There are two basic forms of bonsai - Chinese and Japanese. Among the two, Chinese bonsai has its unique style. Precisely speaking, Chinese bonsai is entirely different from the bonsai we usually see in the West these days. The basic reason for this difference is that over the last 70 years or 80 years, the art of bonsai has barely undergone any change in China.
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At the beginning of the 20th century, both the Chinese as well as the Japanese bonsai were nearly the same. However, Japanese bonsai has developed considerably in the later years, while the Chinese bonsai has practically remained the same. At the first ever exhibition of the miniature trees held in the West (was organized in London) in 1902, photographs of the Japanese bonsai were taken. These photographs revealed styles that are nearly impossible to tell them apart from the Chinese bonsai that we see today. In fact, the art of bonsai in China has not been influenced by any development anywhere across the globe, especially in Japan.
In fact, many believe that the Cultural Revolution that swept China from 1966 to 1976 is primarily responsible for isolating the country from outside influences. Precisely speaking, China remained totally closed to the world, especially the West, from 1949 to the latter part of the 1970s. Moreover, it was believed that bonsai was the leisure for the privileged and anarchist classes and, hence, the authorities frowned upon such activities. Consequently, the art of bonsai almost died in China. However, it is fortunate that the intelligent Chinese people did not discard bonsai altogether, simply because the politicians had asked them to do so. It is indeed an irony that the common people, the working class as well as the peasants, who continued practicing the art of bonsai in China secretly. In fact, the authorities had no clue regarding this, whatsoever. Therefore, it may be safely concluded that bonsai was a genuinely proletarian art.
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That the Chinese helped to keep their bonsai art alive even during those turbulent periods is actually a good thing for the remaining world. As a result of their efforts in continuing with the bonsai art secretly, bonsai continues to flourish even today. Currently, the trade in bonsai between China and the western countries is on the rise and this, in turn, should fuel more interest among people in the West for the bonsai art practiced in China. There is no doubt that people in the West could gain much from the very old as well as illustrious practice of Chinese bonsai art.
In general, Chinese bonsai has a unique quality, but many different styles or schools that are also recognized in China. Every school has its individual style. For instance, the bonsai trees grown in the northern region of China differ from those grown in the southern part of the country. Similarly, bonsai growers in the west of China follow an entirely different approach from what is pursued in eastern China. The regional differences can be seen in various aspects of growing bonsai. For instance, they may be using different types of pots - such as pots of different color, style and shape. In addition, the tree varieties may also differ. Bonsai growers in southern China extensively use the Fukien tea (Carmona species), Bird plum cherry (Sageretia) and Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflora). On the other hand, bonsai growers in the northern part of the country emphasize on pines and Podocarpus. Any person planning to visit China to study the bonsai art in that country ought to bear these disparities in their mind.
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There have been many comparative studies involving the Chinese and Japanese bonsai. On the whole, the Chinese bonsai is not as refined as the contemporary Japanese bonsai. In fact, Chinese bonsai is more informal and play lesser attention to details, especially when it comes to the specimen trees. On the other hand, Chinese bonsai makes widespread use of the exposed roots as well as the twisted shapes of the branches and trunks. In China, bonsai artists have been traditionally fond of beautiful rocks in their compositions and this is manifested in most of their bonsai creations, in addition to their pen-jing (landscape bonsai).
The connotative appearance of the Chinese bonsai is among the most pleasing features of their bonsai art. Especially, their landscape bonsai or pen-jing bears a strong resemblance to the brushstroke paintings of the Zen and literati schools. In fact, the independence as well as the informality of these compositions bring forth an originality that is perhaps exceptional in bonsai art. A closer look at the Chinese bonsai reveals that perhaps the Chinese painting has an influence in their cascade as well as literati style bonsai, which possess a very unusual and inspirational feature. For instance, the sharp angular form of the trunk as well as the comprehensive curvatures of the branches will probably remind one of the brushstrokes that are distinctive to Chinese paintings.
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Often artists in China include rocks in their bonsai creations. The Japanese bonsai growers blatantly copied this art of astutely including rocks in bonsai creations. Therefore, we can say that the Japanese appeal for Visual Stones, called suiseki in Japan, actually has its origin in China.
The rock bonsai of China occur in a variety of shapes as well as sizes, varying from just a few centimetres to anything between one meter and two meters (3 feet and six feet) in height. These bonsai creations are not only wonderful, but realistic too, and they can be planted together with low growing trees or with any other prominent planting material. These are meant to convey the idea of a natural landscape view, instead of highlighting the attractive trees.
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Combining rocks with bonsai trees takes the creation to an altogether different level and gives an entirely different feeling. This is one basic area where the Chinese bonsai and Japanese bonsai differ. Compositions like these do not essentially rely on the wonderful trees, as it is the general effect that is of main significance. There are times when the trees as well as the rocks used in the composition are both equally attractive, but in some way none of them dominate or outshine the other. In fact, there is a harmony that is achieved by extremely adept treatment of the materials. Many Chinese rock scenes are basically composed of composite parts, which are put together using an adhesive or by cementing. When you use this procedure, it often produces gratifying consequences, particularly when you combine them with the traditional Chinese display of rock scenes on gorgeous marble trays that are filled with crystal clear water.
It has been found that artists in China have a fondness for trees having rugged or bizarre-shaped trunks. In effect, some of these artists even go to the extent of producing what people in the West would consider to be abnormal shapes. Chinese artists popularly use the crooked, hollowed-out trunks as well as exposed roots to heighten the sense of great age. They also use dead wood, but not as essentially as the bonsai growers in Japan.
It is worth mentioning here that all Chinese bonsai growers use about 200 tree varieties for the purpose. Most of these trees are also used by Japanese bonsai growers. However, in China, bonsai growers prefer the trees varieties having very small leaves.
Growing bonsai from collected trees is nothing new to the Chinese artists, as they have been collecting the tress for several centuries now. On the other hand, Japanese bonsai artists do not attach much value to collected trees. In fact, most of the trees that are collected in China are basically stumps of older trees that have been coppiced or cut back several times by local villagers who collect the wood for use as fuel.
However, one should not view the distinctive differences between the Chinese bonsai and Japanese bonsai merely simply critically or negatively. In contrast, such dissimilarities, which actually broaden the gamut of styles as well as techniques, will only facilitate in enriching the bonsai art further.