History of Bonsai

A Detailed History of Bonsai... 

 Bonsai first made an appearance in China over a thousand years back on a very basic scale , identified as pun-sai , where it was the method of growing single specimen trees in pots . These types of early specimens portrayed slight foliage and rugged , gnarled trunks which frequently looked like animals , dragons and birds . There exists a great number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese bonsai , and the unattractive or animal-like trunks and root formations are still highly prized today . Chinese bonsai are derived from the landscape of the imagination and images of fiery dragons and coiled serpents take a much greater precedence over images of trees- so the two forms of this art are quite far apart . 

With Japan's adoption of numerous cultural trademarks of China - bonsai was also taken up , introduced to Japan during the course of the Kamakura period ( 1185 - 1333 ) by means of Zen Buddhism - which at that time was rapidly spreading around Asia . The precise time is debatable , even though it is feasible that it had arrived in AD 1195 as there appears to be a reference to it in a Japanese scroll attributed to that period . Once bonsai was introduced into Japan , the art was refined to an extent not yet approached in China . Over time , the simple trees were not only confined to the Buddhist monks and their monasteries , but also later were introduced to be representative of the aristocracy - a symbol of prestige and honour . The values and philosophy of bonsai were very much changed over the years . For the Japanese , bonsai represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man , the soul and nature . 


In an ancient Japanese scroll written in Japan around the Kamakura period , it is translated to say : "To understand and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity" . Whether this was intended as a positive or negative statement , it leaves us to realize growing dwarfed and twisted trees in containers was an accepted practice among the upper class of Japan by the Kamakura period . By the fourteenth century bonsai was certainly thought of as a highly refined art form , meaning that it must have been an established practice many years before that time . 


Bonsai were brought indoors for display at special times by the 'Japanese elite' and became an important part of Japanese life by being exhibited on purposely designed shelves . These complex plants were no longer permanently reserved for outdoor display , although the practices of training and pruning did not emerge until later - the small trees at this time still being taken from the wild . In the 17th and 18th century , the Japanese arts reached their peak and were regarded very highly . Bonsai again evolved to a much higher understanding and refinement of nature - although the containers used seemed to be slightly deeper than those used today . The main factor in maintaining bonsai was now the removal of all but the most critical parts of the plant . The reduction of everything just to the essential elements and ultimate refinement was very symbolic of the Japanese philosophy of this time - shown by the very simple Japanese gardens such as those in the well-known temple - Roan-ji . 


At around this time , bonsai also became commonplace to the general Japanese public - which greatly increased demand for the small trees collected from the wild and firmly established the artform within the culture and traditions of the country . 


Over time , bonsai started to take on different styles , each which varied immensely from each other . Bonsai artists gradually looked into including other culturally important elements in their bonsai plantings such as rocks , supplementary and accent plants , and even small buildings and people which itself is known as the art of bon-kei . They also looked at reproducing miniature landscapes in nature - known as sai-kei which further investigated the diverse range of artistic possibilities for bonsai . 


Finally , in the mid-19th century , after more than 230 years of global isolation , Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world . Word soon spread from travelers who visited Japan of the miniature trees in ceramic containers which mimicked aged , mature , tall trees in nature . Further exhibitions in London , Vienna and Paris in the latter part of the century - particularly the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 opened the world's eyes up to bonsai . 


Due to this incredible upsurge in the demand for bonsai , the now widely expanding industry and lack of naturally-forming , stunted plants led to the commercial production of bonsai by artists through training young plants to grow to look like bonsai . Several basic styles were adopted , and artists made use of wire , bamboo skewers and growing methods to do this - allowing the art to evolve even further . The Japanese learnt to maximize the interest in this artform very quickly - opening up nurseries committed solely to grow , train and then export bonsai trees . A variety of plants were now being used to cater for worldwide environments and to produce neater foliage and more suitable growth habits . Bonsai techniques such as raising trees from seed or cuttings and the styling and grafting of unusual , different or tender material onto hardy root stock were further developed . 


Bonsai has now evolved to reflect changing tastes and times - with a great variety of countries , cultures and conditions in which it is now practiced . 


In Japan today , bonsai are greatly regared as a symbol of their culture and ideals . The New Year is not complete unless the tokonoma - the special niche in every Japanese home used for the display of ornaments and prized belongings - is filled with a blossoming apricot or plum tree . Bonsai is no longer reserved for the upper-class , but is a joy shared by executive and factory worker alike . 


The Japanese tend to focus on using native species for their bonsai - namely pines , azaleas and maples ( regarded as the traditional bonsai plants ) . In other countries however , people are more open to opinion . 


The evolution of bonsai over the past two centuries is truly amazing - now a well known and respected horticultural artform that has spread throughout the world from Greenland to the U .S . to South Africa to Australia . It is constantly changing and reaching even greater heights , representative of how small the world is really getting . 


© Copyright , Written by Lee Spindler .