Although the word ‘Bon-sai’ is Japanese, the art it describes originated in the Chinese empire. By the year 700 AD the Chinese had started the art of ‘pun-sai’ using special techniques to grow dwarf trees in containers.
Originally only the elite of the society practiced pun-tsai with native-collected specimens and the trees where spread throughout China as luxurious gifts. During the Kamakura period, the period in which Japan adopted most of China’s cultural trademarks, the art of growing trees in containers was introduced into Japan. The Japanese developed Bonsai along certain lines due to the influence of Zen Buddhism and the fact that Japan is only 4% the size of mainland China. The range of landscape forms was thus much more limited. Many well-known techniques, styles and tools were developed in Japan from Chinese originals. Although known to a limited extent outside Asia for three centuries, only recently has Bonsai truly been spread outside its homelands.
History of Bonsai in China
Shallow basins or flattened bowls – “pen” or “pan” or “pun” – had been made out of earthenware in what we now call China since about 5,000 years ago. A thousand years later during the Chinese Bronze Age, these were among the chosen shapes to be recreated in bronze for religious and political ceremonial purposes. About 2,300 years ago, the Chinese Five Agents Theory (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth) spun off the idea of the potency of replicas in miniature. By recreating a mountain, for example, on a reduced scale, a student could focus on its magical properties and gain access to them. The further the reproduction was in size from the original, the more magically potent it was likely to be. Two hundred years later, importations of new aromatics and incenses took place under the Han Emperor because of newly opened trading with its neighbors. A new type of vessel was created, incense burners in the form of the mountain peaks which rose above the waves and symbolized the abodes of the Immortals, the then-popular idea of the mythic Islands of the Blessed. Primarily crafted out of bronze, ceramic or gilded bronze, some of these burners rested on small pen dishes to either catch hot embers or to hold a miniature symbolic ocean. The removable lids to these burners often were covered in stylized portrayals of legendary figures climbing the sides of forested hills. From the perforations in the lids the incense smoke arose out of the cave openings like the mystic vapors in the full-size mountains. It is thought that some later lids made out of stone may have been found with lichens or moss already attached – natural miniature landscapes.
The idea of the potency of replicas in miniature date back 2300 years in China
From about the year 706 AD comes the tomb paintings for Crown Prince Zhang Huai which included depictions of two ladies-in-waiting offering miniature rockery landscapes with small plants in shallow dishes. By this time there were the earliest written descriptions of these pun wan – tray playthings. As the creation and care of these was somewhat already advanced, the maturation of the art had taken place (but its documentation has not yet been discovered by us).
The earliest collected and then containerized trees are believed to have been peculiarly-shaped and twisted specimens from the wilds. These were “sacred” as opposed to “profane” because the trees could not be used for any practical, ordinary purposes such as lumber. Their grotesque forms were reminiscent of yoga-type postures which repeatedly bent-back on themselves, re-circulating vital fluids and said to be the cause of long-life.
Over the centuries, different regional styles would be developed throughout the large country with its many varied landscapes; earthenware and ceramic containers would replace the porcelain ones displayed on wooden stands; and attempts would be made to shape the trees with bamboo frameworks or brass wire or lead strips. Many poets and writers each made at least one description of tree and/or mountainous miniature landscapes, and many painters included a dwarfed potted tree as a symbol of a cultivated man's lifestyle. After the 16th century these were called pun tsai or “tray planting.” The term pun Ching ("tray landscape," now called Penjing) didn't actually come into usage until the 17th century.
Miniature landscape from Gothaer Penjing Album, Canton, c.1800, for export to Europe
History of Bonsai in Japan
It is believed that the first tray landscapes were brought from China to Japan at least twelve hundred years ago (as religious souvenirs). A thousand years ago, the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese included this passage: “A [full-size] tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one". Read the article about Bonsai tree meaning for more information.
The first graphic portrayals of these in Japan were not made until about eight hundred years ago. All things Chinese fascinated the Japanese, and at some point the Chinese Chan Buddhism (Indian meditative Dyhana Buddhism crossed with native Chinese Daoism) also was imported and became Zen Buddhism in Japan. Finding beauty in severe austerity, Zen monks – with less land forms as a model -- developed their tray landscapes along certain lines so that a single tree in a pot could represent the universe. The Japanese pots were generally deeper than those from the mainland, and the resulting gardening form was called hachi-no-ki, literally, the bowl's tree. A folktale from the late 1300s, about an impoverished samurai who sacrificed his last three dwarf potted trees to provide warmth for a traveling monk on a cold winter night, became a popular Noh theatre play, and images from the story would be depicted in a number of media forms, including woodblock prints, through the centuries.
Bonsai "Akirafutokoro Prince" (706 AD). Source: Ritsumeikan University
Everyone from the military leader shoguns to ordinary peasant people grew some form of tree or azalea in a pot or abalone shell. By the late eighteenth century a show for traditional pine dwarf potted trees was begun to be held annually in the capital city of Kyoto. Connoisseurs from five provinces and the neighboring areas would bring one or two plants each to the show in order to submit them to the visitors for ranking or judging. The town of Takamatsu (home of Kinashi Bonsai village) was already growing fields of partly-shaped dwarf pines for a major source of income.
Around the year 1800, a group of scholars of the Chinese arts gathered near the city of Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their dwarf trees were renamed as “Bonsai” (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term pun-tsai) in order to differentiate them from the ordinary hachi-no-ki which many persons cared for. The bon or pen is shallower than the Hachi bowl. This shows that at least some growers had better success with the horticultural needs of dwarf potted trees in smaller containers. Bonsai was now seen as a matter of design, the craft approach replacing the religious/mythical approach of tradition.
Different sizes and styles were developed over the next century; catalogs and books about the trees, tools, and pots were published; some early formal shows were held. Copper and iron wire replaced hemp fibers for shaping the trees. Containers mass-produced in China were made to Japanese specifications and the number of hobbyists grew.
At the second Kokufu Bonsai Ten, December 1934
Following the Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated the Tokyo area in 1923, a group of thirty families of professional growers resettled twenty miles away in Omiya and set up what would become the center of Japanese Bonsai culture; Omiya Bonsai village. In the 1930s as formal displays of Bonsai became recognized, an official annual show was allowed at Tokyo's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The long recovery from the Pacific War saw Bonsai become mature and cultivated as an important native art. Apprenticeship programs, greater numbers of shows, books and magazines, and classes for foreigners spread the word. The use of custom power tools matched with an intricate knowledge of plant physiology allowed a few masters to move from the craft approach to a truly artistic-designing phase of the art.
Recently, Bonsai – seen too often as just a tired pastime for the elderly – now even has a version becoming popular among the younger generation with easy-to-care-for mini-trees and landscapes, unwired and wilder-looking, using native plants.
Read more on Bonsai in Japan.
History of Bonsai in the West
In 1604, there was a description in Spanish of how Chinese immigrants in the tropical islands of the Philippines were growing small ficus trees onto hand-sized pieces of coral. The earliest-known English observation of dwarf potted trees (root-over-rock in a pan) in China/Macau was recorded in 1637. Subsequent reports during the next century also from Japan were root-over-rock specimens. Dozens of travelers included some mention of dwarf trees in their accounts from Japan or China. Many of these were repeated in book reviews and excerpted articles in widely distributed magazines. Japanese dwarf trees were in the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, the Paris Expositions of 1878 and 1889, the Chicago Expo of 1893, the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, the 1910 Japan-Britain Exhibition, and at the 1915 San Francisco Exposition.
The first European language book (French) entirely about Japanese dwarf trees was published in 1902, and the first in English in 1940. Yoshimura and Halford's Miniature Trees and Landscapes was published in 1957. It would become known as "Bible of Bonsai in the West," with Yuji Yoshimura being the direct link between Japanese classical Bonsai art and progressive Western approach which resulted in elegant, refined adaptation for the modern world. John Naka from California extended this sharing by teaching in person and in print first in America, and then around the world further emphasizing the use of native material.
It was by this time that the West was being introduced to landscapes from Japan known as saikei and a resurgence from China as Penjing. Compositions with more than a single type of tree became accepted and recognized as legitimate creations.
Bonsai spread to the West in the late 19th century
Over the years, slight innovations and improvements have been developed, primarily in the revered old Bonsai nurseries in Japan, and these have been brought over bit-by-bit to our countries by visiting teachers or returning traveler enthusiasts. Upon their return Japan, teachers would immediately try out a new technique or two in front of students at previously scheduled workshops. The new Japanese techniques could then be disseminated further and this living art form continued to be developed.
Most of the earlier books in European languages, for the most part, leaned more towards basic horticultural knowledge and techniques for keeping the trees alive. Western science has been increasing our awareness of the needs and processes of the living trees and other plants in our compositions. At the same time, published material has shifted towards explaining the aesthetics involved in styling and shaping. Large permanent collections began to be increasingly set up around the world, including Scotland, Hungary, Australia, and Korea, and numerous shows, exhibitions and conventions became annual events for enthusiasts and the general public.
The Karate Kid movies were released. In their own way they spurred many young people to investigate our art/hobby. Read more about Bonsai in the Karate Kid movies.
"Mica pots" originated by this time out of Korea and independent potters were trying their hands at making ceramic pots, including non-standard designs. In 1992 the first Internet Bonsai website was started with the alt.Bonsai newsgroup and the next year saw rec.arts.Bonsai, the forerunner of the Internet Bonsai Club. The first Bonsai club website came about less than three years later.
Read more about the definition and meaning of Bonsai.
There are over 1200 books in 26 languages about Bonsai and related arts. There have been over 50 print periodicals in various tongues, and five on-line magazines just in English. Hundreds of web sites, over a hundred each discussion forums, on-line club newsletters, and blogs can be studied. Constantly popping up are references on TV, in movies and commercials, and general fiction and non-fiction. This is truly a worldwide interest with an estimated thousand clubs meeting anywhere from once a year to two or three times per month, all with their share of politics, personalities and passions. Membership might be close to a hundred thousand in over a hundred counties and territories, with non-associated enthusiasts totaling perhaps ten million more.
So the next time you prune a branch, wire it or re-pot your tree, reflect that what you are doing is continuing a thousand plus year tradition. In your own way you are exploring and composing a miniature version of your universe. Author: Robert J. Baran (Bonsai researcher and historian), click here for more details and bibliography for this article.