Article 04 – ‘Bonsai a brief history’

The previous article (Lighting for bonsai) was posted to give some idea to bonsai cultivators residing in the far north, of how to create a full spectrum lighting set up, to aid plant growth during the dark winter months. Nonetheless, as with all information it is prudent to start at the beginning, because when you know where you have come from it is easier to know where you are going. To remind you a book is being written about the knowledge gained from my years in bonsai cultivation and some chapters contain many pages. Some of these can be condensed, but others cannot because relevant information will be lost therefore, they will be posted in sections. So let us start at the beginning with a brief look at the history of bonsai horticulture.

Bonsai a brief history

The cultivation of miniature trees grown in containers can be traced back to the 6th century beginning in China – an art form known as PENJING. A little later diplomats and Buddhists from Japan visited China, returning home with many penjing samples. Other diplomatic missionaries were sent to China to visit the TANG court during the years 603 and 839.

In Japan’s historical Shōsōin, housing 7th, 8th and 9th century artifacts is an elaborate miniature tree display composed of a shallow wooden base, with carved wooden mountains and sand portraying a river. Small silver metal tree sculptures are placed in the sand to produce a table-top design of a tree landscape. This art form closer to the Japanese Bonkei display reflects the period’s interest in miniature landscapes.


The earliest illustration of a penjing is found in the Qianling Mausoleum murals at the Tang Dynasty tomb of Crown Prince Zhanghuai, dating to 706.


In 1299 recognizable bonsai appeared in hand scroll paintings like the Ippen shonin eden and the earliest know scroll to depict miniature trees, is the Saigyo Monogatari Emaki c. 1195. In 1309 during the Kamakura period, the Kasuga-gongen-genki scroll shows wooden tray and dish-like pots containing dwarf landscapes placed on wooden benches. Such novelties probably imported from China accentuated the owner’s wealth.

In addition, Chinese Chan Buddhist monks went to Japan to teach in the monasteries, and their activities included introducing leaders of the day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments for men of taste and learning. The rhymed essay c.1300, Bonseki no Fu (Tribute to Bonseki) by priest and master of Chinese poetry, Kokan Shiren (1278–1346) outlined the principles for what would be termed bonsai, bonseki and garden architecture itself. Allowing the Japanese to use miniaturized trees grown in containers to decorate their homes and gardens.

Over the next few hundred years, landscape arrangements often included figurines that were there to add scale and theme. However, Japanese artists considered these as irrelevant as they were simplifying their creations in the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, the term for dwarf potted trees was refereed to as ‘the bowl’s tree’ (鉢の木, hachi-no-ki). By using a deep pot, as opposed to the shallow pot denoted by the term bonsai.

Some Bonsai from the 17th century are still in existence for example, one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 500 years old, is one of the National Treasures of Japan and is in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5- needle pine Pinus pentaphylla var. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast. By the end of the 18th century, bonsai cultivation had become widespread developing much public interest.

In the early 19th century groups of scholars of the Chinese art of Penjing gathered in Itami, Hyogo (Near Osaka) to discuss recent styles in the art of miniature trees. Styles that had been previously called Bunjin Ueki, Bunjin Hachiue, were renamed ‘Bonsai’. This new term had the connotation of a shallow container in which the Japanese could now more successfully style small trees. However the term bonsai, would not become regularly used in describing their dwarf potted trees for nearly a century. Many others terms adopted by the scholars were derived from Kai-shi-en Gaden, the Japanese version of Jieziyuan Huazhuan. (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden)

Through the latter part of the 19th century, Japanese participation in various international exhibitions introduced many in the western world to dwarf potted trees. In addition, immigrants from Japan arriving to North America’s West Coast and Hawaii Territory brought plants and cultivation experience with them. Furthermore, export nurseries, the most notable one being the Yokohama Gardeners Association, provided good quality dwarf potted trees for Americans and Europeans although the buyers lacked information and experience of how to keep the trees alive.

An Artistic Bonsai Concourse was held in Tokyo in 1892 followed by the publication of a three-volume commemorative picture book. This demonstrated a new tendency to see bonsai as an independent art form. In 1903, the Tokyo association Jurakukai held displays of bonsai and ikebana at two Japanese-style restaurants. Three years later, Bonsai Gaho 1906 to c.1913 became the first monthly magazine on the subject followed by Toyo Engei and Hana in 1907 and Bonsai in 1921. By 1907, on the outskirts of Tokyo dwarf tree artists formed a little colony of twenty to thirty houses where from this centre their work finds its way to all parts of the world.

In 1910, shaping with wire was described in the Sanyu-en Bonsai-Dan (History of Bonsai in the Sanyu nursery). Zinc-galvanized steel wire was initially used. Expensive copper wire was only used for trees that had real potential. Between 1911 and 1940, mass-produced containers were exported from Yixing, China, and made to the specifications of Japanese dealers. These were called Shinto (new crossing or arrival) or Shin-water ware, these were made for increasing numbers of enthusiasts. Some containers, including primitive style designs, were also being made in Formosa.

The availability of expert bonsai training, was at first only in Japan, but gradually spread to other countries. In 1967 the first group of North Americans studied at an Ōmiya nursery finally returning home where they established the American Bonsai Society. Other groups and individuals from outside Asia then visited and studied at the various Japanese nurseries, occasionally even apprenticing under the masters. These visitors brought back to their local clubs the latest techniques and styles, which were then further disseminated. Japanese teachers also traveled widely, bringing hands-on bonsai expertise to all six continents.

By the beginning of the 1970s, these trends were beginning to merge. A large display of bonsai and suiseki was held as part of Expo ’70 and a formal discussion was made of an international association of enthusiasts. Three monthly magazines were started this year: Bonsai Sekai, Satsuki Kenkyu, and Shizen to Bonsai. In 1975, the first Gafu-ten (Elegant-Style Exhibit) of shohin bonsai (13-25 cm (9.84 in) tall was held as was the first Sakufu-ten. (Creative Bonsai Exhibit) This was the only event in which professional bonsai growers could exhibit traditional trees under their own names rather than under the name of the owner. It was organized by Hideo Kato (1918–2001) at Daimaru Department Store in Tokyo.

The First World Bonsai Convention was held in Osaka during the World Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition in 1980. Nine years later, the first World Bonsai Convention was held in Omiya and the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) was inaugurated. These conventions attracted several hundreds of participants from dozens of countries and have since been held every four years at different locations around the globe: 1993, Orlando, Florida; 1997, Seoul, Korea; 2001, Munich, Germany; 2005, Washington, D.C.; 2009, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Bonsai has now definitively reached a world-wide audience. There are over twelve hundred books on bonsai and the related arts in at least twenty-six languages available in over ninety countries and territories. A few dozen magazines in over thirteen languages are in print. Several score of club newsletters are available on-line, and there are at least that many discussion forums. Educational videos and just the appearance of dwarf potted trees in films and on television reach a wide audience. There are at least a hundred thousand enthusiasts in some fifteen hundred clubs and associations world wide, as well as over five million unassociated hobbyists. Plant material from every location is being trained into bonsai and displayed at local, regional, national, and international conventions and exhibitions for enthusiasts and the general public.

The cultivation miniature trees in containers is not only an ancient art, its form and design originating from China has undergone many changes. For example, the classifications for tree sizing with each classification having subcategories of size, that tend to vary in exact specifics. Is because each individual bonsai is unique, some may or may not fit into each category, despite their exact size. This topic will be the next post so until then, BW, N.



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