Zhu turns 'rubbish' into miniature worlds

Tan Weiyun
Buddha said the world is in a grain of sand, a fallen tree leaf, a flower petal. Zhu Fucai sees the world through a similar prism in his water bonsai art.
Tan Weiyun
Zhu turns rubbish into miniature worlds
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

Zhu Fucai displays a tree root, the ideal basis for a water bonsai.

Buddha said the world is in a grain of sand, a fallen tree leaf, a flower petal. Zhu Fucai sees the world through a similar prism in his water bonsai art.

Zhu’s studio, which was renovated from a stinky, messy pigsty eight years ago, is hidden behind a row of lush trees by a large rice paddy in Songjiang District’s Maogang Town. His courtyard is piled up with dead branches, rotten wood, grotesque stones and strange plants that apparently do not live in the Yangtze River Delta region.

“They might be rubbish in people’s eyes, but they are treasures for me,” Zhu said. The 50-year-old Zhejiang-native, who has been in Songjiang for 30 years, once opened restaurants, collected wood carvings, designed traditional Chinese houses and has now found his niche in bonsai waterscape.

“What I’m doing is to put the great nature into a small bonsai, which has water, hills, fish and greenery,” he said.

Unity of man and nature is perhaps a deeply-rooted influence of Chinese culture, with literati, officials and businessmen crazy about bonsai and waterscape for centuries, hoping to own water and mountains at home. Some even renovated their residences into beautiful gardens with rockeries and ponds. This endows man-made landscapes with slight deviations from the traditional aesthetic taste of Chinese, who preferred simplicity and natural beauty.

The stones and wood pieces Zhu chooses for a waterscape are all left in their original state without cutting or processing. Having dealt with them for years, he knows them like the back of his hand.

Qinglong stone (granite with quartz) from Guangdong Province and iron-rich volcanic rocks are hard in texture, and can both be soaked in water for a long time, while Songpi stone (stalagmite) is softer, easy to absorb water and friendly to the existence of moss.  

Based on different natural shapes, Zhu plants ferns and moss on them, condensing the natural scenery — it might be a forest of spring shoots, high hills or perilous peaks — into a palm-like water bonsai full of vitality.

“No one teaches me how to do it. It’s my hobby that I’m doing to pamper myself. When I pick up a stone, the inspiration would come,” he said. “The closer to nature, the more it can stir the hearts of people.”

Dead branches and rotten wood with their natural patterns, lines of weathering and worm-holes are also good material. The azalea tree’s root with its high density, often in various strange shapes, is ideal for modeling as a water bonsai after being dried because it’s nonperishable in a damp, aquatic environment.

Zhu fills nutritional soil into the gaps and cracks between the wood, grows flowers, ferns and moss on them, and puts in tiny fish or aquatic insects, which live on each other, building up a small ecological system. He has even invented a lighting gadget and a mist sprayer in a water tank that can function as both a desk lamp and mini-humidifier.

“You don’t need to change water or feed the fish. They can live by themselves,” he said.

Zhu turns rubbish into miniature worlds
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

In Zhu Fucai’s studio a variety of water bonsai made up of stone, plants, fern and moss is testament to the genius of this water bonsai artist from Songjiang’s Maogang Town.

Zhu turns rubbish into miniature worlds
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

A clay figure is wittily attached to a water bonsai work. 

Venturing into Zhu’s work studio is like stepping into green woods with the pleasant sounds of babbling water.

In the center of the room there is a long conference table with the middle part hollowed out, with a four-meter-long water bonsai built in. The river flows along the crisscrossed, narrow gullies between the mountains made of rockeries, covered with greenery. There is a small boat moored on the bank, as if it’s waiting for the passengers to get onboard. “I guess people would love to have meetings at a table like this,” Zhu said with a smile.

One corner is transformed into a tropical rainforest, decorated with green vines spiralling upward on dead dried tree roots, while fish living in water and insects hiding under rocks add vigor to the whole waterscape.

In another artwork that reflects a scene of farming life, a clay sculpture of an old villager leads a cow to plow the land. Not far away, on the other side of the cobble-stone path, is a high mountain blanketed with green plants. The old well by the farmer is actually a special “mechanism,” used to observe the water level in the tank and to check whether the bonsai is short of water.

Zhu is definitely not a hermit because he is eager to share his skills with young people on social networks and short video sharing platforms such as WeChat, Douyin and Kuaishou with more than 10,000 followers. He is also trying water bonsai with succulents, a more popular plant among young people. “See this tank of succulents. I’ve been growing it in water for three months, and it still thrives,” Zhu said proudly. 

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