Bonsai history traces its roots back in China’s Tang Dynasty, which existed around 700 AD. In the tomb mural of the Tang Prince Zhang Huai, a human figure was bringing a tray topped with miniature trees and pebbles. This mural is one of the earliest pieces of evidence in making small scale landscapes in ancient China, which was first called as “punsai” back then, and means “planted in a pot”.
The earliest versions of miniature tree landscapes displayed very few foliage pads and rugged trunks that were said to represent wild animals such as birds and dragons. It is very easy to see why though because ancient China was rich in myths and legends. The designs were inspired by the artists’ imagined pictorials of flaming dragons, serpents, very old trees, among other idiosyncrasies.
Image: Tang Dynasty prince Zhang Huai tomb mural (AD 706), with tray of pebbles and miniature fruit trees. Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penjing
During the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), Japanese students were sent to China to acquire new forms of knowledge and skill sets. This was how the art of making miniature tree landscapes was brought to Japan around 1195 AD and later they espoused a local name for it, which we now know as “Bonsai”.
The Japanese version was said to be a lot finer than the Chinese counterpart. The Buddhist monks were the first ones to practice Bonsai, who believed it represents a holistic approach to looking at the harmony between Man, the Spirit, and Nature. Bonsai was introduced some time later to the elites of the Kamakura period such as the aristocrats. And thus, this gave another meaning and higher regard to Bonsai trees, making it a symbol of honour and prestige in Japan. In fact, by 14th century, Japanese people have begun to view Bonsai as a more sophisticated form of art.
Transporting a bonsai tree into a house with an honoured guest became a hospitality practice among the elite families. It was used as a display but possesses a deeper meaning and value to those who understand it. This practice eventually brought Bonsai indoors, and thus the size was reduced significantly over time. As the Imperial Japanese culture and arts reached its peak during the 17th and 18th century, so did Bonsai as an art form, paving the way to the development of other styling techniques like clipping and pruning.
Creating Bonkei Tray Landscape (Tokugawa Era; Artist: Toyohara (Yoshu) Chikanobu Japan, 1838-1912)
Once an elitist art form, bonsai took a new curve when it was introduced to the general public during the 18th century. The collection of wild tree specimens became more common as the demand for it increased. This development did help in imbibing bonsai as a part of the Japanese culture and tradition. Later improvements have been made, particularly in the styles such as the application of rocks, small plants, and supplementary buildings and human figures. These things gave birth to new art forms like saikei (literally translates as “planted landscape”) and bon-kei. (Is Japanese for “tray landscape)
Saikei Bonsai – Landscape
In the 19th century Japan welcomed foreigners from all over the globe to trade with its people. The foreigners had come, seen and brought those miniature tree landscapes planted in pot and ceramic containers over to their countries. As a result, exhibitions were held in the thriving cities of Paris, London, and Vienna, introducing the art of bonsai to the international audience.
Today, bonsai symbolize the Eastern philosophies on the relationship of Man with Nature and the Japanese culture. In Japan, celebrating the New Year’s Eve would not be complete without a bonsai tree in display along with the other prized possessions of the family. This tradition is called “tokonoma”, and every household can practice it regardless of whether they’re from a noble lineage or not.
In summary, bonsai has travelled a long illustrious route over a many centuries. Today, bonsai in its various styles and categories is enjoyed by people from many countries, cultures and philosophies, by people like you and I.
Two courtesans, one standing, the other by sliding leaning, looking at bonsai tree in pot