The Chinese origins
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
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
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.