Bonsai, as we know it, is a Japanese art that involves growing trees in shallow planters, that are usually made out of clay material.


Bonsai Is From China

There is a common misconception that Bonsai started in Japan. However, the historians trust that the Chinese actually began this art of miniaturizing trees and they called it “penjing”. The Chinese would cultivate shrubs and trees in ornamental rocks or small flowerpots. Chinese craftsmen used rocks, plants, and other natural materials to craft tiny landscapes all arranged in pots. The Chinese also used different tree-sculpturing techniques to produce an illusion of wildness in the cultivated trees. These special pruning techniques created natural-seeming branch breaks and holes rather than artificial stumps.

Bonsai Japanese History

Bonsai tree - 3rd Shogun
550 Year old Bonsai tree named “3rd Shogun” from the imperial collection.

One of the oldest and famous bonsai trees is one of Japan’s National Treasures. It’s in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection.
Right from the 6th century, the Japanese were fascinated with Chinese culture which made them travel to China just to bring back souvenirs and cultural trademarks. The art was spread by traders between China and Japan, who brought the flowerpots plants and rocks home, where they were developed into collectible items. The Japanese were not satisfied to grow a few forms trees of uncertain species so they worked on improving what they had. Soon Bonsai was revered as an art form in Japan. Back then, it was much represented in painting and poetry. At this point, Bonsai trees were displayed by the Japanese aristocracy indoors and the Bonsai practice became less associated with Japanese religion.
As time passed, the Bonsai tree slowly gained popularity among the Japanese. They slowly appeared in the gardens of royals, nobles, and aristocrats as symbols of honor and prestige. The history of Bonsai expanded towards the end of the Kamakura period and since then, the planting of Bonsai trees has been greatly appreciated in Japanese and it has played a crucial role in the Japanese art. Not long after this period, the Japanese started developing their art of Bonsai. First, the learned how to grow the tree, and then they practice the art form and develop it in a way that the Chinese have not yet approached. Japanese artists adopted several basic styles and they made use of bamboo skewers, wire, and growing techniques to do develop and evolve this precious art.
The philosophy and ideals of the Bonsai tree developed over the years in Japan. For the Japanese, Bosai represents the harmony between man, nature, and the soul. In the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese refined the art of growing Bonsai to what you can see around today. The tree is of no other use than decorative. It is intended to be contemplative for the viewer and an appreciation in effort and resourcefulness for the grower. Bonsai trees have no large-scale landscapes and no food or medicinal purposes. Accordingly, the practice of Bonsai is extremely limited and only focused on a few plants in a pot.

Bonsai in India

Indian monks brought something new (Chan Buddhism) to the Chinese Taoist tradition. Chan Buddhists started to include seedling trees in their small mountain landscapes. They used pruning, clipping, and other natural materials in the creative process. The Buddhist monks used this as a form of meditation.

Bonsai In Western Culture

I remember the first time I seen a bonsai tree. It was in the karate kid movie. I was instantly interested. Bonsai trees have been featured in many movies over the years here in the USA. Most of the time they are used as a symbol of Japanese lifestyle or culture.

Ever since I seen my first bonsai tree I’ve noticed them everywhere (I’m in the Seattle Area). Bonsai trees are found at almost every nursery in my area now.