Preparing A Small Bonsai Display For Show

Last weekend, we had our Lone Star (Texas) State Bonsai Federation education seminar, and the topic was literati bonsai. All participating trees must be a bunjin. My wife and I exhibited a small, 24″ x 18″, Japanese toko-kazari display.


Display consisted of a mame bujin Chinese Elm grown from root cutting, a dwarf Fiber Optic grass, a distant mountain viewing stone and a two-line poem.

Many attendees liked the display and commented how simple it looks, refreshing, quiet, peaceful, cute, and the lightly finished wood allows viewers to see all the elements clearly.

I will explain how we came up with the idea, why we selected the items and why we arranged them this way. The thoughts put into the process was a great exercise.

The Literati Theme Concept

Poetry, calligraphy and brush painting are among skills which define literati. I asked my good friend, Dr. Sun-Chueh Kao (高珊爵博士), a member of our Chinese Bonsai Society, to compose the two-line poem and to write the calligraphy specifically for this display. Since most literati are rooted in zen buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, we thought it would be good to have the words, zen (禅) and literati (文人), appeared separately in each line. The couplet reads: “When a zen flavor is attained, the virtue of a literati is also elevated”. We aimed to accomplish that feel in a literati style bonsai and penjing.


Each of these tablets has its own flavor. The one with a lotus brush painting would perhaps be best for a spring or summer display; the plain two lines tablet for a winter display. I chose the middle one augmented by his red seal mark for the fall display.

The very small distant mountain viewing stone was a gift from a stone friend, Mr. Hongguang Jiao (焦洪光), I met in Beijing during our Silk Road tour two years ago. It is about 2″ wide, and was collected in Western China’s Xinjiang desert. Stone has always been associated with scholars, and is often displayed in studios as scholar stone or gonshi. Confucius had a famous quote: “The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in mountains.” This little distant mountain stone is a link to Confucianism.


This distant mountain view stone has a deep patina, and a natural arch on the left.

The companion planting is a Fiber Optic grass, a weed in our local nursery and garden. The simplicity and the vital life force of grass also fascinate literati, especially Acorus. The dark red mame pot is a hand-made Japanese Bunsan pot.

A mame literati pine would be ideal, as literati tends to have an unbending quality. However, my mame Japanese Black Pine literati is not yet ready for show. So we substituted it with one of the many Chinese Elm we grown from roots. This one was planted in a very shallow round Yixing pot, mounded with moss.

These were our thought process for the role of each element in the display.

Trial Arrangements of the Display

We experimented with several arrangements. Here are some of the attempts; we finally settled on the one we thought that would tell the story we wanted for a literati event, and it looked pleasing to us.

literati stone2

The distant mountain viewing stone set in the front and back for comparison.

stone middle

The stone was directly under the scroll as in a suiseki display.


Attempting a three-element display.

literati scroll 2

Changing the scroll on the right display changes the mood.

Alan Walker of the Lake Charles Bonsai Society and Matt Reel, the young and talent artist who apprenticed in Japan with the famed Shinji Suzuki made suggestions to improve the display. It was a very rewarding learning experience to hear everyone’s comments and thoughts at the convention. Whatever choice we ultimately choose depends on our perspective and mood, and how it appeals to us at that time. We are very grateful to Matt and Alan’s inputs, and that made it a truly education event.

What Would I Change?

The grains of the plywood background is too much a distraction. It is not so obvious in person than in the photos. I would paint it in an off-white color or something neutral and more subdue.


4 thoughts on “Preparing A Small Bonsai Display For Show

  1. Thanks Robert. Several people asked about the meaning of the display and backgrounds. I thought it would be useful to explain why we chose and grouped those elements together. We are very lucky to have bonsai friends skilled in Chinese literature, painting and calligraphy.

  2. Pingback: Mini Chinese Elm Bonsai Grown from Root Cuttings | Bonsai Penjing & More

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