The Art of Bonsai and Its History

In ancient times, the art of bonsai was the preserve of the privileged few in China and Japan. It was associated with a highly intellectual, if not religious, approach. Some of these plants have been cultivated for several centuries, as generations of devotees of the art have lavished love and care on their plants. The transition from simple gardening to bonsai culture demands great enthusiasm. It is a difficult art, requiring a great deal of application, of which this Bonsai section imparts some of the secrets.

A Brief History

The art of bonsai is synonymous with antiquity, since our present civilization has been unable to introduce any real innovations. The word bonsai conjures up a thousand years of art – even several thousand in some examples. It is hard to tell precisely when man first developed a passion for miniaturizing trees and growing them in trays (the word bonsai comes from bon, meaning ‘tray’ and sai, meaning tree).

first appearance of bonsai in Europe at the World Fair in Paris in 1878

Chinese before Japanese

Although it remains a controversial is-sue, it seems that the art of bonsai originated in China, rather than Japan, with which it is traditionally associated. One distinguished expert attributes to the Chinese originating not cultivation of single trees in trays but cultivating groups of miniature trees as part of the small decorative rock gardens, known as pun-ching. The art of the miniature landscape (or Japanese garden, as an ignorant European might be tempted to call it . . .) made its reappearance in the third century, in the Han dynasty to be precise. But it seems that the art of pun-sai or cultivating miniature trees in pots, was practised in China even before this.

Painting and literature both bear witness to the cultivation of pun-sai since then. However, it was in Japan that the art really took hold, particularly between the tenth and twelfth centuries under the twin influences of the Buddhist monks and the merchants, who had established trading links with China.

From pun-sai to bonsai

Miniature trees were cultivated in pots in Japan in the ninth century (as we know from several iconographic Buddhist archives of the period), but it was not until about the thirteenth century that the art of bonsai was really absorbed into Japanese culture. For a long time, the art remained the preserve of the nobility and the priesthood, who gave it a philosophical and sacred character. Not until the beginning of the nineteenth century did the art of bonsai gain popularity at every level of society.

The World Fair in Paris in 1878 saw the first-ever presentation in Europe of bonsai collections. But they were not received with much enthusiasm, as is apparent from a report in the Journal Hebdomadaire by a journalist describing his visit to the Japanese pavilion: The outstanding plant curiosity in this garden is the miniature forest, or wooded glade, if you prefer, formed of trees that are normally immense but whose development the Japanese, like the Chinese, are skilled at limiting, so they can be grown in pots. We may not find this a particularly attractive art, but that is no reason to ignore it.’

By the time the 1889 exhibition was held eleven years later, the Japanese had realized how much the art of bonsai intrigued the French. They made it the focus of interest in their pavilion. This time, it was no longer a display of plants arranged in groups (as forests, in fact) in front of their building, but of the first ever international showing of bonsai. Although not much more enthusiastic, the reporter from the same Journal Hebdomadaire cast a more attentive eye over the display of bonsai: ‘First of all, the sheer horticultural skill is both astounding and disconcerting. You stop short in front of these strange contorted products of cunning cultivation, so ingenious that they challenge nature, recreating it in the most minute forms, like these cedars, which are more than a century old but are not as tall as a child. Twisted by invisible storms, bent under the weight of years, the arrested foliage of these stunted plants reproduces the most capricious shapes nature is capable of in a tree’s highest branches.

It has taken generations of men to produce the delicate gnarling of the branches, to restrain the powerful drive of the sap, to constrain these forest giants and coax them to grow in just a few square feet. This seemingly bizarre taste, this apparently childish whim is one of the many and varied aspects of their consuming passion.’ Bonsai may not have been taken up in France, but it was certainly noticed. The description given shows that these plants were true bonsai, as we understand them today. It is evident from the report that the writer had seen the basic bonsai wiring techniques and had been shown some examples a hundred or even several hundred years old. In 1909 at the universal exhibition in London, the English gave a resounding welcome to bonsai, which struck a familiar chord with this nation of born gardeners who lovingly manicured their lawns, treating them like the family jewels. Since then, bonsai has acquired a wider audience, abandoning to some extent its traditional mystique. It was not until 1914 that the first national show was organized in Tokyo. Since then it has become an annual event.

In other parts of the world the appearance of Japanese bonsai was not followed by any great enthusiasm. This ‘cunning cultivation’ attracted only a few skilled devotees who delved into the secrets of those who ‘challenged nature’, almost always at the cost of a lengthy trip to Japan. It was not until a century after bonsai first appeared at the Paris exhibition that Europeans discovered a passion for bonsai. This love affair goes beyond a passing fancy and demands a deeper and better understanding of bonsai cultivating techniques.

23. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Bonsai | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on The Art of Bonsai and Its History

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