The most ironic aspect about Bonsais is how the word 'Bon-sai' comes from the Japanese language; however, the art originated in the Chinese Empire. It was not until 700 AD that the Chinese began to plant miniature dwarf trees in containers that became known as the art of 'pun-sai.'
Initially, the art of 'pun-sai' was given out as luxurious gifts amongst the elite class of China. A few years later, in the Kamakura period (a period in which Japan adopted most of China's culture and traditions), the pun-sai art spread across Japan. However, because Japan was only 4% of the entire China, the art spread was quite limited. The art was advanced in terms of styles, tools, and techniques. Although it took centuries for the art to spread worldwide, we can now say that the art of Bonsai is relevant today!
Chinese History of the art of Bonsai
After 706 AD, tomb paintings from the Crown Huai depicted the pun-sai art with ladies offering small plants in deep dishes. These deep-dish playthings began to advance, and the art of miniature trees started. It is said that the earliest trees used for the art were shaped and twisted species from the wild. They were species that resembled yoga positions to depict long lives.
As time passed, various regional styles and landscapes developed. Ceramic dishes and containers replaced the porcelain ones, and the trees would be shaped with bamboos and different wires. A dwarf tree became a symbol of a cultivated and civilized man's lifestyle. Artists would use the art of pun-sai in various forms of art to depict a civilized society. Tray planting was now a matter of pride and sophistication throughout the Chinese Empire and Japan.
Japanese History of the art of Bonsai
Although the first miniature tray trees were brought into Japan as religious souvenirs 1200 years ago, it was not until 800 years ago that the first graphical depiction began. Japan adopted Chinese practices and culture, which resulted in Zen Buddhism in Japan. These Zen monks believed that their tray models or trees in a pot should reflect the beauty of the entire universe. As a result, the Japanese developed a new form of art or gardening, Hachi-no-ki, which was based on deep bowl trees. Moreover, throughout the 13th century, different media forms used the tray landscape art in their stories and coverage.
Growing trees in a pot became increasingly popular. From military experts to peasants, everyone practiced the art. By the end of the 18th century, annual shows for dwarf potted trees were held in various states. Trees would then be ranked according to their appearance and growth. Surprisingly, in the town of Takamatsu, dwarf pines were grown as a source of income.
It was not until the year 1800 when Chinese scholars gave the art the name of Bonsai (pun-sai's pronunciation in Japanese). This was mainly done to differentiate the art from Hachi-no-ki, which involved a deep dish container rather than a shallow one needed in the art of Bonsai. The art of Bonsai now moved on from the mythical traditional approach to a matter of design and architecture.
After the Kanto earthquake, thirty families who were professionals in the art of Bonsai resettled in Omiya, which is now known as the Bonsai village. Bonsai now became a native art that could be seen in programs, shows, magazines, books, and schools. Moreover, Plant physiology helped professionals to take up native art to an artistic design level like never before.
Western History of Bonsai art
In the early 17th century, it was recorded that there were many Chinese immigrants who were growing miniature ficus trees on pieces of corals in areas of the Philippines. Moreover, many English travelers have recorded dwarf trees in their accounts for Japan and China. These accounts were repeated in books and magazines that spread like fire in the West. Many books about Bonsai and its progression were published under the Western approach.
As the 19th century passed, the art of Bonsai improved drastically. These improvements were brought slowly and gradually to other countries through travelers and teachers and were put into practice. The innovations in the Bonsai art kept developing, and this living art continued to flourish.
Initially, publications related to Bonsai art revolved around the average tree's needs and requirements. Basic knowledge and techniques were the highlights of Bonsai publications. However, as improvements came by, the main focus of the art shifted towards shaping and aesthetics involving design and styling. With this, Bonsai art became increasingly popular throughout the world, which led to annual shows and events in famous countries like Scotland, Korea, Australia, Hungary, and many more.
As media became prominent, movies and shows portrayed Bonsai art differently. In 1992, the first Bonsai website was created on the internet, and just in three years, the first Bonsai art club was formed as well.
It wouldn't be wrong to say that Bonsai art has taken the world by storm. With more than 1000 books about Bonsais and multiple magazines, websites, blogs, and clubs, you can get information about the art from absolutely anywhere. The art has been used in various fiction and non-fiction movies, shows, and commercials today and has evolved way too much ever since it originated.
It is somewhat surprising that Bonsai art is now a worldwide interest with about 10 million fans and passionate enthusiasts around the globe. Through clubs, many of these enthusiasts meet and share their insights and passion about Bonsai art today.
Next time you look at Bonsai art, remember this art stems from mystical traditions and beliefs from centuries ago that have evolved and developed in aesthetically beautiful ways. Nevertheless, exploring and experimenting with the art yourself is what you can do to create a miniature beauty of what you think represents the nature of the universe.