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The Ma in Bonsai

by Willem Pretorius

The theme chosen for the African Bonsai Convention 6 is The Ma in Bonsai which confused a lot of people as we expected. Thanks for all the questions! Hopefully we can explore the theme at ABC6 which will be held in the city hall in Stellenbosch from 8 to 10 November.


The importance of the concept of empty space is difficult for us to comprehend. In Japan they call it "Ma". The Japanese concept of Ma can be described as a pause in time, an interval or emptiness in space. The meaning of Ma can be seen in the Chinese script, or Kanji, of a door; not only a symbol, but it has another meaning too, an opening for the light to enter, enabling growth and sparking creativity. (Bonsai Focus, March 2023).

In his book Principles of Bonsai Design the author David de Groot refers to this as negative space. It is empty space which “can have a powerful influence on balance”.

“Empty space”, he writes “has always been an important part of composition – whether in flower arranging, music or painting – and is admired for itself, for space is where the viewer’s eye and mind play. It is very important for any display that enough space is provided so at a normal viewing distance other displays or objects do not intrude.


The size of a bonsai and its companions relative to the setting will determine how much space will exist between them, and much practice will be needed in order to understand how to properly and effectively use space. Centering an object within space gives a static feeling, placing it off center creates movement.”

David de Groot's Redwoods at the Pacific Bonsai Museum


Robert Stevens pic from Pinterest

Robert Steven also emphasizes the importance of negative space or empty space in his book Mission of Transformation. It is important “because emptiness is also a very important part of any composition. It does not merely represent an absence or void, as negative space can play an important part in bonsai design, which is to create mystery, illusion,

movement, contrast, simplicity, dimension, perspective, balance and nuance. “Intelligent use of negative space in bonsai will give a very important impact to the illusion of depth, it can draw a visual distance between the foreground, middle ground and the background. The best method to achieve this effect is by overlapping the components by doing so, our mind will perceive there are gaps of space in-between the components and create the illusion of perspective". “Negative space has weight and mass and it creates a balance with the positive space by giving the eye a place to rest.”


To me music is a very good example of what is meant here. If you create a wall of sound it could be experienced as noise but the sound of silence is important as it give the ear time to rest.


Please post photos of bonsai that you think explores this theme and feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.

See you at ABC6!

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