While the literal definition of a bonsai tree is a tree planted in a shallow container, there is so much more to this art. The bonsai tradition is over a thousand years old. Bonsai, a Japanese art form, transcended from the art of Penjing, a Chinese art form. 

The goal of growing a bonsai tree is to create a replica of the tree as it is found in nature. This is done by incorporating harmony, balance, simplicity, and age into the tree. Many symbols can be seen in bonsai trees that are not so obvious to people that are unfamiliar to the art of bonsai growing. 

Bonsai Trees Represent Harmony

The Japanese philosophy of something having less power can have a great effect is seen in bonsai trees. Unity is seen in the textures and shapes all over the tree. The sense of harmony seen in nature is a dominant theme in the bonsai art. Symbols that represent coexistence of elements in nature are seen in the fluid lines on branches and in the curves of the bark. Life’s more difficult moments can be seen in the jagged edges and crooked corners on the tree’s branches and bark.

Not only is harmony found in bonsai, but it is also present in the conflict-avoidant culture of Japan. The laws, customs, rules, and manners all emphasize the anti-conflict culture. Group harmony is a priority of those that live in Japan. An example of group harmony at work is the extremely low crime rate in their country. Japanese people tend to get along, and anger is rarely expressed between individuals. The different elements of bonsai trees are often used to represent different people’s opinions. 

Bonsai Trees Represent Balance 

The aspect of balance is very important and may be one of the first things you may notice about a bonsai tree. The triangle is often used in bonsai design. This shape symbolizes stability and strength.

Equilateral triangles that are often used in Western cultures are not used, instead, bonsai uses isosceles triangles. The asymmetry seen in the unequal sides of this triangle is desired for the look of deliberate imperfection. This deliberate imperfection is seen as a more natural sense of balance and is valued greatly in Japanese culture.

While equilateral triangles look motionless and passive, isosceles triangles give a sense of movement. This movement represents the continuation of life, which is significant in not only Japanese cultures, but other cultures as well.

Bonsai Trees Represent Simplicity 

In Japanese cultures, simplicity is found in much of their lives. Offices, homes, buildings, gardens, art, architecture, and their way of life all are based on simplicity. Simplicity embodies respect for nature as well as their sensibilities.

Both the tree and the container that the tree is housed in have simplistic elements. The color of the bonsai’s container should be a neutral tone, which expresses simplicity in nature. The container does not need to be excessively decorated. The showpiece should be the focus point of the tree. The principle of aesthetics is very important in bonsai growing. This simply means that any unnecessary ornamentation should be avoided in this creation. 

No matter how simple or extravagant a bonsai tree is, there is always a sense of simplicity there. The tree is usually centered and the bonsai grower uses artistic skills to draw the viewer’s eyes to the simplistic aspects of the tree. 

Bonsai Trees Represent Age 

Age can be seen in all aspects of the bonsai tree. It is common for trees to have aspects of both young and mature ages. Roots, branches, and trunks can be manipulated to show different stages of life.

Older age can be seen in exposed roots, giving the appearance of erosion. Trunks breaking the surface and growing at an angle also give the illusion of age that symbolize triumph over nature, like dry seasons, severe weather, and pests. Gnarled, scarred trunks can be interpreted as old age, while smooth trunks with no blemishes are seen as youthful. Dead tree trunks placed in the tree can symbolize the tree’s evolution. Branches growing upwards are seen as youthful, while thick, downward facing branches are seen as older, more mature. Sparse growth also represents old age, while luscious, full growth is seen as youthful and vivacious.

The elderly are treated with much respect in Japan. The mixture of youthful and mature aspects of a bonsai tree are based on many Japanese families. Having several generations in one household is very common in Japan. It is believed that this may be one of the main reasons why the eldery live longer in Japan than in other countries.

All aspects of bonsai trees, including harmony, balance, simplicity, and age, are all vital in achieving the look of a bonsai tree. No aspect is more important than another, and no aspect should be ignored. The beautiful combination of these elements is what makes the art of bonsai growing so unique. As a bonsai grower, you have the opportunity to reflect your own life and experiences onto your bonsai.