Bonsai history

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bonsai history

Bonsai first appeared in China over a thousand years ago on a very basic scale, where it was the practice of growing single species of trees in pots. Actually, it was during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), when they, for the first time, created miniature landscapes and trees which they called Penjing, that literally translated means tray scenery.

With Japan's adoption of many cultural labels of China - bonsai was also taken up, introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333) by means of Zen Buddhism - which at this time was rapidly spreading through Asia.

The earliest documented proof of bonsai was discovered in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, who died in 706 during the Tang Dynasty. Two wall paintings discovered in the tomb show servants carrying some plants resembling bonsai. In one of the paintings a servant is carrying a miniature landscape and in the other painting a servant is shown carrying a pot containing a little tree.

Bonsai were brought indoors for display at special times by the 'Japanese elite' and became an important part of Japanese tradition by being displayed on specially designed shelves. These complex trees were no longer permanently reserved for outdoor display, although the practices of training, pruning and wiring did not develop until later - the small trees at this time still being taken from the wild nature. 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 the pots 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 for the Japanese philosophy at this time - shown by the very simple Japanese gardens such as those in the famous temple - Roan-ji.

Called Bonsai (tree in a pot or tray) by Japanese , this art form was initially limited to the elite noble class and did not become popular until the Muromachi era in the 14th century, jointly prospering with the green tea ceremony to become part of Japanese culture and tradition.

By the Edo era in the 16th century, every citizen of every class, from the Daimyo (feudal lord) to the merchants, wouldn't hesitate at a chance to enjoy Bonsai together, and several competitions for potters were held regularly. During this period the Japanese developed a passion for growing plants and gardens and in this period Bonsai styles appear on prints and illustrations along with life's events and landscapes. It is regarded that the Japanese Bonsai arts reached their peak by the 18th century, and were regarded very highly.

The Japanese went to great lengths to refine the art of Bonsai and a lot of credit must go to these early masters, the refinements that they developed have made Bonsai what it is today, and some consider that the finest Bonsai are still being developed by Japanese.

While it is almost certain that Western man had in some small way been exposed to Bonsai even as early as the 16th Century by sea traders and missionaries, the earliest Bonsai to come to the west came from Japan and China. The showing of Bonsai at Paris exhibitions in 1877, 1889, 1900 and the first major Bonsai exhibition held in London in 1908 increased western interest in Bonsai. In the late 1800's at least 2 Japanese nurseries had operations in America and a catalog from the S.M. Japanese Nursery Company from 1904 indicates that over six hundred plants were sold off over a three day period in New York City. In these early years many westerners felt that the trees looked tortured and many openly voiced their displeasure in the way the trees were being treated by Bonsai masters. It wasn't until 1935 that opinions changed and Bonsai was finally classified as an art in the west.

In Japan today, bonsai are highly regarded as a symbol of their culture and ideals. The New Year is not complete
unless the tokonoma - the special niche in every Japanese home used for the display 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.


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