Masculine & Feminine Aspects Of Bonsai

Masculine Characteristics Of A Tree:

  1. Formality: Straight trunks, defined foliage outlines, more symmetrical branch balance
  2. Strength: Powerful rootage, nebari, thick trunk, heavy branches, coarser foliage
  3. Drama: Sharp, angular movement, dramatic direction changes of trunk line, pointed apex, sharp triangulation of foliage
  4. Appearance of great age: Rough bark, deadwood, dark colors of bark or foliage

Masculine Pots:

  1. Angular: Rectangles, squares, hexagons
  2. Formal: Straight walls, plain feet, no glaze, no decoration
  3. Strong: Straight lines, clean profiles, heavy textures
  4. Dark Colors: Earthtones, metallics

Feminine Characteristics Of A Tree:

  1. Informality: Graceful trunk movement, irreg. outline
  2. Gentleness: Rounded curves in trunk and branches, soft foliage, rounded masses
  3. Graceful: Thin trunk, fine rootage 7 BRANCHES, FLOWING LINES
  4. Youthful vigor: Smooth bark, no jin or shari, light color bark and/or foliage, flowers or fruit

Feminine Pots:

  1. Curved: Oval, round, lotus
  2. Informal: Curved walls, tapered outline,decorative designs
  3. Refined: Smooth textures, glazes
  4. Light Colors: Creams, pastels, blues, even brighter colors

Chokkan: Formal Upright Style

Formal upright is the most fundamental style in bonsai.

  • Believed to be the first style
  • Difficult to execute correctly
  • Not very common style today
  • Trunk is straight with gradual taper, front 1/3 to 1/2 exposed
  • 1st branch is at 1/4, 1/3, or 1/2 the height of the tree and facing slightly forward
  • 2nd branch is on the other side of the tree slightly higher and facing slightly forward
  • 3rd branch to the back and same distance from the 1st branch as 1/2 the distance from the first
    branch and the pot.
  • Continue up the tree in the same rotational style getting closer and closer together with the branches.
  • Nebari should be all the way around the tree.


Fibonacci sequence can be used to determine the height of the tree vs 1st branch location:
1+1=2, 2+1, 3+2=5, 4+3=7, 5+4=9, 6+5=11

Golden ratio is found throughout nature (a:b :: b:a+b)

1.618 (is the rounded off numeric   representitive) X 1st branch = tree height

0.618  X height  is first branch.



Powerpoint file from Kenn: Chokkan Powerpoint

Literati – The Poetic Style

Literati bonsai is an “approach” or “interpretation” within bonsai and not a specific style in and of itself. It is somewhat difficult to describe. However, we shall try. Consider the following comments by bonsai artist Harry Tomlinson:

Also called bunjin, this style of tree is often seen at the seashore or in areas where trees have grown up reaching for the light in competition with other trees that have since died or been felled. Characteristically, the trunk line flows or twists through several curves. Some trees grow this way with old age—the Scots pine naturally assumes this style in maturity. Most conifers can be recommended for growing as literati, and rugged deciduous trees such as flowering apricot and hawthorn.

Difficult To Define

Difficult to define precisely, this style breaks many rules but nevertheless the trees have an air of refined elegance. According to Kevin Landdeck at UC Berkeley, the Japanese term “bunjin” is derived from the Chinese “wenren.” which is a term that came into widespread usage during the Song dynasty (960-1278) to refer to scholars (often government officials) who engaged in literary and painterly arts. These men saw themselves as embodying a particular lofty attitude toward the arts, particularly a dedication to the “amatuer ideal” and a naturalistic approach. They disdained and denounced the widespread commercialization of art (i.e., they didn’t like professional painters and took exception to their overly contrived or artificial scenes). Thus, the term “wenren” came to embody an extremely cultivated (but non-commercial!) artistic sensibility that purported to “get back to nature.” In a sense, the “wenren” ideal was a rejection of the profound forces of commercialization sweeping through Chinese society at that time. The slender trees of these “wenren” painters had an abstract, calligraphic quality that was the inspiration behind cultivating bonsai in this style.

Now consider the comments of American bonsai master, John Y. Naka:

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.

Trees pictured (in old master sumi paintings) with crossed trunks and branches would be messy and confusing in any other bonsai style, but is acceptable in a bunjin style. On a formal upright style, a branch that returns back to the trunk and crosses it would be unacceptable, and such a violating arrangement would grate against the senses. However, on a bunjin style such a reversal can give an exciting dramatic tension and a freedom to the tree.

Literati Style & Approach

If one were to characterize the literati approach to bonsai desigm one might use words such as: elegant, simplistic, clean, tall, slender or flowing.

In most cases all would be acceptable. A general bonsai canon states that there is “symmetry in asymmetry’ and “balance in unbalance.” If we accept this concept the literati approach to bonsai design becomes easier to understand.

A literati may assume the style of a cascade, semi-cascade, formal upright, informal upright or indeed any of the five basic styles. Its approach can likewise be expanded to include variations on the basic styles such as twin trunk, forest planting, multiple trunk, etc.

The very essence of good literati necessitates a departure or modification (if not a total break) with the traditional bonsai values regarding line, balance and form. It then becomes necessary for the student to have a clear understanding of these concepts and how they work through all bonsai styles in order to find, identify and exaggerate the elements in their material which will best lend themselves to the literati approach.

In a word… If it feels good… do it! But, be prepared to defend your choices on solid bonsai artistic grounds. Although bunjin sometimes reflects the bizarre and unusual, tying your tree in a knot is insufficient grounds for dubbing it a literati.

Suitable Materials

Literati generally focus on the line of the tree and less upon concepts such as mass and trunk taper. A good many literati have very little taper at all, and most have few branches usually located near the top of the tree. Generally speaking, two thirds of the total height of the tree is free from branches. Movement of the trunk can be flowing or angular and you should look for some unusual aspect of the material to feature.

Since a literati trunk usually features quite a bit of movement, Junipers (because of their elasticity) make excellent bonsai subjects. Pine also work well as do a large number of other evergreens. Deciduous species do not work as well because of their tendency to break and for foliage to always assume an upward growing path. This does not mean they won’t work, just that they are more difficult. Don’t be afraid to try. You may be the one to open a new frontier in bonsai design. Remember that the true excitment in a literati design if in the inovative way that it contradicts traditional values. Find the unusual or exotic in your tree and use it to good advantage.


Because of the movement, single trunk literati usually are planted in a shallow round or oval container. Trays are also acceptable and can be used in conjunction with rock or stone. In the case of ovals or trays, the tree are usually something other than uprights and should be planted somewhat off center. Remembering the rule that literati design should be simple… overly ornate or heavy glazed containers are generally avoided.

Care & Maintenance

Literati bonsai require the same kinds of care as do all bonsai with two small additions. First, because of their “tall” design they tend to be top heavy. In a good wind they can easily blow off a bench. You may want to tie them in place. Second, foliage should be kept relatively sparse. The general elegance of literati design prohibits heavy top foliage on a slender trunk with little taper.

Bonsai Sizes

One of the most convenient and memorable ways to measure the size of bonsai is by hands. That is, how many hands it takes to carry one.

Dai bonsai is a four or more handed bonsai. It takes two or more people to move it.

Chiu is a two handed bonsai.

Shohin is a one handed bonsai.

Shohin is further divided into sub categories: Komono (16″), Mame (5–10″) and Shito (fingertip bonsai, < 3″).

These size descriptions were originally used to design displays based on the size of tatami mats vs. the size of the trees, i.e. how big a room was needed for a tasteful display. We, and the Japanese too, have pretty well ignored this in recent years. So for us, the issues of size are of personal taste, space, handling, expense, and a couple of additional caveats.

Don’t imagine that small bonsai are somehow easier to make and keep—actually the opposite is true. In our high desert climate, the very act of adequate watering in spring and summer make small bonsai an overwhelming challenge for some, not to mention winter care. However, the ease of handling, the relatively lower cost involved in pots and stands, and the ability to have a number of plants in a small area, make the Shoin size very attractive. Shoin fans are a dedicated band of crazies, and are fiendishly loyal to their small world. Only this size generates  numbers of specialized clubs and societies, both here and abroad.

Bonsai Master, John Naka has answered a thousand times the question: “How do I make good bonsai?” with “Aquire good material.” It’s less important for us to worry about size than it is to find good material in any size we feel we can handle fairly comfortably.

The ability to see possibility in raw material should generally not be limited by size concerns. Though the Shohin fans might throw some punches over that, the point is not to force preconceptions about size or anything else over your material like some kind of cookie cutter.

A good bonsai creates its own world around it, a world of mass, color, texture, line, and most important, of mood and emotional impact. If the tree has a touch of the magic, size does not matter.

When choosing a bonsai for size, areas of consideration are;

  • How much time you can dedicate to your bonsai
  • How much space you have available
  • Your climate considerations
  • Your budget
  • Your level of experience 
  • Your physical strength or accessibility to assistance

In the end, do your research first and value the magic above the category. With just a basic knowledge of size differentiation, you should feel just as comfortable at the next happy hour as you are over a cup of your favorite tea.