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The Interesting History of Bonsai

October 27, 2022Beginners, General

beautiful mature pyracantha bonsai

The rich history of bonsai dates back more than 2,000 years. It is a story of cultural exchange, of religious and mystical influences, and of simplicity through discipline.  

Most people familiar with bonsai know that this ancient living art form spread from Japan to other parts of the world. However, many are unaware that the roots of the Japanese practice actually originated in neighboring China.

Let’s trace the evolution of bonsai throughout history to discover how it developed into a popular hobby practiced all over the world today.

Bonsai’s Ancient Chinese Roots

The art known as punsai in China originated as far back as 500 B.C. or earlier. Punsai, from the Chinese “pun-tsai”, means “tray plantings”. The term most often refers to small trees planted in a tray. The development of punsai sprang from several Chinese cultural influences involving horticulture, science and industry.  

Cultivation of flowers, plants and gardens was very popular in China, including gardens that were miniature in scale. The Chinese considered miniaturization a science and believed that miniature objects had mystical powers. Finally, the refinement of Chinese ceramic production resulted in the manufacture of beautiful porcelain containers. These containers were an integral part of the plantings and overall display.

Characteristics of Punsai

Most of the trees used in punsai were unusually shaped specimens collected from the wild. Importantly, the species used most often tended to be those the Chinese believed possessed powers, contained spirits, or had positive symbolism. 

Often, the selected subjects sported elaborately gnarled or twisted trunks. Once under cultivation as punsai, trees might be trained into elaborate shapes to resemble dragons, animals or even clouds.

Owning punsai was a luxury, originally accessible primarily to the societal elite. Giving these special trees as gifts was a popular practice among the privileged class.

Sometimes, instead of using a single tree, the Chinese would assemble miniature landscapes. Their creations featured one or more small trees, rocks and other elements. This practice became known as penjing, which translates loosely to “scenery in a tray”.

The first recorded Chinese examples of trees artistically planted in containers date to around 600 A.D. However, the practice was already well-established by then. Around this same time, Japan began a series of diplomatic missions to China. These delegations sparked a large wave of commerce and cultural exchange. 

The History of Bonsai in Japan

The Japanese diplomats visiting China returned home with artifacts, inventions and ideas about subjects such as fine arts, religion and architecture. When they journeyed back to Japan, they took examples of punsai and penjing with them.

Another key influence that migrated to Japan from China was the practice of Buddhism. Chinese Buddhists practiced punsai and penjing as a spiritual form of active meditation. As they began to journey to Japan, they brought trees and techniques to share.  

The Japanese, already skilled in building contemplative gardens, found the idea of miniature trees appealing. However, they considered the elaborate shapes and intricate group plantings overly extravagant for established cultural norms. 

The Buddhist Influence in the History of Bonsai

Incorporating their love of simplicity with Zen Buddhist ideals, the Japanese formalized and refined the art form. Their disciplined version of the practice focused on a single tree trained to represent an ideal specimen. The Japanese established guidelines to help standardize the practice. They called it “bonsai”, which means “tree in a tray”. 

Many details have been lost regarding the history of bonsai in the several hundred years that it took for the discipline to develop. However, we do know that the first depictions of small potted trees appear in a Japanese scroll painting shortly before 1200 A.D. Around 1300 A.D., a well-known priest and poet named Kokan Shiren described the aesthetic principles used in bonsai in his essay Bonseki no Fu (Tribute to Bonseki).

We also know that, just as in China, bonsai ownership in Japan was originally very limited. Only the wealthy and others who had enough leisure time to devote to the practice kept bonsai. Buddhist monks and scholars were among the latter.  

Eventually, however, the practice began to filter down to the masses. By the 17th century, bonsai cultivation had gained widespread interest in Japan. At that point, most households owned one or more small potted trees. 

Drawing depicting a Japanese woman with a bonsai tree
By the 17th century, most Japanese households owned at least one bonsai tree.

Around 1785, the city of Kyoto began to hold an annual exhibition where visitors ranked the trees on display. Modern-day Kyoto remains a bonsai hotspot, hosting several bonsai exhibitions each year.

Bonsai Popularity Expands Worldwide

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, several international exhibitions held in Paris and London included displays of bonsai. Also, around this time, limited imports of bonsai appeared for sale in the United States. 

World War II proved to be an integral influence in the history of bonsai. Following the war, the occupation of Japan by the U.S. and its allies resulted in an influx of foreign military and business personnel into the country. The prevalence of bonsai throughout all levels of Japanese society ensured that practically all visitors received exposure to the art form. Many became enamored with the practice, returning to their homes overseas with a new hobby.

As the practice of bonsai began to spread throughout an increasingly interconnected world, people began to organize around this common interest. The first bonsai organization in the U.S. – the California Bonsai Society – was formed in 1950.  1967 saw the founding of the national organization, the American Bonsai Society. 

Internationally, the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) seeks to advance international friendship and goodwill through bonsai. 

Bonsai Today

Today, the popularity of bonsai has spread to the point where we find enthusiasts throughout the world. From Japan and Asia, to the US, Europe and beyond, there are numerous societies, clubs, exhibits and events dedicated to appreciation of the art.

For those new to the hobby, one of the best ways to learn is to join a local bonsai club. The American Bonsai Society’s website offers list of local organizations in U.S. states and Canadian provinces to help visitors locate their nearest club.

A visit to a museum or arboretum hosting a permanent collection of bonsai offers inspiration and education for beginners and more experienced practitioners alike. Check out our article about places to see bonsai in the U.S. to learn about several notable collections.

Bonsai Shows and Exhibitions

A number of exhibitions dedicated to bonsai take place annually. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Kokufu-Ten, held each February in Tokyo. The best bonsai specimens in Japan vie for a spot in this exhibition, but only a couple hundred or so make the cut each year. In addition to the Kokufu-Ten, Kyoto and several other Japanese cities host sizable annual bonsai exhibitions. 

The World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) hosts a World Bonsai Convention every four years, selecting a different country throughout the globe for each event.

In the U.S., the annual Mid-America Bonsai Exhibit at the Chicago Botanical Garden is among the oldest and largest bonsai events. Another major show, the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition, has taken place for several years in East Rochester, New York. Numerous regional exhibitions offer opportunities to see excellent bonsai specimens, and many local bonsai clubs host annual exhibits as well. 

The history of bonsai demonstrates how cultural influences, diplomacy, wars and technological advances can help evolve an ancient practice among the elite to a modern hobby enjoyed and celebrated worldwide by people from all walks of life.

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