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Bonsai History

Posted Thursday, January 26, 2006

There are several references to plants being kept in pots in Egypt and India in ancient times, these were kept for decorative and medicinal reasons. The first reference to what we now call Bonsai was in China during the Tang Dynasty (618- 907), where they created miniature landscapes and trees that they called Penjing, which literally translated means tray scenery.

One Chinese legend contends that it was in the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) that an emperor created a landscape in his courtyard complete with hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and trees that represented his entire empire. He created the landscape so that he could gaze upon his entire empire from his palace window. This landscape form of art was his alone to possess. It was said that anyone else found in possession of even a miniature landscape was seen as threat to his empire and put to death.

The earliest documented proof of bonsai was discovered in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, who died in 706 during the Tang Dynasty. Two wall paintings discovered in the tomb show servants carrying plants resembling bonsai. In one of the paintings a servant is seen carrying a miniature landscape and in the other painting a servant is shown carrying a pot containing a tree.

Penjing in China enjoyed vigorous artistic development during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and by the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the art had become very popular, and the first manuals appeared. With increasing popularity, more commercial, folkloristic, and regionally diverse streams of Penjing sprang up alongside the more sophisticated, artistic forms. In addition to aesthetically refined Penjing, one could find trees whose trunks had been coiled to represent dragons and animals, or whose canopies depicted layers of clouds, or trees shaped to resemble the strokes of fortuitous characters.

The art of creating miniature trees probably reached Japan during the Heian period(794-1191), during this time Japan sent envoys to China to study arts, architecture, language, literature, law and Buddhism. In so doing the Japanese imported Chinese culture and arts on a large scale. Called Bonsai (tree in a pot or tray) in Japan, this art form was initially limited to the elite noble class and did not start to become popular until the Muromachi era in the 14th century, jointly prospering with the green tea ceremony to become part of Japanese culture

By the Edo era in the 16th century, every citizen of every class, from the Daimyo (feudal lord) to the merchants, wouldn't hesitate at a chance to enjoy Bonsai together, and several competitions for potters were held. During this period the Japanese developed a passion for growing plants and gardens and in this period Bonsai styles appear on prints and illustrations along with life's events and landscapes. It is regarded that the Japanese Bonsai arts reached their peak by the 18th century, and were regarded very highly.

The Japanese went to great lengths to refine the art of Bonsai and a lot of credit must go to these early masters, the refinements that they developed have made Bonsai what it is today, and some consider that the finest Bonsai are still being developed in Japan

While it is almost certain that Western man had in some small way been exposed to Bonsai even as early as the 16th Century by sea traders and missionaries, the earliest Bonsai to come to the west came from Japan and China. The showing of Bonsai at Paris exhibitions in 1878, 1889, 1900 and the first major Bonsai exhibition held in London in 1909 increased western interest in Bonsai. In the late 1800's at least 2 Japanese nurseries had operations in America and a catalog from the S.M. Japanese Nursery Company from 1904 indicates that over six hundred plants were auctioned off over a three day period in New York City. In these early years many westerners felt that the trees looked tortured and many openly voiced their displeasure in the way the trees were being treated by Bonsai masters. It wasn't until 1935 that opinions changed and Bonsai was finally classified as an art in the west.

With the end of World War II, Bonsai started to gain in popularity in the west with soldiers returning from Japan with bonsai in tow sparking western interest in the art. The large Japanese-American population was invaluable to Americans in this respect. Their knowledge in the art of bonsai was of great interest to many Americans learning the art. Today, bonsai are sold in department stores, garden centers, nurseries and many others places. However, most of these are young cuttings and not the true Bonsai produced by Bonsai masters. Most trees purchased today are known as pre-bonsai and are for the most part are only used as a starting point. Good quality Bonsai take many years to grow and develop and may sometimes be bought from specialist nurseries or private collections.


Links to other sites about Bonsai History


A History of Bonsai and the Related Arts - by Robert J. Baran

History, Aesthetics, and Spiritual background of Penjing

History & Warmth of Bonsai

Bonsai in the United States - Bunabayashi Bonsai

Bonsai Between History and Art

History of Vietnamese Landscapes

Dans Bonsai Pages