by Mollie Hollar
After I had been doing bonsai for a couple of years, I realized that many bonsai look alike due to a strict adherence to the rules. I believe bonsai, as an art, is a genuinely personal artistic expression, and as such it is very difficult for me to follow someone else's rules. I have felt very lucky in the past few years to become acquainted with several people from all over the world who have many more years of experience than I who feel the same way. I believe that we should learn methods of bonsai and basic aesthetic principles, but when it comes to "branch A, branch B, branch C" we all know this seldom occurs in nature.
To quote from Peter Chan in Bonsai Masterclass, "The process of creating bonsai is not a mechanistic one: bonsai cannot be created simply by pruning and wiring branches according to certain rigid rules and conventions. Instead, it is a long process which begins with an idea, born perhaps from a subliminal vision of a tree seen in its natural setting, and finally ending with the complete transformation of an ordinary tree, or plant into a spectacular work of art, which is able to evoke feelings of beauty, grace and grandeur. . . . Almost all Chinese and Japanese arts and crafts have their origins in Taoism and Buddhism. Although complex and highly technical disciplines are often vital components of such arts, nevertheless they play only an instrumental or secondary role. The distinguishing feature of a superior work of art, or of a masterpiece is its quality of appearing uncontrived, or almost accidental."
I do believe that, in the beginning with novice bonsaiists, many guidelines must be taught. However, I've found that, the longer I do bonsai, the less attention I pay to the rules. My work has occasionally been referred to as "Mollie-sai." I must admit that I do bonsai for my own enjoyment, not for the enjoyment or approval of others. Yes, I do exhibit my bonsai at shows, but part of the reason for that is to show people that a beautiful work of art can be created by following one's own aesthetic sense.
In Bonsai: Its Art, Science, History and Philosophy, Deborah Koreshoff tells us that, around the time of World War II when Westerners were becoming interested in bonsai, Yuji Yoshimura and "one of his English pupils, published the first really comprehensive and practical book on bonsai . . . to explain the difference between container-grown trees and bonsai . . . It is from this work that the 'rules' of bonsai emerged that were intended initially to point out the difference between a potted tree and a bonsai. "This classification of styles has, over the years, helped Western growers immeasurably in the production of bonsai rather than bushy pot-plants but, at the same time, to those who consider them as being rigid and unbendable rules, the trees either lack character or the grower becomes disheartened when he finds that most trees do not grow according to the rule book.
"The 'rules', in effect should only be regarded as guidelines. . . . if every tree followed the 'rules' exactly, art would disappear. To be successful in the shaping of bonsai, the grower must learn to make an artistic compromise between the 'rules' or 'perfect' form on the one hand, and the individual characteristics of the tree in front of him, on the other."
And in Chapter 7, "This process [bonsai] can be likened to a person learning to write. At first, one must learn the recognized forms for the letters -- even if this meant copying the accepted shapes without much thought. As time goes on, though, and the forms are thoroughly learned, variations arise due to individual characteristics. . . . In the Art of Bonsai, then, it is important to learn the guidelines first and then begin to make compromises and variations within the generalized forms."
Perhaps Susan M. Bachenheimer Resnick says it best in Bonsai: "Bonsai is something of a paradox: precise and specific steps are needed to get it started, yet it depends on an intensely personal interpretation of life and nature."
As for my friend of the 3,000 rules, he is a person who agrees
with my attitude toward strict rules. Because he is half Chinese
and half Japanese, he is well acquainted with the rules and
of each. He, like I, believes that one's trees should reflect
one's own artistic vision. Since he has done bonsai - or more
accurately punsai (pronounced pun-shee) - for about 50 years
longer than I, I have been much encouraged by knowing I'm not
alone in my beliefs.