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A history of bonsai

The art of training trees in small containers and pots has been practised for many centuries by the Chinese, Japanese and horticulturalists influenced by eastern culture. Bonsai culture has been brought to its ultimate by the Chinese and Japanese.

Bonsai in China - Pentsai and Penjing

Dwarf trees in China have been cultivated in pots for over 1,000 years. They are known as Pentsai or Penjing.

Over the centuries many bonsai schools have emerged from all over China, and many different techniques emerged for training bonsai.

The practise originated from the principles of TAOISM ( followers of magical properties believed to be associated with natural phenomena).

The Toaists believed that a contorted, gnarled shape represented the twisted bodies of those that wished to enter the ‘other world’(the world beyond mortality).

During the TANG DYNASTY, (618 to 907), and in the SUNG DYNASTY, (960 to 1276), Buddhist monks took trees from the wild to plant in pots. These are now known as ‘Yamadori’.

Many Chinese artists also painted pictures of naturally stunted trees, (which had been transferred to pots).

At this time during the Song Dynasty, the Art of Bonsai was exclusively for the rich for whom it provided relaxation.

During the YUAN DYNASTY (1276 to 1368), an official is said to have fled the rule of the Mongols and gone to live in Japan with some of his bonsai. This is how, so the story goes that bonsai were introduced into Japan.

The MING DYNASTY (1368 to 1644) placed great importance on the highly ornamental pot which contained the tree, (which was then left untouched).

The tree was specifically left untrained to simulate the natural world of wisdom and often grown among water and rocks to simulate the mountains, lakes and streams.

(In China as in Japan, ‘wisdom’ is represented by Bamboo).

In China such varied topography produced regional variations in styles of bonsai landscapes and potted trees as bonsai popularity grew.

Dwarf landscapes evolved called ‘Saikei’ which included flat bottomed rocks sitting in a large tray of water to represent the sea, with small trees growing on the rocks above. Each ‘Saikei’ often represented a distinct landscape type found in the Chinese province.

During the MING and CH’ING DYNASTIES (1368 to 1644 and 1644 to 1911), the potted trees tended to reflect the surrounding countryside and local traditions.

Gradually trees were being trained to create these effect more and more, rather than collectors relying solely on naturally dwarfed trees.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, growers began training trees by the ‘grow and clip’, method. This produced trees of ancient and gnarled appearance, (of a particular style, or number of styles).

The School of Bonsai was formed called the ‘LINGNAN’ and gradually superseded the other ancient methods of training trees.

After the end of the MING DYNASTY, the bonsai landscapes ceased to become a pastime enjoyed only by the nobility, and became accessible to everyone.

Bonsai trees by this time were becoming increasingly popular and because of this were now not confined the wealthy and nobility.

Bonsai in Japan

The first recorded reference to bonsai in Japan was on a scroll by Takane Takashima dated in 1309.

A Buddhist monk called Honen Shonin, (1133 to 1212), was a bonsai enthusiast and had a large collection. His collection was later recorded on a scroll.

By the 14th Century bonsai were among the decorations to be found on the Buddhist altars and shrines around the country.

Nature, in Buddhism as in Shinto, was an object of reverence and to be respected.

Man merely shaped the divine, he did not create it.

In Japan the garden has always been part of the house, and the bonsai fulfilled the role of nature in the home.

The EDO PERIOD, (1615 to 1867), coincided with a great growth in bonsai training and trained bonsai in trays.

The BONKEI and SAKEI were whole landscapes on trays and bonsai trees growing in the landscapes themselves.

The wealthy people of Japan formed an attachment to bonsai, and their cultivation became a popular hobby which has gradually spread through the whole social strata, and over the whole of Japan.

The training and styling of larger bonsai trees was also practised, coinciding with the growing interest in landscaping and gardening.

Naturally dwarfed trees were collected from the wild and potted and towards the end of the 19th Century trees were being improved by wiring and proper training.

Younger trees were also being trained into styles in order to satisfy the demand by the merchant classes who were becoming increasingly interested in the arts and horticulture. These trees were known as ‘tako’.

The young ‘tako’ trees were commercially produced to give a twisted gnarled shape and to simulate great ageing.

Pots which had originally been much deeper were now becoming increasingly more shallow.

The Tokugowa Period (1603 to 1867)

Great steps forward in bonsai culture and horticultural skills reached a high standard during this period.

The development of landscape and gardening design increased markedly and more trees continued to be collected from the wild.

Natural bonsai trees were still very much sought after as’ Yamadori’, and were trained further to enhance their beauty. Many nurseries have now been set up specifically to grow on and train young trees into bonsai.

Bonsai in Europe

Bonsai first appeared in Europe in the 14th Century introduced by travellers from the east, but were not taken seriously.

In the 18th Century bonsai were ‘rediscovered’ and serious essays and papers appeared on the techniques for dwarfing and training bonsai. (1889 J. Vallot and Paul Claudel).

In both France and England bonsai interest has developed steadily, and now all countries throughout the world are acquainted with all forms of bonsai.

Today many associations and bonsai clubs exist where amateur and professional bonsai enthusiasts can meet up to engage in serious bonsai workshops, and to talk about training techniques and to exchange trees and information.

Every year throughout the world there are many bonsai conventions and shows where clubs and individuals show off their best trees. Tools, pots and bonsai are bought and sold at bonsai markets and many bonsai nurseries now offer a mail order service.


The siteprovides information on the history of bonsai, different species and how to propagate them, and details of workshops on the art of bonsai growing and the care of bonsai, trees for sale, and of a re-potting service.
©2010 Colin Carpenter