The bonsai tradition we know and love is in no way a new concept. Bonsai has been around for thousands of years, being refined and perfected into the art we know today. Although it has become increasingly popular in the Western world, bonsai started out in China then made its way to Japan around a thousand years ago. The first trees planted in shallow containers were not even called bonsai trees until Japan got its hands on the Penjing tradition in China. Japan took the Chinese tradition and made it their own.
Bonsai History in China
Around 5,000 years ago, people in China began creating shallow bowls made of clay. Fast forward about one thousand years later. At this time, during the Chinese Bronze Age, these shallow pottery dishes were chosen to be recreated in bronze for political and religious ceremonies. As you may know, the main goal of growing a bonsai is to create a miniaturized tree that replicates nature. This wasn’t implemented until about 2,300 years ago, and was created as a result of the Chinese Five Agents Theory. At first, the creations people made through bonsai were replicas of things like mountains, instead of trees. It was said that the smaller the piece was, the more magical it was.
The earliest documented shallow dish was from 706 AD. Called “pun wan,” meaning tray playthings, they can be seen on Crown Prince Zhang Huai’s tomb paintings. The trees housed in the containers were oddly shaped and twisted in unflattering angles. Instead of being shunned or disliked, these unusually shaped trees were considered sacred because they could not be used for anything else.
This tradition did evolve over time in China. The pottery used for making these dishes changed into porcelain dishes placed on wood stands. Wiring, using brass wire or lead strips, became popular. Miniature landscapes became a popular feature in many poems, literature, and paintings. In the 16th century, these pieces were named “pun tsai.” The name we now use, Penjing, meaning tray landscape, didn’t come around until the 17th century.
Japan Adapts Bonsai Traditions
Before a name was assigned to the modern day tradition we love, the landscapes the Chinese created were brought to Japan as religious souvenirs around twelve hundred years ago. The Japanese believed that leaving a tree to grow naturally is crude, and instead, the trees should be cared for closely by humans.
Around 800 years ago, the first graphic images portraying landscapes in shallow containers in Japan were made. Many of the Chinese traditions were adapted by the Japanese, including Chinese Chan Buddhism, which turned into Zen Buddhism in Japan. Zen monks often created landscapes that were said to represent the universe. In addition to mini landscapes, folktales were also expressed through this tradition.
By the eighteenth century, everyone had a tree in a container. Shows in the trees’ honor were held every year in Kyoto, where connoisseurs would bring a tree or two to the show to be judged. During this time, a name was finally put forth to distinguish this shallow container tradition from the non-shallow container of hachi-no-ki. This name, of course, was Bonsai.
Over the course of the following century, bonsai became increasingly popular and publicized. Books were published, tools specifically made for bonsai were developed, wire used for wiring the trees was changed to copper and iron wire, and specialized shallow bonsai pots were produced in China. After the Pacific War, bonsai became even more popular through magazines, books, and classes dedicated to the tradition.
Bonsai is no longer known as a pastime popular with the elderly. Recently, younger generations have come to realize bonsai is a beautiful, easy tradition anyone can join in on.
Bonsai Migration into the West
Growing small trees on coral became popular in the Philippines in the year 1604. However, the first known English sighting of a tree planted in a small container was in 1637. Travelers would visit Japan and come back to England with their accounts of these tree growing traditions.
Books published about bonsai were primarily in Japanese until 1902, when a bonsai book in France was published. Next came an English publication in 1930. In 1957, an American bonsai book was written by John Naka.
Bonsai development continued in Western countries. The foundation for bonsai growing stayed the same, but Western countries developed new techniques that would then be brought back to Japan through travelers or teachers.
The internet has helped further the spread of bonsai knowledge. The first bonsai website was created in 1992. There are now hundreds of websites dedicated to bonsai.
Bonsai, or traditions related to it, have been around for thousands of years. It all started in China, with the art of Penjing. The Japanese took inspiration from traditions like Penjing and made it their own. Bonsai wasn’t given an official name until the eighteen hundreds. The name was created to distinguish the art of growing trees in a shallow container from the similar tradition of hachi-no-ki, which involved trees planted in containers that were not shallow. Bonsai was brought into the Western countries where it was further refined into the art form that we know today.