Bonsai is an art form that is almost as old as the East. It is believed that this ancient art first began in where else, but ancient China, around about a thousand years ago. Translated from the Chinese characters of pen-jing, it means something like, scenery in a tray, and this early view of bonsai is still influential today.
The Chinese liked translating their brush paintings onto the tray and this usually meant creating mountains, ravines, dragons, and other familiar Chinese calligraphy subjects from their bonsai trees combined with the usage of rocks to fashion the terrain. Distorted roots which resembled animals were highly valued and used as a basis for further crafting.
The variety of individual bonsai is astonishing, as known from ancient drawings. Gnarled, faux-windswept trunks, with sparse leaves to full-flowering miniature blossoming trees can be viewed from the ancient silk drawings of those early periods.
From China, the bonsai art spread to Japan in conjunction with the spreading of Zen Buddhism. It is believed that bonsai took root in Japan during the Heian period (11-12th) century A.D. This was the period when the influence from China was strongest in Japan. However bonsai growing in Japan only took off a few hundred years later, sometime in the early 16th century. While bonsai was already a highly developed skill in China, as it grew in Japan it evolved into a highly evolved art in its own right. The care and patience required, the complexity in miniature and the creation of a living work of art suited the temperament of the horticultural artists of Japan.
It was in Japan that bonsai growing was considered something akin to a science by the nobles, and refined constantly by the Japanese monks. Growing bonsai seemed to promote patience, concentration, tranquility, and communion with nature, it was realized; by the time of the 19th century, bonsai growing was already widely practiced by many people all over Japan. But this change did not happen overnight; it grew with Japan’s growth from an agricultural based society with a Feudal based background, into an industrial and trading powerhouse by the 19th century during the Meiji period.
When Japan opened its doors to the West during the mid 19th century, Westerners got their first glimpse of the bonsai tree. Although technically this is open for debate when you consider that if Marco Polo really traveled to the East, he would most likely have been one of the first Westerners to actually glimpse a bonsai tree; I don’t recall any mention of bonsai trees in his now famous account, The Travels of Marco Polo.
Anyway, word of these exquisite miniature trees soon spread fast in England and France. Museum exhibitions of bonsai in the Western world became popular at the same time as they began to display animals and artifacts from travels and conquests around the globe. In London, Vienna and Paris bonsai were all the rage. With the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, the future worldwide fame of these miniature trees in trays was assured.
Since then, bonsai growing has shown consistent growth all around the world. New bonsai artisans constantly add to the diverse array of techniques and styles available. Bonsai are now highly popular both in the US and Asia. Bonsai is also popular around Europe, South Africa and Australia. Almost any kind of tree can be grown as a bonsai, be it tropical, sub-tropical or temperate species’, thus ensuring that bonsai growing will always be popular all around the world.
Today, growing bonsai is one those horticultural art forms that continue to grow. As new ideas and inputs are added in, the art of bonsai continues to be built and contributed upon day by day. Long may that continue.