Bonsai originaly appeared in China over a thousand years ago on an exceptionally
basic scale, recognized as pun-sai, where it was the practice of growing
solitary sample trees in pots. These early specimens displayed meagre foliage
and rough, gnarled trunks which often looked similar to animals, dragons and
birds. There are an immense number of myths and legends surrounding Chinese
bonsai, and the grotesque or animal-like trunks and root formations are still
highly prized today. Chinese bonsai that come from the scenery of the
imagination and images of fiery dragons and arched serpents take far greater
precedence over images of trees- so the two forms of this art are quite far
With Japan's embracing many cultural trademarks of China - bonsai was also taken
up, introduced to Japan by way of Zen Buddhism - which at this period was
quickly spreading around Asia.
Once bonsai was introduced into Japan, the art was developed to a degree not yet
reached in China. Over time, the simple trees were not just restrained to the
Buddhist monks and their monasteries, but also later were introduced to be
representative of the aristocracy - a symbol of prestige and honour.
The ideals and philosophy of bonsai were greatly changed over the years. For the
Japanese, bonsai represents a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern
philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature.
In an ancient Japanese scroll written in Japan, it is translated to say : "To
appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love
By the fourteenth century bonsai was indeed viewed as a highly refined art form,
meaning that it must have been an established practice many years before that
Bonsai were brought indoors for display at special times by the 'Japanese elite'
and became an important part of Japanese life by being displayed on specially
designed shelves. These multifaceted plants were no longer permanently retained
for outdoor display, although the practices of training and pruning did not grow
until later - the small trees at this time still being taken from the wild. In
the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese arts reached their peak and were
regarded very highly. Bonsai again evolved to a much higher understanding and
refinement of nature - although the containers used seemed to be slightly deeper
than those used today. The main factor in maintaining bonsai was now the removal
of all but the most important parts of the plant. The reduction of everything
just to the essential elements and ultimate refinement was very symbolic of the
Japanese philosophy of this time - shown by the very simple Japanese gardens
such as those in the famous temple - Roan-ji.
At around this time, bonsai also became ordinary to the general Japanese public
- which significantly increased demand for the small trees collected from the
wild and firmly established the artform within the culture and traditions of the
Over time, bonsai began to take on diverse styles, each which varied hugely from
one another. Bonsai artists steadily looked into introducing other culturally
significant 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.
They also looked at reproducing miniature landscapes in nature - known as
sai-kei which further investigated the diverse range of artistic possibilities
Finally, in the mid-19th century, after more than 230 years of worldwide
isolation, Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world. Word almost
immediately spread from travelers who visited Japan of the miniature trees in
ceramic containers which mimicked aged, mature, tall trees in nature. Further
exhibitions in London, Vienna and Paris in the latter part of the century -
particularly the Paris World exposition in 1900 opened the world's eyes up to
Due to this phenomenal upsurge in the demand for bonsai, the now widely growing
industry and lack of naturally-forming, stunted plants led to the
business-related production of bonsai by artists through training young plants
to grow to look like bonsai. Several basic styles were adopted, and artists made
use of wire, bamboo skewers and growing techniques to do this - allowing the art
to evolve even further. The Japanese learnt to capitalize on the interest in
this artform very quickly - opening up nurseries dedicated solely to grow, train
and then export bonsai trees. Different plants were now being used to cater for
worldwide climates and to produce neater foliage and more suitable growth habits.
Bonsai techniques such as raising trees from seed or cuttings and the styling
and grafting of unusual, different or tender material onto hardy root stock were
Bonsai has now evolved to reflect changing tastes and times - with a great
variety of countries, cultures and conditions in which it is now practiced.
In Japan today, bonsai are highly regared as a symbol of their culture and
ideals. The New Year is not complete unless the tokonoma - the special place in
every Japanese home used for the exhibit of ornaments and prized possessions -
is filled with a blossoming apricot or plum tree. Bonsai is no longer reserved
for the upper-class, but is a joy shared by executive and factory worker alike.
The Japanese tend to focus on using native species for their bonsai - namely
pines, azaleas and maples (regarded as the traditional bonsai plants). In other
countries however, people are more open to opinion.
The progress of bonsai over the earlier period is truly amazing - now a well
known and respected horticultural artform that has spread all through the world
from Greenland to the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. It is constantly
changing and reaching even greater heights, representative of how small the
world is today.
Bonsai Myths: Part One of a Long Series
If you know any myths about the origin of the Bonsais, please be free to share
it at info@BonsaiPlanet.com