History of the Bonsai

The art of growing bonsai goes way back 1,500 years ago where the idea originated from Chinese before it was imported to the Japanese.

Bonsai came from the Japanese word bon which means “to plant” and sai which means “pot”. Bonsai just simply means the art and methodology of growing, caring and shaping a bonsai. The history of the bonsai plant is highly debated among historians.

Origins of Growing Bonsai

This art of caring of bonsai first originated from China about 1,500 to 1,200 years ago. Back then, other ancient civilizations like the Egyptians were already growing plants in pots. Most of these potted plants had medicinal value or were grown as food.

The ancient Chinese would go into the mountainous region and collected short trees. The short trees were planted into pots and some of them were used to decorate palace walls. The bonsai were often shaped to mimic the natural landscape and Chinese mythological figures like the dragon.

The Chinese grew potted plants for their exquisite quality. The potted plants could be used to decorate their houses or gardens. There was a practice called ‘pen-jing’ which purpose was to control the growth patterns of the plant.

Bonsai Comes to Japan

The Chinese exerted a strong influence over the neighboring country of Japan, notably during the Tang Dynasty. Drawings and descriptions of bonsai put the art of growing bonsai in Japan as far back as 1,200 years ago. Much of bonsai growing techniques were probably brought over by Chinese monks in the 9th century who taught Zen Buddhism. The native Japanese religion of Shinto, with many aspects focusing on nature spirituality and animism found bonsai plants to become the perfect medium to express their religious beliefs.

Early scrolls containing descriptions of the potted plant were found as far back as 1195. A scroll entitled Saigyo Momogatari Emaki describes a priest who used potted plants to represent his status. Other similar scrolls were found in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and the Heian Period (794-1191). All these scrolls depict scenes of houses displaying bonsai and other potted plants. All these scrolls may prove that growing bonsai in Japan started earlier at 1,300 years ago.

Bonsai Brought to the West

Bonsai was introduced to the West during the Meiji period, where Japan was forced to open its doors to foreigners, under pressure from the vastly military superior Western nations. By that time and after many long centuries, many bonsai techniques were probably developed and perfected and bonsai mimicking nature’s objects could be found around Japanese gardens.

When early Europeans first came to Japan, they were aghast by what is seems to be distorted images of nature. Some even mocked the cultivating of bonsai. Europeans at that time, believed that growing bonsai was a difficult thing to do.

Bonsai was then imported into Britain in 1901 and the first bonsai exhibition was held in 1909. Similar exhibitions were organized in other major European cities like Paris. However, the popularity of the bonsai only began after the Second World War and the art of growing bonsai as a hobby was firmly planted in the West.

The Bonsai of Today

Today, the art of growing bonsai has become a global phenomenon. Bonsai societies can be found all over the world. The majority of the bonsai suppliers are located in the Sino region, notably Japan, Korea and China.

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