Although the art of bonsai is usually associated with Japan, it originated in China before spreading eastwards to Korea and finally Japan. By 700 AD, the Chinese had started using the art of Penjing, a technique used in growing miniature trees. There is no doubt that the art of bonsai is very fascinating; it combines horticultural techniques and Asian aesthetic in a unique way. The name bonsai literally means “planted in a container.”
Before Bonsai, There Was Penjing
Prior to bonsai, there was Penjing, also referred to as penzai. This is an ancient Chinese art of designing artistically formed trees, landscapes, and other plants in a miniature form. Penjing features three different categories;
· Shanshui penjing. This is a miniature plant scene that depicts a landscape by shaping and selecting rocks carefully.
· Shumu penjing. This is a tree penjing which depicts one or more trees and other plants in a container.
· Shuihan penjing. This is a land and water penjing, and it combines both miniature figures and trees to portray a landscape.
Bonsai Tradition in Japan
Over 2000 years ago, Chinese people started designing miniature landscapes. The smaller the plant was from its original size, the more magically potent it was. Students used to focus on gaining access to the magical properties in these miniature landscapes. The Japanese then copied the tradition 700 years ago during the Kamakura period; however, a distinctively Japanese style soon developed. Instead of designing miniature landscapes like the Chinese, the Japanese started growing individual miniature trees. The trees are what we refer to as bonsai in today’s world.
When the Japanese Imperial and Buddhist students went to China, they came back with goods which included plant-filled containers. Zen Buddhism from Japan started shaping the containers by getting rid of some added figurines and items that were not vital to a minimalist technique. Bonsai art then started entering the mainstream in the 14th century, and it is well cherished and preserved in Japan. As a result, bonsai are considered a National Treasure of Japan, and they are featured in the collections of Tokyo Imperial Palace, which is over 500 years old
Western Take on Bonsai
In 1604, there was a Spanish description of how Chinese immigrants from the Philippines were growing miniature trees. In 1673, English artisans took note of these miniature trees. With several centuries of practice, Japanese bonsai art is encoded with some amazing techniques and designs guidelines. After the 2nd World War, Japanese ideas and culture became more accessible, which led to the art of bonsai becoming increasingly popular across the globe. As of today, there are more than 1,200 books about the art of bonsai in 90 countries and 26 different languages.
During the 19th century, it spread in the West at an incredible rate; in the United States, the Japanese introduced bonsai trees while immigrating. In addition, Chinese immigrants brought their unique version of miniature arts. Unlike the Japanese, the Chinese refrained from sharing their skills and art techniques until the end of World War II. The westerners were denied extensive instruction and knowledge about bonsai development and growth till the late 1960s. A group of Americans went to Japan, studied the art of bonsai in their nurseries, and returned to the United States to found the American Bonsai Society. Afterward, people from different nationalities travelled to Asia in the hope of learning horticultural art. Likewise, Japanese masters travelled across the globe, giving essential knowledge to those who were interested.
Miniature trees grew in popularity as well as demand, a fact which influenced mass production of bonsai trees. Several manufacturers trained their workers in the art of bonsai and the techniques involved in bonsai training and growing. Nowadays, people use various techniques of growing bonsai trees, from cutting from other trees to using bonsai seeds and the use of grafting techniques, among others.
If you are a bonsai enthusiast, understanding the history of bonsai trees is vital. This will help you understand their development better. We hope that this article has been of great benefit when it comes to understanding the origin of bonsai trees.