThere are guidelines.

The first thing you will notice is they are tall, with little to no taper , rarely straight.  (Although it does happen.)

Movement is desirable. Graceful (and sometimes radical)  twists, turns and curves are valued.

Surface roots (nebari) are not as important in this style as they are in most other bonsai styles.

There are few branches, the first of which is at least two thirds of the way up the tree. Any of the branches should be relatively sparse.

This is a bonsai style that represents the results of extreme conditions.  Conditions such as mountain side growth or even a storm ravaged shore line.

bunjin bonsai by Walter PallWalter Pall Pine in Germany

Although it is a style in its own right, other styles can be incorporated in the design.  Shapes such as windswept or cascade also work beautifully.

Because of its elegant simplicity, this bonsai style is considered by many to be one of the most difficult to create.

It is not as easy to create as it may look.  Beginners should probably work with a teacher on this style.  Bunjin truly are a "less is more" bonsai shape.

Where to Go From Here

Five Basic Bonsai Styles

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