A Question Of Relativity


Figurines used in conjunction with bonsai plantings. Are they a valid and effective enhancement to the creation or are they a pollution of the artistic precepts upon which bonsai is based?

One thing is certain. In the west at least, the inclusion of ceramic figurines of all descriptions is fairly rampant. Given the western predilection for things that are “cute” and “tiny”, it is unlikely that their use will diminish anytime soon.

The commercial bonsai industry in the US and abroad, whether through ignorance or deliberate intent, continues to jam all manner of “cute” figurines into retail bonsai (sometimes referred to as “mall…sai”.) along with a plentiful quantity of glued pebbles and spray painted moss. The shelves at Target, Home Depot and other retail outlets are fairly jammed with pseudo-bonsai creations that anyone who has ever even superficially studied the art of bonsai would be forced to characterize as appalling.

However, to reject, out of hand, the creative use of figurines in conjunction with bonsai simply because the retail industry does it with such enthusiastic abandon and remarkably bad taste, might be a mistake.

Under what circumstances does the inclusion of a figurine in a bonsai composition constitute enhancement of the overall artwork, and at what point does it transform that artwork into something akin to HO scale railroad? The answer is not simple and the artist’s decision to include such an item in his or her finished composition can bring heated criticism and derision by peers.


In attempting to find an answer to the “figurine” question we tend to look to our teachers. Most of the techniques, guidelines and concepts used today in the practice of western bonsai were learned and wholeheartedly adopted from our original teachers… the Japanese. The Japanese answer to the use of figurines is simple and straightforward. You just don’t do it…. ever!

Just saying “NO” however, is not an answer. It is a refusal to confront the issue. If the Japanese never use figurines in a bonsai planting they are at complete odds with the Chinese, who seem to insert one kind of figurine or another into every planting they make. Where did the Japanese first learn of bonsai? From the Chinese, of course. Is one completely right and the other completely wrong? The answer again is “no.” It should also be noted that the Japanese do not reject the use of figurines completely out of hand and will frequently include them as accent pieces in a formal display. What they will not do is place figurines, rocks, accent plants or anything else except moss, directly on the surface of a bonsai container without changing the classification from “bonsai” to “saikei.”


In trying to resolve this quandary, it may be helpful to understand what the artist’s goal is in creating his bonsai. The classical definition of bonsai from a Japanese standpoint has always been that the tree is a miniature statement about nature. By this definition, it is the artist’s objective, not to copy exactly what he sees in nature, but rather to observe it and to distill and focus those observations into a final creation which is called “bonsai.” The Japanese cannon of “less is more” plays a paramount role in this vision of natural perfection.


From a Chinese viewpoint however, such an approach is considered boring and simplistic. They see Japanese trees as so uniform in their construction that they all begin to look alike. The Chinese point out that the Japanese culture places a high premium on conformity. It is not surprising, therefore, that Japanese bonsai should reflect this predilection for rigid conformity more often than not. The Japanese counter argument is that they have perfected the art form into the refined state in which is presently stands and that the Chinese are still practicing bonsai using stone axes and wooden clubs.5

Stone axes aside, even a casual observer will see that the Chinese viewpoint is decidedly different than the Japanese. What accounts for this difference? For the Chinese, a penjing is a kind of painting or a well written verse of poetry. Indeed, many, if not most, Chinese penjing creations have a name or title such as “ Summertime in the little village” and are quite often created to compliment a famous painting, song or poetic verse.6

For the Chinese, some aspect of the tree which might cause it to be summarily rejected by a Japanese artist (such as bad rootage or a misshapen trunk) may quite often be the featured element in a penjing composition. (Because the trunk resembled the shape of a bird, it reminded the penjing artist of a song or poem about a nightingale, and he made it the central feature in his bonsai creation.) It logically follows that inclusion of a ceramic figurine depicting a wise old sage sitting beneath the boughs of a cherry tree or a group of horses meandering through a wooded glade to drink by the flowing stream, may then do much to enhance the artist’s primary objective.

The fawn, hides from the many dangers of the forest and awaits his mother’s return. The argument that figurines draw attention away from the tree is not necessarily a valid one. The same might be said of an accent plant, pot, scroll or stand. While it is true that the viewer’s eyes may initially focus on the figurine, a few seconds later the viewer will re-consider the entire planting and at that point will begin to make personal judgement about the overall composition presented, including the suitability of any figurine placed in it. While size, number and placement of trunks are important aspects that should not be overlooked, it must also be remembered that the artist’s intent is to create a feeling. From this viewpoint, counting the total number of trunks becomes secondary.


Clearly, relying on guidance from our Japanese and Chinese teachers is not going to do much to help in resolving the correct use of figurines in a bonsai composition. Neither will this article or any amount of protracted debate on the subject. You should not expect classical bonsai artists to begin inserting figurines in their plantings anytime soon. Likewise, you will not find penjing artists removing their mudmen, boats, temples, bridges and pagodas. The fact is that both viewpoints have some merit. What Westerners need to do is to develop a third approach based on what we have learned from our teachers. Eventually this will result in bonsai creations which offer new and unsullied perspectives into the art. In time, the western bonsai “phobia” about absolutely never including figurines in a composition may begin to abate and we will truly begin to develop our own approaches to the art.

Philosophy and approach aside, the question still remains. Should we be putting figurines in our bonsai? In the last analysis, the artist’s decision to do so (or not do so) will be a personal one and will hopefully be based on artistic considerations rather than peer pressure. What should those considerations be?

8  A group of horses pauses in a grove of Chinese elms to drink from a forest stream. The concept was “borrowed” and then modified from an original creation by Chinese penjing artist Qing Quan Zhao.

First of all, one might begin by considering what the overall purpose is in creating a bonsai. If it is to create a representation of the perfection of nature, as is the case with most classical bonsai designs, then the inclusion of any kind of figurine in the composition will only serve to muddy the water. Remember the Japanese cannon of “less is more”. Such a classically designed piece should be like a verse of haiku poetry…. compact, well constructed and straight to the point. Such a composition leaves no room for mudmen, bridges, pagodas, rocks or anything else which might otherwise distract from the purity of essence which is the hallmark of classically designed bonsai.

If, however, our goal is to create art for the sake of art, then a number of options become available to us. Painters, sculptors, authors and presumably bonsai artists are creating with the intention that the finished work will eventually be seen by others and that those viewers will have some sort of reaction to it. If a painter is free to draw a picture of a tree which includes people sitting under it, the same latitude of expression should be extended to the bonsai artist. This is a much more contemporary approach to the art, and one that has only in recent years (because of the strict guidelines we were all brought up with) even been considered.

Artistic expression requires freedom and there is precious little freedom in adopting a strictly classical Japanese approach to bonsai design. Such a classical approach is both a saving grace and a curse, because it not only preserves the purity of the art, but also restricts it from further development. The classical approach requires the artist adhere to the rules and never deviate. Logically, one reasons that if the rules are followed, then what is produced must be of value. It may not be great art, but because it conforms it will be correct art and therefore good art. On the other hand the more contemporary approach of “art for the sake of art” certainly permits more freedom for expression, but it also leaves the door wide open for the creation of a lot of unbelievably bad paintings and/or bonsai.


Enough debate. Let us presume that a decision has been made to commit classical bonsai heresy and include some sort of figurine in our finished planting. What then should be the rules or guidelines governing such a decision?

Good taste and relevance for openers. I am reminded of a fellow artist who showed me a tree whose nebari and trunk base had been badly damaged by a rabbit or mouse. He had taken a small matchbox car, used a ballpeen hammer on the hood and front bumper and placed the “wrecked.” car up against the damaged area of the trunk. A car wreck in miniature. Another friend, who had become bored standing guard over the club’s bonsai at an exhibition on a particularly warm spring day, began nonchalantly placing small purple plastic “smurfs” into a forest planting which was sitting nearby. Bonsai blasphemy without a doubt, but an interesting thing started to happened. The young children, who were reluctantly being forced to accompany their parents through the exhibit, and had largely ignored the forest planting all afternoon, suddenly stopped, gathered around it and began discussing the smurfs and where they belonged in the forest. Are blue smurfs and matchbox cars good bonsai? Hardly, but they did do something which could not have been done more effectively in any other way. They made the planting relevant and meaningful to those that were viewing it.

The use of figurines in bonsai is a difficult road to travel, because what is considered to be in good taste and relevant will vary from individual to individual. So difficult, in fact, that most bonsai artists choose not to even confront the issue. Artistic safety resides in peer approval. But most art is created for the masses and not for peers. The untrained public knows nothing of styling rules. They react at a much more basic level to our artwork.

Relevance is essential. Remember that the primary focus in bonsai is the tree. If a figurine can be used just as effectively as an accent piece accompanying the tree, then perhaps it is better to do so than to place the figurine directly in the planting. If the figurine must go in the planting then remember the rule about “less” being “more”. There is nothing wrong with HO scale railroad, it just has very little to do with bonsai.

To the untrained eye a tray full of plant material and figurines may evoke images ofa Chinese village, a car wreck or a forest of smurfs, but someone trained in the art will realize that they all draw focus and attention away from the trees themselves. Don’t muddy the water. As elements are added to the overall bonsai composition it becomes more and more important to remain focused on the prime objective… the tree.

A carefully chosen and appropriately placed figurine can do much to direct focus when viewing a bonsai. It can enhance and expand feeling that the planting was designed to invoke. To do so, the figurine must be relevant to the overall composition in the same way that the choice of an appropriate display container is relevant. Again, what is relevant will be a matter of personal opinion.

That’s OK. Art itself is a matter of personal opinion. We select our containers very carefully. They are chosen for shapes and colors that will enhance, but not overpower the aspects of a bonsai planted into it. We spend hours laboring over the proper selection of an accent plant, a stand or a scroll to accompany the bonsai. The same care and consideration should be given to the selection of a figurine.

We strive to make our trees as perfect and realistic as possible. The same effort should be expended in selecting a figurine. They should be of very high workmanship. A well made figurine, like a well made pot, will be more effective than something of lesser quality. Partly because there is a plentiful supply of them, oriental figurines seem to be included in plantings more often than not. A Chinese scholar reading a book under the bough of a plum tree or a peasant fishing by the side of a stream seem to be in harmony with this art form so firmly rooted in oriental culture. This is fine, but certainly not mandatory. A deer resting in a grove, a brown bear emerging from the forest or a gorilla hiding in the deep grass are also valid placements although considerably more western.9

As the art of bonsai grows in popularity, the guidelines governing it are growing and changing. Figurines will no doubt be a part of bonsai’s future although what their role will be a dozen or a hundred years from now is difficult to speculate. For now their popularity is growing and should an artist, either classical or contemporary, choose to include one in their composition, here are four guidelines which may prove helpful in their selection.

First: The bonsai is the primary objective. Figurines, rocks or any other element placed directly into a bonsai container should enhance the overall effect of the composition. Otherwise they should not be included.

Second: Overall effect is more important than specific placement. If the same artistic result can be achieved by including the figurine as an accent to, rather than directly in the composition, then it is preferable to do so.

Third: Quality is critical. Figurines used should always be of first class workmanship and as realistic as possible.

Fourth: Cute is a four letter word. Like the bonsai itself, the figurine selected should make as simple and straightforward a statement as possible. i.e.- a bear is OK. A dancing bear juggling balls is not. Relevance, simplicity and naturalness are of key importance.


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