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History of Bonsai  


The Chinese origins of Bonsai

The word "Bonsai" (pronounced "bone sigh") is a Japanese word and means "a tree in a pot" whereas the Chinese actually called the art form penjing. Bonsai do not originate from Japan but from China and this fact in itself shatters many beliefs. However, the detail around the history of Bonsai is still based mainly on historical assumptions and beliefs, which are from categorical.

One of the most common beliefs relates to a Chinese legend of a fourth century A.D. Chinese poet and civil servant called Guen-ming who is thought to have started growing chrysanthemums in small pots. Many people believe this was the start of Bonsai even though the earliest evidence of Bonsai was found in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 A.D.). In his tomb were found two wall paintings showing people carrying plants in small pots which looked remarkably like Bonsai.

It is clear that Bonsai as an art form was a passion of the Chinese aristocracy, monks and nobility for hundreds of years, however eventually it did permeate fully into Chinese society. During the Ch'ing dynasty (1644 - 1911) Bonsai became a hobby of the "middle classes" equivalent of China and thus became embedded into the full sub-culture of Chinese life.


The introduction of Bonsai to Japan

During the Heian period (794 - 1191 A.D.) Buddhist monks brought Bonsai to Japan probably some 400 to 600 years after it originated in China. As in China the art of Bonsai was practiced by the nobility and the wealthy. What caused all strata of society in Japan to start enjoying the hobby was the Chinese invasion of Japan in the fourteenth century. Once Bonsai was fully introduced into Japan, the art was refined to an extent not yet seen in China. The Japanese looked to the perfection of nature as their inspiration for developing the art of Bonsai further than the Chinese had done in the previous millennium..  These cultural differences can still be seen now and we owe much of the refinement techniques of the art to the Japanese.

As well as creating many advanced techniques of refinement the Japanese simplified the pots to add greater emphasis to the tree itself. They created special times of the year and places in the house to display their best Bonsai and their passion for the hobby infused Bonsai into the Japanese culture and heritage.


How the West was won

The introduction of Bonsai into western civilisation started once Japan opened its borders to trade and non-Japanese culture in the nineteenth century. Exhibitions in Paris in 1878, 1889 and in 1900 gave Bonsai trees some prominence and exposure. However, in 1909 an exhibition in London really announced the arrival of Bonsai as an art form.

Popular critical opinion still wasn't convinced by the beauty or aesthetic charm of Bonsai until just after World War 2. It was this global event that really pushed the popularity of Bonsai in the West to new levels as returning American soldiers brought home Bonsai trees from their adventures in Japan.

Today we see Bonsai nurseries in most western countries as well as the introduction of many native trees by new Bonsai artists, as the development of this hobby and art form takes further steps forward.


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