Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hello Arthur, hello Walter



Hello Walter,

I ended my last letter with a question: If you take out of bonsai all the obviously Japanese stuff, what do you have left?

I realize this question is confusing to a great many bonsai lovers, and offensive to most of the rest. It seems that for virtually all the people I know who practice bonsai, or enjoy viewing it, or are even just aware of it without necessarily thinking much about it one way or the other, the assumption of a direct link between bonsai and Japanese culture is so complete that it is not even recognized how entirely the assumption has insinuated itself into their understanding of the core concept. For many there is no bonsai without the Japanese identity. Take away the Japanese stuff and that which is left cannot rightly be called bonsai, that is how integral the one is to the other.

Yet through thoughtful consideration I have found this cultural linkage to be unnecessary. Stripped down to its essential elements - a miniaturized plant, shaped by a human being and cultivated out of the ground - that practice we commonly call by the name "bonsai" has no intrinsic cultural identification by definition. All that is physically necessary in the equation is a plant that can thrive under the required horticultural manipulation and a person who has the ability to manipulate the plant in that manner. Certain plant species will respond well to bonsai growing techniques and certain ones will not, and it does not have much to do with where in the world that particular species of plant naturally occurs. Likewise there are certain people who will be successful in learning the required growing techniques and others who will not, and the particular culture in which they are born will not determine that. When we come upon the right combination of a plant that can thrive under the required manipulation and a human who can master the manipulative techniques, then production of that thing we have come to call bonsai can occur. That is, it is possible for it to occur, but it will not occur without a third, non-physical factor being present: the human being must have some purpose for taking the plant out of its natural place in the earth, miniaturizing it and giving it a particular shape.

Let us consider what this purpose might be. I am sometimes asked by curious visitors to the Arboretum how the practice of bonsai first began. The true answer to this cannot be definitively known because the practice originated before the historical record of it began. We can only surmise how bonsai started, but a likely guess is that a person who frequented a place where naturally dwarfed plants occurred attempted and eventually succeeded in collecting one, taking it home and thereafter cultivating it in a container of some sort. Why did that person do such a thing, and why did the idea catch on with other people? Again, we cannot know for certain because all this took place before anyone bothered to make a record of it. A reasonable surmise would be that the appearance of this naturally dwarfed plant was so compelling to the human mind that it triggered a very familiar human response - the desire for possession. The kinds of environments that naturally produce dwarfed plants tend to be isolated, remote, harsh and not usually convenient for human habitation. So, if a long-ago person came across such a place and found the plants growing in it fascinating and worth contemplating, unless they were satisfied to go through the trouble of returning to that particular place each time they wanted to see those plants, they would be motivated to find some way of taking the plants back to where they lived and keeping them alive there. In this scenario, the impetus for going through all the trouble was the compelling character of the plant that grew in and was shaped by extraordinary circumstances. In short, the purpose driving the activity was an inner need to capture and possess a compelling experience of nature. By extension, if a person was able to do that they could then share their experience with others.

Nothing of what I have above described, neither the physical requirements of growing a miniaturized plant in a container nor the original motivational purpose for a person to do it, are traits exclusive to the culture of Japan. Yes, what I have described as the likely original motivation for bonsai is my conjecture, but it is reasoned and plausible. The same cannot be said of any idea that the original motivation for bonsai was a desire to express appreciation of Japanese culture. For one thing, the history of bonsai is complete enough to tell us without doubt that the practice of producing miniaturized, artistically shaped plants in pots did not originate in Japan. Calling the practice "bonsai" did indeed originate in Japan, as a result of cultural assimilation, but it was a new name for something that previously existed outside of the culture that adopted it. The Japanese did not have to rename it, but chose to do so (perhaps driven in part by the ongoing need to generally differentiate themselves from China, the ever present original source of so much of their culture.) Because it was the Japanese who disseminated bonsai to so much of the rest of the world, their term for the practice is generally used, but there is no requirement whatsoever that those in the rest of the world who learned bonsai from the Japanese must follow their lead in all particulars. The Japanese bonsai professionals would prefer you did that, however. They have expended a great deal of effort in branding bonsai as a Japanese product, just as manufacturers of other kinds of commodities strive to achieve brand name recognition for their products. Even if you do not care to follow the artistic example of the Japanese bonsai professionals, one cannot help but admire the results of their marketing efforts!

Well Walter, I have done it again. I feel like the man who sets out to make a few corrections in a room and ends up building a new house. This installment is long enough but I have not yet reached the point toward which I aim. I will continue another day, but in the meantime I am most curious to know what thoughts all this prompts in your mind. It is entirely likely that nothing I have said here is in any way new to you, but perhaps there are further insights or advice you might like to send my way? If so, please do it.




Hi Arthur

[quote="Arthur Joura"] For many there is no bonsai without the Japanese identity. Take away the Japanese stuff and that which is left cannot rightly be called bonsai, that is how integral the one is to the other.[/quote]

This is true for a majority. Well, it comes from their upbringing, from where they come from. And at present bonsai IS a Japanese art form which exactly now is diverting into many different versions around the world. The more this is progressing the more the new trees look different and the new generation of artists enjoys more freedom. But it is a gradual change most of the time.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Yet through thoughtful consideration I have found this cultural linkage to be unnecessary. [/quote]

Many things in life are unnecessary. The question is whether this enhances or hinders the progression of the art of bonsai in general. There are some hints that it hinders. At least many feel that way. I do sometimes.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Stripped down to its essential elements - a miniaturized plant, shaped by a human being and cultivated out of the ground - that practice we commonly call by the name "bonsai" has no intrinsic cultural identification by definition.[/quote]

This is true. But if I take your comment for face value it means that everybody has to start from scratch again. I am sure that this is not a good idea. The findings of others over centuries, the Chinese and the Japanese are of high value. It does not make sense to discard the horticulture and the artistic past. The question is only how we use it. Doe we think that we 'owe a lot to them' or that we 'look back In deep respect', or  even 'we try as hard as we can to accomplish bonsai as they have'. All this sounds nice, reasonable and honorable. But this is exactly what hinders many of us to progress. Well, fact is most do not even think about progress. They like the status quo and want to keep it that way. Folks like you and me are bad because we rock the boat and want to progress while in the eyes of the majority we are destroying what is so good anyway and show no respect to those who taught us. OK, who much respect do you think does the German soccer team pay to the British inventors of the game. And the Williams Sisters sing `God save the Queen' before the start their tennis match.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]n short, the purpose driving the activity was an inner need to capture and possess a compelling experience of nature. By extension, if a person was able to do that they could then share their experience with others.[/quote]

I thoroughly agree to your description of how originally this art form must have started.

[quote="Arthur Joura"]Nothing of what I have above described, neither the physical requirements of growing a miniaturized plant in a container nor the original motivational purpose for a person to do it, are traits exclusive to the culture of Japan. Yes, what I have described as the likely original motivation for bonsai is my conjecture, but it is reasoned and plausible. The same cannot be said of any idea that the original motivation for bonsai was a desire to express appreciation of Japanese culture. [/quote]

Well, it clearly was in China anyway where this was started for serious  as you  continue to explain. So why do we not look at China for leadership? It may well be because for almost a century China was not open for us and outright hostile towards it's own heritage. Had China been a positive open world power in the past fifty years we would think we are practicing a Chinese art form.



[quote="Arthur Joura"]Because it was the Japanese who disseminated bonsai to so much of the rest of the world, their term for the practice is generally used, but there is no requirement whatsoever that those in the rest of the world who learned bonsai from the Japanese must follow their lead in all particulars. The Japanese bonsai professionals would prefer you did that, however. They have expended a great deal of effort in branding bonsai as a Japanese product, just as manufacturers of other kinds of commodities strive to achieve brand name recognition for their products. Even if you do not care to follow the artistic example of the Japanese bonsai professionals, one cannot help but admire the results of their marketing efforts!.[/quote]



Sure, I totally agree with your assessment of the situation. Some may even see some criticism or even hostility towards the Japanese in your explanation. I do not. This is matter of fact and most other nations would have done it had they been in that position.



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