Literati or Bunjin

by Rudi Adam

Of all the bonsai styles and variations, the Literati or Bunjin style is singled out as the style of the artist, thinks Rudi Adam.

Bunjin is created for the personal satisfaction of its creator. It captures his deepest feeling and tells a story.

The Literati were the Chinese scholars who had passed an examination in subjects such as literature, history, philosophy and the arts in an intellectual Olympics during the period 206BC to 220AD. These were the scholars who practised, in addition to other art forms, bonsai.

literati1These were an elite and learned class and their tastes were extreme and not normally suited to the general public.


Literati has an aesthetic value in both painting and bonsai. They are tall, slender and have the abstract beauty of calligraphy, while it still suggests the rugged and spectacular tree designs seen in nature. Bunjin is the Japanese interpretation of Literati.

To beginners as well as more advanced growers, Bunjin might seem a little confusing in that there are few rules, if they can be called rules. Some people might fall into the trap by thinking that Bunjin is easy because there are no rules and try to create a Bunjin without knowing any of the general guidelines. What often results is a mediocre creation, which is then defended by the statement, "This is the way I like it."

Rules for Bunjin

  • It is accepted that a Bunjin has a slender trunk, slender and normally short branches.literati2
  • The branches are sparsely arranged high up on the trunk with the freedom to cross each other and the trunk.
  • Although slender, the trunk must have a strong line or curves, appear to be mature (rough bark) and have a taper ending in an apex which could be alive or jinned.
  • The foliage must be sparse - the essential spirit of the grower and the tree is captured in the simple use of lines and space. This almost theatrical, exaggerated simplicity is the hallmark of Bunjin.
  • Flat, round or oval containers, medium depth round, square, hexagonal, octagonal or any other container with equal sides which does not confuse the eye and which focuses on the trunkkline are suitable for Bunjin.
  • Junipers, pines, cedars and oleas are the species most suited to Bunjin because evergreens have a more austere and rugged appearance.

Trees which fall between bonsai and Bunjin are pseudo-literati! For example, trees with branches which start too low down on the trunk or when there are too many branches or when there is too much foliage. Group plantings, other than twin trunk, where the essential simplicity is lost because of the large number of trees.