Rules: How and Why
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Author:  Vance Wood [ Sat Jan 03, 2009 12:26 am ]
Post subject:  Rules: How and Why

Rules: How and Why
by Vance Wood

Illustration by Will Heath using open license images

Many are familiar with the so called rules of bonsai design. These concepts have been the subject of study, debate and argument for years. With the advent of the Internet, thoughts on the issue have arisen from all over the world reflecting different cultural influences and artistic points of view.

In 1957, Yuji Yoshimura, who more than any bonsaist, defined a set of rules for bonsai design. He identified the different forms and shapes traditional Japanese bonsai can take and the methods for achieving them. For a good portion of the bonsai community these same rules have guided a generation into the pursuit of the perfect tree. For many, this syllabus is still considered sacred and for others, only a path way to a gate which swings open to new possibilities.

Most of these recognized forms originated from interesting and compelling shapes that diverse environments imposed on natural trees. However; many of these shapes or forms have, over the years, become highly stylized within the Japanese culture to a point where they only suggest a natural model. So the question is--- what about the so called rules? Why do we have them and should we adhere to them, considering that some view them as irrelevant by today’s standards of bonsai excellence as it is practiced world wide?

In my opinion that within this closely defined point of view is a method that should be learned before it can be expanded. It is a point of view and a set of standards that are, for all intents and purposes, the A, B, C’s of bonsai. It is in essence a method of getting from point A to point B. based on the experience of Japanese bonsai growers that could go back Thirteen-hundred years. Ignorance could be defined as ignoring such an historical body of work, even if only to decide it is wrong. It is reasonable to conclude that if you are going to study fire you should know how to start one.

I realize that the art of bonsai, as we in the west understand it, originated in Japan. Most of the information, instruction, and publications of any worth were disseminated from Japan. Most of the traveling masters that visited Western countries were Japanese and still, the best stock, pots and tools come from Japan. We must also acknowledge the Chinese tradition which is the parent source of all bonsai. It was from China that Japan acquired bonsai along with a good deal of the rest of their culture. Some evidence suggests this happened as far back as the Seventh Century. It is sad that not much is left of that early effort due to war and the neglect of time. The Chinese sources and traditions were fortunate to have survived the Communist revolution, where all things cultural were deemed unnecessary and expendable.

It is also important to understand that the Chinese tradition has not had its Yuji Yoshimura to write down rules and define forms. The Chinese have had no mission to teach their form of bonsai to the West. What we in the West have of the Chinese tradition has come down second hand from other sources forty-years since the influx of Japanese bonsai. So it is not surprising that most people associate bonsai and Japan in the same thought.

Japanese bonsai and the Chinese counter part, though similar, are subtley different. The Japanese built upon the tradition they imported from China true enough, but made of it something distinctly Japanese. They infused there artistic ideas and spiritual values into what then was a distinctly Chinese art form. Today, those promoters of the Chinese style are at a loss to define any particular styles, forms or a semblance of what we have come to know as “The Rules” which are distinctly Chinese. Styles forms and rules that clearly define what the Chinese tradition of bonsai really is can not be found by the casual bonsai grower trying to discover the difference.

There are those today who feel that the traditional approach learned from the Japanese should be thrown on the scrap heap of history along with the buggy

Whip, moustache wax, and button up shoes. Some go so far as to suggest these ideas should not be taught or learned at all. It is my opinion that making anything more sophisticated than a mud pie without a plan is, for most, a plan for failure. The Japanese tradition has provided us with a plan, rather narrow in focus but a plan never-the-less, and something to build upon.

Historically in all fields of human accomplishment there are those who go out in the world and discover ideas not yet defined, things not yet known, and methods not yet thought of, starting with fire, the wedge and the wheel. In many cases generally accepted concepts will become victims of new ideas. The concept of the flat Earth didn’t fall until the Fifteenth-Century when Columbus did not sail off the edge of the Earth and managed to return to Europe.

New innovations were arrived at by an understanding that much which proceeded was lacking in depth, scope, purpose or substance. The rule that you can’t do that, brought about the question: “What if you could?” This was followed by the inventions or discoveries that made the impossible possible, and the students that studied the inventions and defined the principles that made them work so that the rest of us could understand them.

Some of these inquisitive individuals had to follow their own council because they had nothing to base their research on other than an idea or a dream. Many had only what they considered misconception and myth to be resolved, like Copernicus, who did not believe the geocentric myth of the Solar System. Galileo, who invented the telescope and proved Copernicus, was correct. Sir Isaac Newton who built upon Copernicus and Galileo found existing mathematics unable to deal with his new understanding of the Universe. He invented calculus, a mathematical system to prove, analyze, and research the laws of motion and the movement of the stars. The point is this: Assume Copernicus, Galileo and Newton did not learn what was being taught in their time? It then follows that in order for them to come up with what they did, they would first have had to come to the same point of research their peers were stuck on---before they could go beyond.

Leonardo DaVinci, who thought about every thing, and had something to say about it all, autopsied bodies to gain an understanding of how muscles, tendons and the like worked. His curiosity advanced an understanding of realism in art and the science of anatomy. His imagination predicted inventions that would follow Three-Hundred years in the future. He understood the principles of flight that would not be realized till the Wright Brothers built the first air plane. He imagined travel under the sea and designed a device to accomplish this that would not come about until the American Civil War experimented with the first submarines; primitive as they were proved it could be done. DaVinci was a visionary so far ahead of his time he dreamt of things no one had the tools necessary to make and Two-hundred years before industry would even start to catch up with him.

It could be said that in this world there are visionaries, inventors and students. Visionaries imagine what can be, what might be, what should be, and what could be. They put together their ideas, some are wrong and others--- prove to shape the future. Inventors look into these ideas and seek to make them happen. Students study and analyze invention. They document, and catalog what they have learned; trying to define the success of the inventors and visionaries.

One generation builds on the knowledge, learning and experience of those who preceded them. There will be those that will follow as law, all that has come before. They will base careers on the study of these old ideas and the teaching of the same. Occasionally some student will become a visionary. He will take a step outside that volume of experience, disprove a long held belief, or establish a new idea.

So it is with bonsai. There are many stories and claims about where bonsai originated but no one knows for sure the real truth. We can only partly know that which we glean from written history and perhaps, an oral tradition. We become comfortable knowing that there is a way things should be and we can confidently follow it. We as students of the art, seek continuity and cohesion. We look to the work of the old masters to understand how they took on a particular problem, forgetting that they too groped with the past and were often stifled by it.

Sometimes the assumption of scholars is made that things cannot get any better than this; then, the work of students becomes the word of law. The principles they define become the rules that bind us. If this assumption stays in place long enough the resistance to change becomes more adamant, and the labor to over-come it, more difficult. We are loath to understand that one generation’s master work may be incomplete and in need of revision from time to time. Even Einstein failed in his quest to acquire the Theory of Everything (The Grand Unified Theory).

Visionaries and Inventors will always make the differences. Generations of professional students will follow them. They will write the text books, give lectures, and gain tenure at major universities. This body of research tends to remain static until new visionaries and inventors challenge these assumptions. When this happens the currently held beliefs will be changed to reflect, new information, new ideas and better methods. However; in a field already populated by a good deal of information, long tradition and deep thought this change does not come easily and the scholar students are themselves loath to relinquish the power a status quo gives them.

Walter Pall, a notable European master, has made a point of stating that he does not design bonsai, he designs trees. This seems a significant departure from what has come before in light of what we now know and the concepts we may have been taught. But wait; I believe that the first individuals to do bonsai had the same idea. When you think about it they could have had no other, there was nothing to imitate or use as a model.

Rules reflect a path way through the past that tends to go in one direction until something of significance comes along. That something must be worth following, something which departs from the original path or even disproves it altogether. One of the rules we learned in High School Science was that an object in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force. Not only is this an accepted physical law, it also defines what is happening in bonsai. At this point it may be interesting to suggest that the rules are a myth, a popular and mutually agreed to list of generalities, specifics and principles that seem to make things work---for now. The gnawing question remains; for how long?

The short story: The rules are nothing more than a studied description of the successes of previous generations reinforced and often defended by an erroneous assumption that things cannot get any better than this. In other words: We know every thing knowable, we see everything seeable, and we can do every thing doable. When there is such a body of information available to the student of bonsai it is foolish to think that you can ignore all that has preceded you and hope for success. Those who depart from the path are of two sorts: Those with a real vision and those who despise conformity. Those with real vision will become the Walter Palls, and Masahiko Kimuras, those who despise conformity will not be remembered---but they might have more fun.

I would leave this subject with two questions: If you are against the rules but you refuse to know them---how can you be against that which you do not understand? If you understand that the rules are the cumulative knowledge of experience from past masters how can you resist those who desire to go beyond current accepted practice and advance the art? They will be judged by their own work and place in history--- if any.

Author:  Louis Nel [ Wed Jan 07, 2009 7:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Thanks for an excellent article that made me think for a couple of days before sticking my neck out and replying.
As you mention, the earlier bonsai artists in Japan probably also wanted to create bonsai that looked like trees.
Rules were then developed on an isolated island with a limited amount of species of trees for use as bonsai. The bonsai artists in Japan had only those species to observe as models for the way trees grow. By creating rules after observing and interprating the way trees grow on their island, excellent bonsai were developed which were acceptable to a dissiplined society that lived by rules.
The art of creating bonsai and the models of trees to be used has now spread accross the globe. Now there are thousands of different species with different growth patterns to be used as tree models. I take my hat off to the Japanese artists for doing so much with so little. They have laid the foundation for the future of bonsai development. Now it is the opportunity of artists like Walter Pall and Nick Lenz who have had wide exposure to observe and deliver bonsai with a difference.
If enough trees are found in nature that grow different to a Japanese rule, is it still a rule? Here I refer to the reverse tapered and pot-bellied baobab trees of Northern Australia. Also the wide spreading flat crowned trees of the African savannag that break away from traditional triangular shaped trees of the Northern Hemisphere.
Do we admire a tree on which a rule has been broken or do we admire the artist who have broken the rule?
I have rarely seen a successful tree on which too many rules have been broken

Author:  Vance Wood [ Fri Jan 09, 2009 8:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

You make some excellent observations. You ask about the reverse taper and the bulbous trunk being a rule at some time in the future. That's possible. I neglected to mention in my article one thing about rules I should have included. When execution of a unique or new concept is emulated by a vast number of followers of the art then the unique or new concept takes on the form of a rule. So it really is a cause celeb as to whether the bonsai community accepts or rejects a new concept and is willing to follow it.

Author:  Euan Pollock [ Tue Jan 20, 2009 5:40 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

I think a lot of this might be tied up in the terminology. If someone knowledgable looks at a tree in a pot and defines it as a bonsai it must surely be a bonsai? If it is defined as a plant or a tree in a pot it might not be a bonsai? We can see the difference between topiary and container grown garden trees and bonsai so is there not some innate understanding of the rules? If this is the case then surely the term rules is the wrong one - guidelines for bonsai would be better. Guidelines could define a form without the need to exclude based on branch placement or trunk taper? How do you write rules for cascade (for example) without excluding at least some trees widely recognised as cacade bonsai? Guidelines outline the form generally and inclusive. By definition guidelines are flexible which allows people to conform to them or stretch and expand them - I think rules is too rigid a term for any art?

Author:  Vance Wood [ Tue Jan 20, 2009 9:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

I agree, but that was not the point of this article. I wrote this article to inform in some small way, the way those things we define as rules evolve and come into being and the processes that makes one group of people accept the work of another group of people as "the rules". That's why I make a distinction between visionaries, inventors and students and how the relate to each other.

Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:22 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

By far the most profound article on the comprehensive perspective of Bonsai I have ever read. Vance – My heartfelt compliments on doing the impossible. This one article sheds light on every one of the raging debates on what’s right versus what’s wrong in Bonsai. It settles the Japanese styles versus the contemporary bonsai debate.

I particularly liked the categorization of Visionary, Inventor and the student. In bonsai nature is the visionary. All bonsaists would be either inventors or students, with the inventors starting out as students. The trouble starts when the seasoned student tries to downplay the budding inventor. The most bitter of battles then follow. If only one were to understand ones current standing, then these battles would cease to exist. Inventions are necessary for the art to develop and as time has proved - are unstoppable. A student needn’t feel he is inferior because he is not an inventor and an inventor needn’t feel superior because he is more than a student.

Louis Nel is absolutely right when he says that the Japanese Rules were framed by what the Japanese masters saw around them and today’s Bonsai goes beyond what the Japanese masters had seen when they framed the rules. The Baobab’s and the Acacias of the African savannah bringing in the extensions to the rules. One needs to see this as an extension of the rules and not as clashing with the rules. I for one an so fascinated by the Acacias of the African Savannah which are fashioned by the giraffes and the elephants, that I am styling one of my trees after that style.

I would want to conclude by saying that while Einstein may have failed in his quest for the Grand Unified theory, we Bonsaists are lucky to have our Grand Unified Bonsai Rule (not rules). Our Einstein – John Naka did that for us by stating the Rule when he said and I quote “ Don’t make your trees look like Bonsai but make your Bonsai look like trees”. This is actually another way of saying what Walter Pall says and I quote “I do not design Bonsai, I design trees” Happy Bonsaing!!

Author:  Vance Wood [ Wed Jan 21, 2009 7:18 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Thank you for the glittering review of my article. You are right there has been a virtual civil war in the bonsai community over this issue. I have, in one form or another, mentioned much of what I published here on a number of forums. But as always happens, what is said on a forum in the end, gets buried never to be seen again, the salient points being lost and in need of repeating over and over. I wanted to get my ideas on this subject up in a place where it does not go away. A place where the article and its ideas can be referenced without having to rewrite it yet another time.

Author:  Euan Pollock [ Wed Jan 21, 2009 11:40 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Vance - totally agree that in all art forms it is not those that doggedly follow the 'rules' but those that break them/push them/ignore them that produce the great art that advances the genre. Without rule breakers we would reach a point where people became so refined in following the rules all bonsai of a particular style would end up looking the same. I have said it before but; it is not art to produce a carbon copy of someone elses work - you may produce a very fine example but it is not art.

Author:  Louis Nel [ Wed Jan 28, 2009 9:44 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Does anybody know where an updated version of "the rules" can be obtained so one can at least hear them breaking as one takes part in the bonsai journey

Author:  Vance Wood [ Wed Jan 28, 2009 11:34 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Louis Nel wrote:
Does anybody know where an updated version of "the rules" can be obtained so one can at least hear them breaking as one takes part in the bonsai journey

Most of what many consider the rules of design were first published by Yuji Yoshimura and can be found in his book: The Japanese Art of Miniature Trees and Landscapes. This book has been in almost constant publication since 1957 in one form or another and should be available on Ebay, Amazon, Libraries, and at some used book stores. There are some others but their availability is limited.

Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Wed Feb 04, 2009 8:56 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Hi Vance, I recently happened to purchase the book the book"Bonsai Creation Care Enjoyment" Co-authored by Yuji Yoshimura and Giovanna M. Halford. I presumed that it is the same book that you refer to you. I have gone through it and unless I am blind in both my eyes I did not come across what could be called a set of rules. I am enclosing the link below to the book I purchased. It has a look inside option which includes the table of contents. When I ordered this book I thought that this was the reprint of the famous original. Pls check and confirm. Thanks in advance. ... 820&sr=1-1

Ravi Kiran

Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Thu Feb 05, 2009 12:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Hi Vance,

Good I could get back to you before you replied. I had gone through the book of Yuji Yoshimura this time with eyes wide open and could find the set of rules everyone refers to. To me they were more styling techniques rather than rules. Especially the way people refer to them as THE RULES. It sure is embarrassing to put one's foot into the mouth but it happens.


Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Feb 05, 2009 8:25 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Not a problem, the book has been changed over the years and it is possible the one you have was void of this section. However you are correct, this is more a group of styles and forms, what are more or less considered the first set of rules set down that you can follow. There are more things out there that are a little more specific as to bar branches and so on, but most are scattered and hard to find unless you do a bonsai that violates one of the assumed rules. Post a picture and wait for the fire storm informing you of your boo-boo.

A lot is common practice, some is gleaned from the work of modern day masters as pointed out in the article. As to a source of the current set of accepted rules I don't think you are going to have much luck locating it. Most people today that grow bonsai tend to be bonsai anarchists and resist the rules for themselves but are quick to inform someone else they have broken them.

Author:  Wm Tom Davis [ Mon Feb 09, 2009 3:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

Thank you Vance, for your insights and thoughts about rules regarding bonsai.

I find it quite interesting that through the epistemological process of gaining knowledge, many are in tune with the aspect of seeking approval for their efforts, and not necessarily their ideas. Much of this approval comes from conformity to rules.

You mentioned about how it is that by following the rules, one can produce bonsai. I feel that by following the rules, many bonsai do in a sense become a form of "painting by the numbers" and therefore lack the expression by which an artist communicates his or her feelings and emotions. If that is the case, then the individualism that makes "artists" artists is somehow lost. My understanding of bonsai is that it should in someway stimulate the viewer.

I agree with much of what you wrote in that we do need to know the rules and use them as tools. Also, just as you mentioned about our limitations based upon what it is that we don't know, rules can indeed be useful in helping us understand the processes involved in our epistemological efforts to not only learn, but also enjoy and share what it is that we enjoy. If we follow the rules and through our learning process produce something that conforms to a culture's idea of what it should be and then we in our effort to gain more knowledge and approval share what we have done, and in the eyes of many, are progressing in that art form.

What has for me come to light is that in this art form, there are differing cultures that are influencing this art form. As with different cultures, there are differing understandings of what form the art should take, and by what rules one should use.

So it is in the world of art painters. Many artists who saw Monet's plein air pieces scoffed because they were, in their "knowledgeable" eyes, seeing them as nothing more that just basic shapes and shades of color, failing to understand what it was that Monet was doing by capturing in paint the light that he saw, whether it was in his hay bales or bridges or other pieces. In essence he was in the process of producing a new art form, apart from the rules and boundaries set up by the "masters."

If this is the case then, can it be said that those who go beyond the rules of Bonsai are indeed creating another art form based upon what it is that they see themselves doing? I would agree with Walter Pall and others who have taken the art form and moved beyond the boundaries of what others perceive to be so, the rules, that the others impose upon not only themselves, but others. I agree with what you wrote about rules as being restrictive to what I see as the creative sense of what an artist is, an expressionist.

I have mixed thought though about how rules apply to other forms of making trees, or making Bonsai. If it is as Walter Pall mentioned, making trees, then the question I have is regarding the art form and culture by which one makes trees. From my limited experience and understanding, I read that there are differing forms of making trees, Chinese, Japanese, Western and others. If that is indeed so, then why is it that many are "comparing apples to oranges," imposing the rules of their form upon another?

In your questions, you ask about the lack of understanding and could one be against what it is they don't understand. This question begs more details. My answer is yes, one can indeed be against something that they don't fully understand. My reasoning is this: If it does not appeal to any of my senses, then I can be against it, even though I don't understand what it is that I am against.

Case in point, I am against terrorists, and I don't fully understand why it is that they do what they do. They operate by a different set of rules than I do, and as I mentioned above, it could be that they too don't understand the rules by which we live. Do we as two differing culture refuse to learn the other's? Most definitely I would say.

The same holds true in the cultures of bonsai, whether it is Japanese, Chinese, or Western, we are inculturated and learn differently and see things in differing light. Yes, many would love to know about the other cultures, but is it wrong to be against something that does not appeal to you or your sense of art, even though you don't fully understand it?

In your last question, in my understanding, the resistance stems from their own complacency and understanding. It is widely known that change for many is a hard thing to accept or allow. Change makes for a sense of uncomfortabilities and "what ifs" that many do not want to venture and try. It is about approval for their successes by conforming to the rules and culture they have chosen to follow. Those who go beyond the boundaries of conformity are seen as the adventurers you've mentioned, the Christopher Columbus', and Walter Palls. It would be like playing the Chinese violin at an October Fest, going beyond cultural boundaries. Some would enjoy it and others, much like those who differ in bonsai, would find it appalling.

So it is that there are differing opinions and understandings. I agree with others who say that our individuality is what makes us human. I would also agree that who we are in our differing cultures and art are defined by the parameters and rules that we keep or chose to follow, whether its Japanese, Chinese, Western, or any of the other forms of artistic expression that uses trees. If we limit our epistemological process based upon parameters and rules, we limit our ingrained creativeness and ability to express ourselves.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Mon Feb 09, 2009 5:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Rules: How and Why

I agree with most of what you say and applaud the fact that you seem to have gotten to the points I was trying to make, save one. Today bonsai is a world wide practice and not just Asian in general or Japanese in particular. Because of the Internet most of that world wide community communicates with each other in ways not known before. So now we are faced with not only trying to define regional concepts but establish some sort of world identity.

The point I think you missed is my trying to establish my theory that the "Rules" are an evolutionary phenomenon where new was of looking at things, doing things, and the general character of the art can change due to diverse input. Input significant enough that the so called "Rules" get changed because more people practice what they may have formally not given a thought to due to lack of exposure. Monet did not invent a new art form, he transformed the old one with new ideas.

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