An art form dating back to the start of time, bonsai is one of the richest traditions in the world. Apart from their rich history, these miniature trees are widely considered the epitome of the great Japanese culture and ancient Chinese tradition.
So, accompany us on this magical bonsai history round-up through the medieval times up to as recently as World War II to the present day.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of the Bonsai Tree
In a botanical and traditional nutshell, the word bonsai is a Japanese term that means “potted in a container.” But, the first bonsai culture seen by the world emerged from ancient China.
The Chinese “pun-sai” was the first historical record of a special botanical technique used to plant dwarf trees in shallow containers.
Back in 700 AD, the ancient Chinese horticultural practice vastly influenced the art of bonsai, which was then gifted to the Japanese people by Chinese immigrants during the Kamakura period. The Japanese added their own savory umami via Japanese Zen Buddhist monks.
In What Country Did Bonsai Originate?
The earliest traces of the oldest bonsai trees come from parts of Asia, including ancient China and Japan. Back in the day, these empires sprawled all over Asia, which is why the continent is so rich in the cultural and socioeconomic essence of these bonsai pots.
The miniaturization of scenic landscapes and deciduous trees began in ancient China during the rule of the Hang Dynasty (Han Dynasty) about 2,300 years ago.
These miniature landscapes, depicting luscious tropical trees and ragged mountains, signified a reflection of the discipline, intellect, and wisdom of their creators. Basically, growing and possessing a landscape of miniature scale was a status symbol in society.
Interestingly, the Japanese pavilion was the driving force behind the astronomical popularity of bonsai, making it a way of living.
The upcoming sections talk all about the specifics of the roots of Chinese bonsai culture and the Japanese style of bonsai.
Is Bonsai Chinese?
An estimated 5,000 years ago, there is evidence of a “pun,” a shallow pot, being made for religious purposes. After several years, during the Chinese Bronze Age, Chinese monks grew fascinated with creating miniature replicas of wild landscapes, for example, a mountain range created with viewing stones. This way, the creator could gain the landscape’s unique characteristics, such as magical properties.
The Han Dynasty of ancient China vested immense interest in pottery, portraying animals of Chinese folklore. As time passed, different styles of potting, bonsai styles, and brass wire for shaping gained prominence.
Is Bonsai Japanese?
From the great Kamakura Period, which introduced the art of bonsai in ancient Japan during the 12th Century and reinvented it with the art of training numerous Japanese styles of bonsai during the 13th Century, to the Meiji Period of the 20th Century, bonsai has been a pivotal doctrine of Japanese society.
Japanese Zen Buddhism had extensive influence over these dwarf plants in Japan back in the day; the Buddhist monks affiliated the plantation of miniature tree species with spirituality, religious awakening, patience, and great virtue.
Soon, it was symbolic to grow a bonsai, as everyone, from the highest ranking shogun in the military to the peasant farmer, would engage in tray planting, potting different plant species, mostly Azalea.
Fast-forward to 18th Century Japan, during the Edo period, traditional miniature pine trees were brought by bonsai gurus from all over the land for the annual contest held in Kyoto, the capital. Soon, the commercial growth of traditional pine trees, such as the glorious Japanese white pine, became the norm.
Nowadays, the heart of bonsai culture in Japan, the Omiya bonsai village, was created by 30 growing families.
Why are Bonsai Trees so Special in Japan?
The Chinese introduced the art of bonsai to Japan, and the Japanese took it to unprecedented heights, developing it into a worldwide phenomenon. Bonsai symbolized a way of life full of patience and gratitude, which was quickly adopted by young people back then and to this day.
With time, master bonsai artists such as the likes of Kunio Kobayashi sprung up and created pragmatic bonsai styles depicting nature in its truest essence. Some of these styles include:
Japanese Bonsai Styles
- Hokidachi (Broom-Top Bonsai): perfect for outdoor and indoor bonsai plants, the fine and true branches of your deciduous tree will form a round crown above the stem. This style becomes a visual spectacle during the winter months. This style is perfect for small leaves that create a dense canopy. Careful, strike the right balance of leaf size; smaller leaves aren’t always cute.
- Chokkan (Formal Upright Bonsai Style): Chokkan is the signature of any Japanese home, such is its popularity as it represents a healthy tree grown in nature without competition. During the growing season (early spring), start ramifications in a shallow container after 1/4th of the branch of the miniature form. A branch at the top of the upright trunk is necessary.
Is Bonsai More Japanese or Chinese?
To put the debate to rest, both of these bastions of ancient tradition, Japan and China, are credited with bestowing the world with the gift card that is these small trees.
Every indoor bonsai planted today is a memoir of these great ancient civilizations. It is quite incredible how a botanical tradition, dating back to the start of time, is still fresh to this day.
Does Korea Have a History of Bonsai?
Here’s the catch: before word of these small plants traveled to Japan, the Koreans already knew about this artistic plant cultivation.
Evidently, Korean ceramics that predate the traditional Japanese arts, were discovered; lavish miniature trees and water features displays were the norm.
South Korea has its own bonsai version and history: “bunjae”. Jeju Island, located off the coast of South Korea, is home to the Spirited Garden, a surreal Macca for everything bonsai.
The Garden’s spectacles on sight are Korea’s native species, including sea pines, hornbeams, and land pines. Almost all different species in this prestigious Garden are 100 years old, with the oldest being a 600-year-old yew with its graceful yet aged appearance.
What Country Has the Most Bonsai Trees?
Without a doubt, Japan remains the epicenter of bonsai culture. Irrespective of the fact that “bonsai” is a Japanese word, Japan truly embodied and propelled the evergreen tradition of bonsai with depictions of bonsai through ancient Japanese culture and socioeconomic relevance.
12 of the world’s largest and most prestigious 25 bonsai gardens belong to Japan.
- Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
- Kyuka-en Bonsai Garden
- Seiko-en Bonsai Garden
- Toju-en Bonsai Garden
- Fuyo-en Bonsai Garden
- Mansei-en Bonsai Garden
- Shosetsu-en Bonsai Garden
- Kimura’s Bonsai Garden
- Shunk-en Bonsai Museum
- Taikan Bonsai Garden
- Fujikawa Kouka-en Bonsai Garden
- Koju-en Shohin Nursery
What is the History of Bonsai in North America and the United States?
Bonsai was first introduced to the Americas by Japanese immigrants during the 18th Century. The next meeting of the United States and the art of bonsai occurred after WW2 when American soldiers brought good bonsai specimens with them back home.
The state of California, especially Southern California, played a pivotal role in bringing the soothing world of bonsai to the United States. John Naka, a Japanese bonsai specialist from California, taught in-person and via print media.
During the 1920s, the California Bonsai Clubs sprung up. Led by Japanese bonsai masters, the clubs had an exponential impact on bonsai popularity among Americans.
Last but not least, the Huntington Collection is a bonsai marvel and a glorious institution devoted to showcasing, researching, and glorifying the best of bonsai pieces made by delicate human hands.
Private collections do not get better than this; the Huntington Collection hosts over 400 bonsai trees, some being more than 1,000 years old!
Does Bonsai Have Spiritual Meaning?
Apart from listing aesthetic qualities and proper care guides for bonsai, let’s delve deep into a rarely-discussed topic. What are the strong winds behind the spiritual element of bonsai? What is the best way to garner the best results from the overall experience of growing a bonsai?
These questions matter because some people do not understand the meaning of the term “Bonsai.” Unlike a normal tree, this miracle of nature requires proper care through discipline, realistic expectations through patience, and a constant drive for betterment to achieve that desired shape through an awesome work ethic.
These virtues will instill in you only when you and the plant become one, connected. Only then will you reap the immense spiritual benefits of this centuries-long tradition.
Do Bonsai Trees have Magical Properties?
Like all beings, trees also emit energy to their surroundings. Since man and bonsai have an intimately close connection as they spend their whole lives together, bonsai trees tend to emit positive healing powers onto their owners. These powers bring calmness, tranquility, and focus to the owner’s mind.
However, this deep connection goes both ways. If you engage in peaceful acts such as meditation near your bonsai, it will thrive. If you argue and swear around it, it will be fed negative energy.
What is the Oldest Bonsai in the World?
Created a lifetime ago by ancient bonsai specialists using their own methods of unworldly growing techniques, the oldest bonsai to exist is the Ficus Retusa Linn, a staggering 1,000-year-old tree. It is situated in the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Italy.
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