It is known to all that the ancient roots of bonsai is associated with Japan exclusively. But the real story dates back to thousands of years and starts mainly from China. This should not come as a surprise given the love that the Chinese have for the elements of nature like flowers and trees.
Looking back into the history of China, you will be able to witness multiple murals and manuscripts from around 600AD. In all of these, you will see drawings of trees, flowers, and other natural elements that clearly depicted the picture of love that the country had towards flora.
If legends are to be believed, the emperor of the Han Dynasty was the first one who has created the miniature landscape. He wanted to mimic the beauty of his entire empire in a single garden. He was indeed very proud of his creation and hence did not want anyone else to replicate his idea or work.
Pen Jing is basically the Chinese art of creating sceneries with miniature rocks. If we look into its literal English translation, the word pen jing means “scenery in a pot”. Pen, which is a shallow bowl, is made up of natural elements and then is decorated. The Chinese have been making this art for over 5000 years now. The art dates back to the bronze age when these were made in bronze and were mainly used for various religious ceremonies. The bowls depicted miniature landscapes and the basic idea behind this was to create nature in a miniature form. Apart from the religious uses, the pots also depicted and taught the basic 5 elements of nature (wood. Fire, earth, metal, and water) to the children. It was believed that these miniature depictions of nature held some magical potency. The more miniature the landscape scenery was shown, the more magical the art was considered to be.
Along with Pen Jing, there was also Pen Sai which is a Japanese word like that of Bonsai. The words basically imply those trees that are planted in a container. Both Pen Sai and Bonsai are horticulture practices where trees are placed in a pot in their miniature form. Pen Sai was practiced in China earlier, where trees that are growing naturally were taken and re-planted in small pots. Initially, the trees were not grown properly and hence did not have the right shape like the Bonsai that we see today.
Even though the trees were bent and did not have any form, the Pen Sai was still considered to be very sacred. It was believed that they have an exuberance of personality and spirits. One can find various opinions about the different shapes of the tree and what they actually represent. Many a time, they were referred to as yoga poses and inspired the blessings of longevity. Back in the time, pen sai and pen jing was mainly practiced by elite Chinese people and the trees were given as a gift. This represents the aristocracy of Chinese society.
There is a basic difference between the Chinese and the Japanese Pen Sai. The former had a bolder and lively look whereas the later was formal and refined.
It is now quite clear that Pen Sai originated in China, but historians claim that its practices reached Japan. It was after reaching the sub-continent of Japan that the art took a beautiful form, that it is today, and came to be known as Bonsai. Japanese Bonsai grows beautifully and flourishes to be one of the most beautiful trees in the world because the country provides ideal conditions for growth. From the soil to the environment to the love of the cultivators, everything contributes towards the growth of the Bonsai trees.
Just like Pen Sai, Bonsai too was cultivated by the members of the elite class in Japanese society. The tree slowly became the symbol of wealth, prosperity, and aristocracy. Initially, the owners would put these trees on display in their garden area so that anyone visiting their home will be able to notice the tree. After that, the trees were also kept indoors neatly placed on shelves. This means that the Bonsai trees now have access both indoors and outdoors, where their sole purpose was to show-off the class and eliteness of the owners. They slowly included the art of pruning which made these beautiful trees aesthetically much more appealing.
Going through history, you will be able to see many references of Bonsai at different points in time. However, the very first evidence of Bonsai dates back to 1309 and comes from a natural scroll that was named the kasuga gongen genki by Takashina Takakane.
Bonsai and Buddhism
Zen Buddhism was introduced in Japan around the 12th century, during the Kamakura period. Back then the Japanese were quite influenced by Chinese art and culture. The Chinese monk who came to Japan to practice Buddhism knew the art of trees in a pot. And it is believed that they are the ones who have brought the Pen Sai technique to Japan, which was later modified aesthetically and was called Bonsai.
The monks believed that practicing the art of Pen Sai is meditative, reflective, and harmonious, and hence they encouraged it to be followed in Japan. Historians have claimed that the Buddhist monks were indeed the main teachers in Japan for many years. Along with the art of practicing Bonsai, they also introduced different medications for the well-being of Japanese people.
Thus the practice of Bonsai became closely related to Zen Buddhist Philosophy. Even though Zen is a part of the religious practices but many people of recent times have embraced the Zen Philosophy without following Buddhism. This is because it enables the practitioner to come close to nature and connect with it without any hesitation.
Following the Zen tradition, there are three virtues that you would need to follow to practice Bonsai Horricuture. The virtues are truth, goodness, and beauty. To flourish and grow, the tree should always be nurtured with a human touch. Also, it is important to remember that Bonsai should always be planted off-center which in turn will not block the middle point. In Buddhism, it is believed that the earth and heaven meet at the aforesaid point. It is necessary to follow the principles as these will affect the state of the artist. Taking care of the Bonsai, maintaining it will be like a meditative and reflective practice for the artist.
Wabi Sabi is the concept that is derived from the Buddhist teachings. But before you understand this, it is important to understand the concepts and approaches that the Japanese have towards their life. They are centered around imperfections and transience. The art of Bonsai basically helps in depicting the respect that they have towards this philosophy. Trees are on display on all seasons, whether they are blooming or wearing off. They garner true admiration irrespective of their form. Different features like the deadwood highlighted the imperfections of the tree and this is what made it more beautiful.
Other Japanese art like origami, tea ceremonies, and flower arranging sessions also depicted the true spirit of wabi sabi.
Bonsai Goes Mainstream
Bonsai trees were introduced to the mainstream in 1383 by a Japanese playwriter, Zeami Motokiyo. He wrote a play called “Hachi No Ki” which translates to “The Potted Trees”. The play was about a poor samurai who burned his last Bonsai to provide comfortable accommodations for a traveler monk.
By the 1600s, the modern Bonsai concepts started to develop. People thought of the idea of removing all the unnecessary parts so that the tree can look aesthetically more beautiful. This means, by this time, pruning became a major part of Bonsai cultivation. This practice basically reflected the overall Japanese philosophy that believed that the concept of minimalism is the best.
However, it is interesting to note that Bonsais are cultivated only for admiration, contemplation, and to connect with nature. Bonsai, like the other trees, are not used for getting fruits and medicines.
The time went on and it was medieval age now. During this time, art in Japan started reaching its peak. The art of Bonsai cultivation too became very popular and was adopted by more and more people. It was during this time that Bonsai cultivation was no longer a show-off of class and aristocracy.
There was a massive surge in the adaptation of this art which led to artificial cultivation. Until this time, the old method was practiced which was taking up dwarf trees from the wild and planting them in a container. The new practice started spreading quickly among the Japanese and is in practice even today!
In the coming few years, this age-old Japanese tradition started spreading throughout the world. In 1604, Ficus trees were grown onto the pieces of corals by the Chinese immigrants living in the Philippines. Travelers during this time reported seeing dwarf plants in pots in both China and Japan. By the late 1700s, Japan was not only holding Bonsai exhibitions but also conducted different competitions.
Bonsai in the West
In the 17th century, one can witness the beginning of Bonsai’s western origin. Engelbert Kaempfer was one of the first European to enter and settle in Japan. He wrote a book called “The History of Japan” where he describes the dwarfed trees that are planted in pots. There he talked about the value of the old and crooked trees.
Knowledge of the Bonsai art was spreading throughout the west. In around 1806 Queen Charlotte was gifted Bonsai. After the Meiji revolution of 1868, Japan was opened up to the rest of the world and it became one of the most popular destinations for travelers. They were quite fascinated to see the miniature appearance and the aesthetics of the Bonsai tree. The Meiji Emperor was too fascinated with the Bonsai and thus his government took a keen interest on the tree. Going to his grand palace, you can see Bonsai trees both inside and outside your home.
Now coming to the late 1800s, many European countries during this time held Bonsai exhibitions. The Japanese Bonsai was first exhibited in Philadelphia in the year 1876. This was followed by exhibitions in Paris, London, and Vienna.
The popularity and the demand for Bonsai was even though increasing, but it took almost thirty years for the tree to be recognized as a proper art form in the European states.
Written works on Bonsai was first published in Europe in the year 1902. The book was written in French and in 1940, it was published in English by Yoshimoto. The book later became to be known as the Bonsai Bible of the western world.
Looking at history you will notice that Bonsai has evolved continuously and this led some of the artists to think about its commercial prospects. During 1910, the Bonsai artists used bamboo, wires, and other training techniques so as to train the tree. While most of the Bonsais had simple steel wires, the expensive ones used the expensive copper ones. Special nurseries were developed according to the preferences of the trees so that they can get suitable conditions for their growth. The process slowly developed when the artists came to learn more about the tree, how the growth can be accelerated, and also about the pruning processes. Talking about Japan, they liked the traditional Bonsai but other countries did prefer different types of Bonsais which gave a novelty to their creation.
Now, if we jump to the year 1940, we can see that there were around 150 different varieties of Bonsai trees available. They were shipped out of Europe to be sold in different parts of Europe and America.
In 1992, a dedicated website for Bonsai was built and it first came up to the internet. Doing this has proved to be very helpful as Bonsai enthusiasts from all over the world have now come together to share useful information about the tree. The platform also provided a new way to hold discussions along with buying and selling Bonsai trees from across the world.
The art of Bonsai is still growing and the best part is it has still held on to the cultures that have been passed on through generations of Bonsai artists. The Bonsai tree has brought travelers and horticulture enthusiasts together from around the world. Thus it can be said that even though the art was started in China, but the world will always consider Japan to the birthplace of Bonsai because of the culture and traditions that the country has ingrained in the tree during the years.
Ancient Bonsai Trees
In the Crespi Bonsai Museum of Italy, sits the oldest Bonsai tree. It is estimated to be around 1000 years old.
You will also find a 1000-year-old Juniper in Mansei-en nursery, in Omiya, Japan. Visitors can come here to see this along with a 700-year-old Shimpaku Juniper.
You will find the oldest Bonsai is the United States, which is a five-needle-pine and is around 400 years old. The tree was gifted to the U.S in the year 1976.
Coming to the recent times, the fine art of Bonsai cultivation is now practised in around 90 countries. It is due to the popularity in Bonsai cultivation that the books on bonsai care are now available in 26 different languages. Hence, we can conclude that even though China was the birthplace of the art, but Bonsai will be a synonym to the country of Japan.