1B - Introduction to the History & Art of Bonsai

Posted on 9 Apr 04:28

Introduction to the History & Art of Bonsai

The art of Bonsai as we know it, traces back almost 2000 yrs.  From ancient paintings and manuscripts, we know that “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by scholars, monks and the noble classes in China around 600 AD; however, many scholars feel that bonsai, or at least “trees in pots”, were being grown in China as far back as 500 or 1,000 BC.  
It is no accident that artistic plant cultivation originated in China. The Chinese from earliest history have admired flowers and plants; the educated, upper classes and monks were known to have a passion for gardens; many of which were on a miniature scale and included many miniature trees and shrubs, planted to reinforce the scale and balance of their landscapes.

 The Japanese art of Bonsai, and its precursor, the Chinese art of Penjing, are rooted in these Asian cultural traditions. The original origin of the word Bonsai, comes from the Chinese word "P'en Tsai" or  Pensai ; it sounds similar to bonsai and has nearly the same meaning; a tree in a tray or pot. 
The definition of the term "Bonsai" is a plant, usually a tree or shrub, which is grown in a container; made to look like a mature tree, through the use of various training techniques. The plant usually does not exceed 1 meter in height.

 The art of bonsai today is most closely associated with Japan.  However, Bonsai was actually imported into Japan by Chinese Buddhist Monks around the 12th century. 
The monks had a long history of cultivating P’enTsai or Pensai.  Within their temples the monks created small landscapes and gardens were used symbolically to represent Horai-san, the sacred Taoist mountain of eternal youth. Trees and shrubs in the grounds were pruned for natural effects so that via miniaturization an “at a glance” natural contemplative scene could be achieved.  The Monks spread the Art of Penjing along with Zen Buddhism and Chinese culture out of China; first eastward into Korea and then onto Japan.

Descended from the same origin, similar in name, the Art of Penjing and the Art of Bonsai have evolved and developed along different lines in China and Japan.
Chinese bonsai is still very much in the ancient tradition, and often appear “crude” to the uninformed. 
Classical Japanese Bonsai aim for perfect healthy miniaturization of a full grown tree. The Japanese trees tend to be more refined and have a more groomed look. Chinese and Japanese types both have their own esthetics, style; each with devoted admirers.

The development of Chinese and Korean ceramics played an important role in the development of bonsai as we know it today. Bonsai’s literal meaning “tree in a tray”, a single unit; the tree and container form a single entity.   
Without the development of beautiful Chinese ceramic containers, this part of the esthetic may not have developed.  Bonsai trees may not have been admired as much, or as readily taken into the home to be displayed.  
Even to this day the most desired containers for the finer Japanese bonsai are often antique Chinese containers.

The Japanese Bonsai Arts reached their peak in the 17th and 18th century.  Around this time bonsai came to be regarded very highly,  becoming part of the mainstream Japanese culture. Once bonsai became commonplace, their popularity greatly increased demand and the Bonsai Art Form was firmly established within the culture and traditions of Japan.
Japanese Bonsai continued to evolve, becoming more refined.  Symbolic of the Japanese cultural philosophy of this time; the main focus in maintaining bonsai became the removal of all but the most essential elements. 
This refinement was reflected else ware in the culture, such as in the simple Japanese gardens of the time; an example of which would be those in the famous temple - Roan-ji.
Bonsai Artists continued to make gradual refinements;  the containers used during the 17th and 18th century seemed to be slightly deeper than those used today.  Over time; bonsai began to develop different styles, each which varied immensely from one another.  Bonsai artists gradually introduced other culturally important elements in their bonsai plantings such as rocks, supplementary and accent plants, and even small buildings and people which itself is known as the art of bon-kei.
Artists began reproducing miniature landscapes, scenic views - known as sai-kei which further increased the diverse range of artistic possibilities for bonsai.

After more than 230 years of global isolation, Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world in the mid-19th century.  Travelers who visited Japan wrote of the fascinating miniature trees in ceramic containers, mimicking aged, mature trees in nature. Exhibitions in London, Vienna and Paris in the latter part of the century; especially the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, focused the world's eyes on the art of bonsai.

There are 5 Classic Styles of Japanese Bonsai, Formal Upright, Informal Upright, Slanting, Cascade, and Semi-Cascade.  There are also a number of other recognized sub styles.  Brief descriptions of these 5 styles and some of the sup styles can be found separately in; “A Brief Descriptions of the Five Main Bonsai Styles”

In 1923 an 8.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the entire Kanto region of Japan. The quake destroyed vast portions of the two largest cities: Tokyo and Yokohama; along with a majority of the commercial bonsai businesses. The bonsai business community, in an effort to save their livelihoods, collectively purchased a tract of land outside of Tokyo, in the Omiya region.  This created a new epicenter of bonsai cultivation in Japan, which still thrives today.   

In the post World War II era, most of the bonsai seen in the United States and Europe have been Japanese in origin. This has been changing, but the overall quality of the Japanese trees is still generally thought to be superior. 

In 1976 Japanese bonsai enthusiasts in the Nippon Bonsai Association donated 53 bonsai and 6 viewing stones to the people of the United States to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial.  The two jumbo jets that carefully carried this generous gift were insured for over 5 million dollars. 
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum was created to care for and display these pieces. 
The Japanese Pavilion was constructed specifically to house this gift which was kept in quarantine for an entire year before the pavilion was ready and they were displayed.
This gift became the foundation of our national collection; located within the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington, D.C.
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum collection has grown to become the largest collection of its kind; is now houses bonsai from around the world.

The oldest bonsai in the US national collection is over 300 years old, that bonsai is a White Pine that is known as the Yamaki Pine, in honor of its donor, Masaru Yamaki. The Yamaki began its life in the 1600’s and, despite being less than five miles away from the impact site, it survived the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
Several of the bonsai in the national collection were given as gifts to various Presidents of the United States. In 1998, the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Obuchi, gave President William Jefferson Clinton an 80-year-old Ezo Spruce.
The gift was significant to the national bonsai collection for two reasons: the first and most obvious reason is the fact that it is a masterpiece.  The second and lesser-known reason is that the gift of an Ezo Spruce to an American president is significant, because the United States has maintained a long standing ban on the importation of all Ezo Spruce.  As a result, the national collection had been without an Ezo Spruce specimen.

The Art of Bonsai is “telling a story through living illusion”. The goal of the Bonsai Artist is to re-create nature in an idealized miniature landscape.  The artist strives for personal expression; a mix of form, thought, and suggestion bound within the confines of good horticultural practice.

Beginners and students often share the same main concern: their ability to maintain a healthy plant.
The key is controlling the degree of physical stress that a plant can take and still remain healthy; being able to know how much is too much, and how much is too little.
This applies to everything that effects your Bonsai: air, water, soil, sun, nutrients, temperature, altitude, pruning, etc. The challenge is to learn experiment and accept the results of these your efforts.
Then there is time, the growth process takes time; there are no shortcuts in the art of Bonsai.  A growing year is the usual yardstick by which success is measured. Caring for you Bonsai over time is deeply satisfying.

Bonsai; the art of trees grown in miniature, is said to be about time and space and about life and attitudes. Historically, in China & Japan, Bonsai were a part of the culture; an important part of a families heritage.  We owe a great debt to the Japanese and Chinese monks & artisans who developed Bonsai and brought it forward over the last 2,500 years. 
However, Bonsai can be a simple horticultural past time; requiring a measure of common garden sense, some artistic ability and plenty of patience.
The Art of Bonsai is as complex or as simple as you make it.  Taking a young Bonsai or 8 or 10 years and thru study and practice, molding it into a work of art over time, is an enriching experience; it changes the artisan as well as the tree.