Posted July 7, 2007 by Robert Steven in Techniques

Literati Style (Bunjin)

I do not agree when someone says ‘if we cannot make a good bonsai from a poor material, at least we can make literati‘. To create good literati bonsai, one needs to understand the philosophy, the aesthetic knowledge of lines and the skill to create harmony. Literati is something different from other bonsai styles which basically portray the tree styles in nature. Literati is more symbolic, philosophic and very strong in artistry and aesthetic rather than just style in real life.

If you go through my book, you will find that I talk a lot on lines as one of the instruments to create good bonsai. And literati is the only style in bonsai that we can and we should combine different lines’ character to create the flow in harmony.

Below is the history background and criteria of literati bonsai :

The literati style is called bunjin in Japanese or wen-ren in Chinese. The literati style was first described in one of the penjing texts from China. It is an aesthetic that was influenced by the political and academic conditions in the Tang Dynasty period, when penjing was once widely practiced by the elites.

The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) was a glorious and prosperous period for the arts, including painting, calligraphy, and the well-known Tang-xe (Tang poetry). During this time, talented scholars were considered to be the social equals of those in government. Therefore, many scholars, intellectuals and literati secured career positions in the government through a recruitment system where one’s knowledge and understanding of literature, history, philosophy and the arts were important criteria in social rank and career placement.

Penjing became very popular during that time, as it had strong ties to Chinese painting, poetry and calligraphy. Also during this time the literati style, called Xu hua xe, became popular, modeled after the character and philosophy of Chinese calligraphy.

In one of his penjing texts, Chinese penjing master, Shao Hai Zhong, defined the following principals of the literati style:

“Zhong xin bing yun”
An asymmetrical balance in composition should be used to obtain a stable and firm foundation. There should be a firm anchor point of balance in the dynamic movement.
“Dou zhong qiu zhen”
The principal of optical balance. The energetic and dramatic physical flow of this style should present a harmonious balance in optical sense.
“Shang mi xia xu”
Literati resembles the style of Chinese calligraphy. The top is structured and the bare trunk descends, celebrating the elegance of simplicity and slenderness. Such simplicity and slenderness character in literati is sometimes misunderstood as poor, weak, suffering and helpless.
“Xu mi de yu”
The physical composition should demonstrate a proper balance of visual weight and voids. The heavy areas should be counter balanced by empty spaces – evoking the abstract beauty of Chinese calligraphy.
“Qan qa bian hua”
The lines should be dynamic and rhythmic, but neither chaotic nor monotonous. Literati is the only style in bonsai that requires combination of different lines’ character. Normally in other bonsai style, we should always keep the consistence of line starting from the base to the apex in all physical features; but in literati, the more we can play with different lines, the better result we will obtain.
“Qi jou zhe gang”
The structure should employ a balance of bold beginnings and delicate conclusions. Even the delicate lines should contain a vigorous energy, much like the practice of Tai-chi. This same principal is important in Chinese calligraphy.

So in literati bonsai, a combination of two or more contrasting lines is necessary; the delicate flow with the vigorous stroke or radical curves in subtle harmony. The power of a strong thrust is countered by the delicate release; displaying tension against compression as if describing the natural equilibrium of the universe — Yin and Yang. Literati is a very contemplative style in bonsai, reflecting the spirit of nature, a lyrical beauty, yet a testament to intellectual talent.

Following are few of literati from my collection

Slenderness, charm and the rhythmic movement of this twin-trunk Pemphis literati are in harmonious synergy. Although there are many different linesí characters, the simplicity is still well illustrated.

This Pemphis flows in dramatic line; we can feel the initial vigorous stroke, follow by the sensual twist and finished by the delicate release.

Although this Pemphis looks charming in simplicity,I do not consider it as good literati because it lacks a dramatic line.

Although this Pemphis looks charming in simplicity,I do not consider it as good literati because it lacks a dramatic line.

Robert Steven

Robert Steven - Indonesia Bonsai artist, collector and teacher who has been traveling intensively around the world giving lectures, demos, workshops and judging. Own his permanent bonsai display center in Jakarta, Indonesia with over 500 bonsai collection and has won more than 200 awards in national and international contests. Well-known with his aesthetic and artistic approach in bonsai art. His first bonsai book "Vision of My Soul" had been best-seller and widely recommended as one of the best reference sources for bonsai art teaching and his second book "Mission of Transformation"; can both