After a very long health related hiatus, I figured this first post should be something sexy….real sexy…..That’s right! We’re going to discuss “sexing” Bonsai containers today.
Alas, we won’t be discussing the collectible and risqué designs of Nick Lenz, Dale Cochoy, or Jim Barrett. Rather, we will discuss the qualities that make a container either strong or elegant.
Let us begin with a caveat and a trigger warning: I am fully self aware that this dichotomy is sexist, archaic, and, in the end, unnecessary. It is the common terminology of use in bonsai in Japan in multiple fields of visual art. That I dislike the terminology doesn’t change the fact that it is the terminology we use when talking about both bonsai trees and containers.
What do we mean when we talk about the gender of Bonsai containers. Is the above Buna (Japanese Beech) raft style Bonsai masculine or feminine? The container? All containers are to varying degrees masculine and varying degrees feminine. There aren’t really any containers that are 100% masculine or 100% feminine.
They each have a ratio of masculine to feminine qualities, just like our bonsai trees. Once you’ve decided on non-gendered issues like size, height, and color, figuring out that mixture of additional masculine and feminine components is an excellent and simple method of matching a bonsai to the right container. Say you have a tree that’s “mostly masculine” but has some “distinct feminine features.” Then let’s start looking for a container that’s 75% masculine and 25% feminine.
Please remember, this is very subjective. Assigning numbers and percentages to these qualities is more a feeling than legitimate mathematics.
Standard Masculine Features
- Shapes: Square, Rectangle, Mokko, Polygon(hexagon, octagon, etc.)
- Taller height
- Cut feet, stepped feet
- Straight walls
- Sharp angular outer lip
- Offset panels
- Most carved decoration
- Cut corners
Standard Feminine Features
- Shapes: Oval, Round, Fukuro, Rinka
- Shallower height
- Soft edges(rather than angles)
- Fancy Feet, cloud feet, chicken feet, Cats Paw feet, etc.
- Both concave and convex walls
- Decorations such as braided rims,
- Most lips
- Inset panels
- Most painted decoration
- Sashes and bands
- Incised corners
Let’s look at some examples and see what we’re talking about.
A basic lipped rectangle with thick walls, sash(obi iri) and cut feet. While the lip and it’s softer angles and the wide sash are feminine features, this is most certainly a masculine container. Almost totally masculine.
A totally different rectangle. While the basic shape, offset panel, and angular feet are masculine features, everything else is feminine. Painting, rounded edges, inset corners, lip, and bottom band. The shape still plays the lions share of determining gender, so this is still a masculine rectangle, but suited for a tree with grace as well. Maybe 70% masculine and 30% feminine.
What would you put in a pot with that ratio?Masculine and powerful trunk, deadwood, and striking jin. The deadwood and trunk, the main features, hold up to the masculinity of the rectangle shape, angular feet, and offset panel. At the same time, the movement of both the trunk and the Jin is elegant and graceful and plays a big role. A perfect fit: 70/30 tree with a 70/30 pot.
How about a comparison of two Tofukuji rounds. The first is rustic and rugged, very masculine for a round with its matte finish, carved decoration, and thick walls. A Very masculine round. 70/30•M/F
The next round, despite having masculine features like sharp edges, is all grace and elegance. Recessed Cloud feet, burnished finish, inner lip, and a slight wabi sabi wonkiness that make for a very feminine round with just a little masculinity. 90/10•F/M
A deep mokko, almost oval, from Koushousen Yamaaki. The oval shape and lip are feminine, but the depth, feet and mushikui decoration are masculine. Suitable for a powerful informal upright pine with elegant movement. 80/20•M/F
This old Chinese Shudei is a 50/50 split to me. The shape is masculine, rectangle, but the lip, inset feet, indent band, highly burnished finish, and convex and bowed walls are all feminine features. A rectangle in drag. 50/50
A definitely masculine pure silver riveted hexagon from Andrew Pearson of Stone Monkey Ceramics in England. While the feet are ornate and feminine, and the silver color to the rivets is more feminine than usual clay rivets, this is a clearly masculine pot. when the rivets tarnish, it will be even more masculine. 90/10•M/F
A pair of rectangle Tsukinowa Yusen. Everything about these pots other than the painting and slight outward slope to the walls is a masculine feature. Nonetheless, they’re fairly feminine pots. It’s easy to imagine a fairly delicate flowering Shohin here with elegant movement but a powerful trunk. 60/40•M/F
A very shallow oval from Heian Kouzan Jr. while the inset cut feet are masculine, this is a very feminine pot, with it’s shallow height, bottom indent band, and slightly sloping walls. 95/5•M/F
From the same family, Heian Kouzan Sr., here is a Rinka shape with fancy feet, soft kinyo glaze, and lip. While the height is masculine, everything else is elegant and feminine. Could still suit a powerful deciduous bunjin maybe. 90/10•F/M
A great pair of unglazed pieces showing why offset panels(as in the first piece), are thought to be masculine features, while recessed panels are considered feminine features.
An illustration with an Ino Shukuho and a Doshita Keishin, respectively, on the difference between “incised corners”(sumi iri) which are feminine and “cut corners”(sumi kiri) which are masculine It is a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see this these mislabeled as they’re very different in character. It’s easy to see when you compare them side by side why the difference in gender is more than just convention.
A classical very shallow feminine antique Chinese Kinyo container that was once likely a suiban. Simple, shallow, elegant, and very feminine. The masculine straight walls and cut feet would still suit a very powerful but elegant deciduous bonsai. 90/10•F/M, but a feminine pot nonetheless.
Now, in the interest of brevity, we’ll continue this discussion in another post. But before I let you leave, I’d like you to take a look at these bonsai, all different species, all with different qualities and attributes, all with varying levels of masculine and feminine character. All in one of 6 antique special Glazed Kinyo fukuro containers(Updated info I just learned! Thanks Bill you’re a treasure!).
Think about how the owners considered the choice of this particular container. Some of these trees are as much masculine as feminine, and vice versa.
I would love to hear your feedback and discussion on this post and it’s ideas, you can find the article shared in multiple Facebook groups, reply here, or send me your comments on Facebook messenger.
Postscript: this is still my favorite pot.