Bonsai History & Definitions

Bonsai or 盆栽 in Japanese, is the art of keeping tree’s in pots.  The art of bonsai (and the word) actually derives from the Chinese arts of penzai (盆栽) and penjing (盆景).

Bonsai and penzai translate as “tray plant” or “tray cultivation” whereas penjing translates as “tray scenery”.  As the name suggests penjing can be more focussed on scenery such as mountain rock landscapes, normally including trees and plants as part of the scene.

In the modern western world the word Bonsai tends to be used to describe any of these arts and basically describes any tree kept in a shallow tray or pot. 

The general aim of bonsai is to create a small tree in a pot which has the appearance of an ancient mature wild tree.  Methods include branch and root pruning, branch shaping, leaf size reduction and creation of dead wood (Jin / Shari) areas.

The earliest references to any trees grown in pots are from the early Egyptian era.  Pictures of these “bonsai” trees exist dating from around 4000BC.  In China the first written references to the art of miniature landscapes were made during the Tang Dynasty in around 700AD.  A mural in a tomb from 706AD depicted 2 servants carrying miniature landscapes with rocks and fruit trees. The art must have been practised for many centuries before this; there had been earlier legends about people who had the power to shrink down landscapes into miniature size.

The earliest known picture of a bonsai tree in Japan dates from 1309AD although it is known that they had been brought over from China as souvenirs since at least 600AD.

In Japan the focus became less on landscapes and more on individual trees in pots.  This is thought to be in part due to the principles of Zen Buddhism which emphasised “beauty in severe austerity”, but also could be due to the relatively small size of Japan when compared to the vast mountainous landscapes of China.  This led to a focus on highly manicured, precisely shaped, individual trees in pots which is probably how most people would view bonsai today.  The Japanese developed many formal styles for bonsai and the trees were managed to a much higher degree than their counterparts in China which are generally wilder looking and often in more colorful and patterned pots.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the art was extremely popular especially among the elite in Japan.  It played a part in daily life and often a small area of the house was dedicated to the display of bonsai.

It’s only relatively recently that the western world became aware of and began to create bonsai.  In 1806 a potted dwarf tree from China was presented to Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) for inspection.  Travelers visiting Japan and China began bringing back trees and knowledge of the art.  Several world-wide exhibitions began to feature bonsai.  Most importantly in the Paris world exhibition in 1900 and a London exhibition in 1909. 

Once the world began to see these beautiful trees for themselves the craze began to spread.  The Japanese and later the Chinese developed nurseries to create bonsai for the mass export market.  This market has grown and grown and is still growing although more trees are being imported from China in recent times.  It’s ironic that bonsai began in China, was adopted and popularised around the world by the Japanese and now in modern times the Chinese are re-taking over the world market in bonsai.

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