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The History Of Bonsai

The beginning of Bonsai

The history of bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) is cloaked in the mist of the past but it is now generally accepted that it actually was the Chinese that first created the miniature landscapes and trees that we now know as bonsai. Called penjing by the Chinese, bonsai was believed to have had its early beginning in the Han Dynasty. In this article I will discuss the some of legends and facts surrounding the beginnings of bonsai.

An early Chinese legend contends that it was in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) that an eccentric emperor created a landscape in his courtyard complete with rivers, hills, valleys, lakes and trees (the landscape represented his entire empire). He created the landscape so that he could look upon his entire empire from the comfort of his palace window. This variety of landscape art was also his alone to possess. He decreed that anyone else found in possession of a miniature landscape was seen as threat to his empire and put to death. 

Another Chinese legend about the earliest beginnings of bonsai points to a fourth century AD Chinese poet and civil servant named Guen-ming. It's widely believed that after he retired he began growing chrysanthemums in clay pots. Many historians believe that this was a step towards the beginning of bonsai in the Tang dynasty some 200 years later. 

The earliest documented, believable proof of bonsai was discovered in 1972 in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD) (he died in 706 AD). Two ancient wall paintings discovered in the tomb show servants carrying several plants resembling bonsai. In one of the paintings a man is seen carrying a miniature landscape and in the other painting a servant is shown carrying a small pot containing a tree.

Bonsai comes to Japan

Although it's the Japanese that receive most of the credit for bonsai, it wasn't until the Heian period (794-1191) that Buddhist monks brought bonsai to the Japan. For several years following the arrival of bonsai, the art was practiced by only the very wealthy and thus came to be known as a Bonsai Tree nobleman's privilege.

Because of the fact that the art of bonsai was limited to the noble class nearly caused the art to die out completely in Japan. It was only with the Chinese invasion of Japan in 14th century that the art of bonsai started to be practiced by people of all social classes. Once bonsai began to be practiced by all classes, it began to grow in popularity with the masses in Japan.

The Chinese influence on the early bonsai masters is clear because the Japanese use the same characters to represent bonsai as the Chinese. After bonsai was established in Japan, the Japanese artists went to great lengths to refine the art and a lot of credit must go to these early bonsai masters. The refinements that they helped develop has made bonsai what it is today.

Bonsai comes west

The earliest bonsai to make its way to the west came mostly from China and Japan. The showing of bonsai at the 3rd Universal Exhibition in Paris 1878 and later at the exhibitions in 1889 and 1900 increased western interest in bonsai and opened the door for the first major bonsai exhibit to be held in London in 1909. In these early years, most westerners felt that the trees looked tortured and many openly criticized the way the trees were being treated by bonsai masters. It wasn't until 1935 that western opinions changed and bonsai was finally classified as an bon fide art in the west. 

By the end of World War II, bonsai had started to gain in popularity in the west. Soldiers returning from Japan with bonsai sparked interest in the art in the west. Although most of the trees brought home by the soldiers died a short time after their arrival, they survived just long enough to create an interest in learning more about the proper care of their bonsai. The expanding Japanese-American population was invaluable to Americans in this respect. Their vast knowledge of bonsai was of great interest to many Americans learning the art for the first time.

Today, bonsai trees are sold in garden centers, department stores, nurseries and many others places. Most of these however are simply young cuttings or starts and do not represent the true bonsai produced by the bonsai masters. Most trees that are purchased today are called pre-bonsai. For the most part they are used only as a starting point for creating a genuine bonsai tree.

In order to create a true bonsai work of art you need to learn as much as possible about the art and the trees you can use. Quality information is the key to success and it's very important to read as much as possible about bonsai. It's also very useful to join a local bonsai club so you can discuss the art and techniques with experienced bonsai practitioners. As your knowledge and confidence grows, creating your our own bonsai trees will become easier and your enjoyment of bonsai will grow.

Article courtesy of David Amhof.

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