History of Bonsai

It is difficult to know exactly when and where Bonsai had started. There are two reasons for it. First reason is its instability. Bonsai is a living art and it changes slightly every moment, so you will never be able to see the same Bonsai. Next, it could be ruined very easily by just breaking blanches. Keeping it in mind, I built up one mere theory.

Bonsai History in China

As you may already know, Bonsai is a Japanese word. However, it has its origin in China. Around 700 AD Chinese had started “pun-sai” as an art using special technique to grow dwarfed trees in trays and containers. Chinese five agents theory (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth) bear the thoughts of the magical power of miniature replicas recreating nature. There was even a wall painting, which features bonsai-like potted plant on the grave wall of imperial Tang family member, Riken. This could be an evidence that the Bonsai (well, however that was called back then) has been loved by upper classes.

Introduction to Japan


Chinese monk who migrated to Japan first brought bonsai to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) around 1195 A.D as Chan Buddhism (later became Zen Buddhism). Japan was fascinated by Chinese cultures and Pun-sai was another thing that was taken up.

Soon, Japanese monks learned the techniques and began to develop their own methods. Japanese bonsai believed to symbolize the harmony between soul, human being and nature. The first graphic portrays in Japan was an ancient scroll that could date back to 1195 A.D. and the writer expressed the pleasure and the appreciation he felt just by gazing at the unnaturally distorted dwarfed trees.

Later, it was introduced to the royals and upper classes. The Bonsai then became symbol of prestige and honour. By the fourteenth century, Bonsai indeed regarded as art form. Bonsai were brought indoors for display on specially designed shelves at special occasions by upper crust, and became an important part of Japanese culture.

It was not until 1600’s the pruning and training was developed and the art form evolved again. The main element in training Bonsai was now removing all but the important parts of the plant. This is reflecting Japanese culture and philosophy, which believed that eliminating things just to necessary factor is required for ultimate refining of one’s life style. This philosophy holds good even in our day. It is shown in these simplified elements in these Japanese gardens, the famous temple; Roan-ji is one of them.

Edo period

Over time, Bonsai made its way to all social classes. The increased demand forced Bonsai artists to acquire new knowledge and skills and Bonsai take on different styles. They constantly consider introducing other important elements in planting Bonsai. For example, rocks, accent and supplemental plants and miniature figures of buildings and human. This is known as the art of Bon-kei. In addition, Bonsai artists also consider miniature replicating landscape or area in nature, known as Sai-kei. Those expand the range of artistic possibilities of Bonsai. .

Bonsai was even drawn in “Ukiyoe” in Edo period. During this period, Bunjin was developed. Bunjin is also called literati and it is a traditional Japanese style of Bonsai.

* Meiji period ~ Showa period

Before Meiji period, the more uncommon was the better. However, from this point, people put a high value on natural beauty. This is called Shizen-bonsai, and wire training made it easier to deform tree. Those thoughts and skills are the bases of Bonsai now.

When the Great East Asia War occurred, sadly those masterpieces were lost because of the lacking of caring. When the World WarⅡwas finally over, Japanese culture was opened to the world. It was the beginning of Bonsai becoming worldwide.

Bonsai in the West

The earliest English report of potted dwarf trees in China known was written in 1637. In addition, the next century, those reports were written repeatedly. Japanese Bonsai were exposed to Westerners’ eyes in the exhibition and exposion held all over the Western countries.

Japanese brought Bonsai to the United States when they migrated. After learning art in Japanese nursery, Americans founded Bonsai society in the U.S. Japanese masters traveled around and brought the knowledge to those who had desire to learn.

Bonsai in the West

Bonsai is highly regarded as a symbol of Japanese sense and culture. On special occasions, Japanese display Bonsai in Tokono-ma. Japanese tend to focus on making bonsai out of native species. On the other hand, people in other countries are more open to new ideas. Over the past two centuries, the evolution of Bonsai is astonishing. Bonsai is now well-known horticultural art form that is globally beloved and respected by people regardless of age, race or sex. We need to protect as well as developing the Bonsai culture that had inherited from our predecessors. Our mission is to pass this great culture on to the next generation.

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