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A Short Bonsai History

Bonsai (Japanese: 盆栽, literally "tray gardening") is the art of aesthetic miniaturisation of trees and plants in containers. While mostly associated with the Japanese form, "bonsai" was originally developed from Chinese penjing ("tray scenery") . In Western culture, the word "bonsai" is used as an umbrella term for Japanese bonsai, Chinese penjing, and Korean bunjae.

The origins of bonsai are often attributed to ancient China. Practiced at least as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), it is believed that the artform is derived from the practice of transporting medicinal plants in containers by healers. Its early focus was on the display of stylistic trunks in the shape of animals and mystic figures. A number of these early works exist today, and are highly valued.

Japanese bonsai is derived from the Chinese artform, and was introduced to Japan by imperial embassies in the Chinese Tang Dynasty. In the Dynastic periods that followed penjing came to be drawn in some picture scrolls and documents and began to develop in various directions in Japan. Just like a Japanese garden, it came to assume the artistry of "Wabi-sabi" (an aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience). However, the bonsai was still the enjoyment of people of the chosen hierarchy in the period. In the Edo period (1603 to 1867), it became possible for many daimyos (feudal rulers), samurais, merchants, townsmen, and others to enjoy the art of bonsai. In addition, the bonsai pot became popular among daimyos, employing the pottery master who belonged exclusively to the bonsai pot. It is said that the name "Bonsai" started being used around this time.

Japanese School

The Japanese aesthetic is centred on the principle of "heaven and earth in one container", as a Japanese cliché has it. Three forces come together in a good bonsai: shin-zen-bi (真善美) or truth, essence and beauty.

Traditional subjects for bonsai include pine, maple, elm, flowering apricot, Japanese wisteria, juniper, flowering cherry, azalea and larch. The plants are grown outdoors and brought in to the tokonoma at special occasions when they most evoke the current season.

The Japanese bonsai are meant to evoke the essential spirit of the plant being used: in all cases, they must look natural and never show the intervention of human hands.

Chinese School

The Chinese aesthetic hopes to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts. Philosophically, the Chinese artist is influenced by the principle of Taoism, specifically Yin and Yang, the conceptualisation of the universe as governed by two primal opposing but complementary forces.

Inspiration is not limited to nature, but also from poetry and visual art, of which factor similar aesthetic considerations.

Common themes include dragons and the strokes of fortuitious characters. At its highest level however, the artistic value of penjing is on par with that of poetry, calligraphy, brush painting and garden art.


"Simplicity is the peak of civilisation" - Jesse Sampter