The Bonsai Diary - History of Bonsai
Bonsai first appeared in
China over a thousand years ago on a very
scale, known as pun-sai, where it was the practice of growing single
specimen trees in pots. These early specimens displayed sparse foliage
and rugged, gnarled trunks which often looked like animals, dragons and
birds. There are a great number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese
bonsai, and the grotesque or animal-like trunks and root formations are
still highly prized today. Chinese bonsai come from the landscape of the
imagination and images of fiery dragons and coiled serpents take far
greater precedence over images of trees- so the two forms of this art
are quite far apart.
With Japan's adoption of many cultural trademarks of China - bonsai was
also taken up, introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period
1333) by means of Zen Buddhism - which at this time was rapidly
spreading around Asia. The exact time is debatable, although it is
possible 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 just
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 ideals and philosophy of bonsai were greatly
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 appreciate 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 believe
that 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 indeed viewed 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
displayed on specially designed shelves. These complex plants were no
longer permanently reserved for outdoor display, although the practices
of training and pruning did not develop 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 important 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 famous temple -
At around this time, bonsai also became commonplace to the general
Japanese public - which greatly increased demand for the smaller trees
collected from the wild and firmly established the artform within the
culture and traditions of the country.
Over time, bonsai began to take on different styles, each which varied
immensely from one another. Bonsai artists gradually looked into
introducing 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 250 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 - especially the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 opened the
world's eyes up to bonsai.
Due to this phenomenal 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 techniques to
do this - allowing the art to evolve even further. The Japanese learnt
to capitalize on the interest in this artform very quickly - opening up
nurseries dedicated solely to grow, train and then export bonsai trees.
Different plants were now being used to cater for worldwide climates 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 are also being 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
In Japan, bonsai are highly 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 possessions - 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 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.