The spectacular ancient practice involving the cultivation of tiny trees in tiny containers is still embraced in mystery for many of the newbie bonsai enthusiasts – whether it comes to beginner hobby bonsai gardeners or mere aficionados of this incredible art form.
So, where are bonsai trees from?
In a nutshell, bonsai trees’ origin intertwines the cultures of two nations – the Chinese and the Japanese.
However, if we dare to look beyond what meets the eye at the very first sight, different cultures across the globe have left a sparkling trace in the art of bonsai thanks to its wide popularization.
Nowadays, bonsai trees can come from literally every corner of the world. Even though bonsai trees can come from anywhere up-to-date, their very roots can only be found deep in the Asian traditions.
Let’s explore the history and meaning of bonsai trees combining interesting facts into a symphony celebrating the origin of bonsai trees.
What is the Definition of Bonsai?
The very word “bonsai” (盆栽) is a Japanese term. “Bonsai” has become such a popular term that is often attached to many other forms of tiny and/or potted plants – a practice that can be seen with various other umbrella terms, and is not only limited to the way we use the loanword ‘’bonsai”.
However, as Stephen Orr shared in The New York Times, “bonsai” should be used in its original semantic meaning, and “reserved” for plants that become an “artful miniature replica of a full-grown tree in nature” following the Japanese tradition and aesthetics of training and pruning.
Bonsai literally means “planted in a container.”
For many, bonsai trees are merely genetically dwarfed plants but this is very far away from the truth.
Genetically dwarfed plants do exist freely in the living nature. Nonetheless, dwarf breeds can be created with the clear intention of cultivating plants that will grow significantly smaller for their species.
But the essence of the art of bonsai is exercising the horticultural and artistic skills of the bonsai tree gardener who is on a mission to cultivating an ordinary tree into a tiny container, thus, restricting the growth of the tree so that it can become a miniature version of itself.
What’s more, a bonsai tree masterpiece should bring pleasure to the senses when contemplated. Bonsai needs to look as authentic as possible – nothing should distract the contemplators from the joy of experiencing a unique dance of emotional responses from the view of a tiny tree that looks just like its brothers and sisters in the living nature.
Video by: Bonsai Bros – Bonsai Documentary: The Living Works Of Art – Japanology Plus
From Ancient Times to Present Day: Tracing back the History of Bonsai
Even though “bonsai” is a Japanese term, the first to start cultivating tiny trees in tiny pots were the Chinese.
It was by the 700 AD when the Chinese art of “pun-sai” (also spelled “pun-tsai” or “penzai”) originated according to historians. By collecting native tree specimens, the Chinese applied special techniques to be able to grow dwarf trees with the use of small pots.
However, the art of penzai was very restricted. In fact, this was a practice reserved solely for the elite of the Chinese society. At some point, though, the charming dwarf trees started to become more popular as luxurious gifts.
The true rise of the art of bonsai as how we know it today might have never taken place if it wasn’t for the Japanese fascination of the practice of cultivating small trees in small containers.
It was during the Kamakura period when Japan adopted many of China’s cultural trademarks – something that made the two Asian cultures intertwined forever. But being intertwined doesn’t mean that the Japanese and the Chinese cultures are exactly alike.
The Japanese embedded their unique understanding of life, beauty, and harmony into the art of bonsai. Japanese Buddhist monks played a key role in popularizing, as well as shaping the art of bonsai into what we know it today.
The main principles of Zen Buddhism were gradually conveyed to bonsai, as one of the Zen Buddhist monk’s activities was to introduce political leaders of the country of the rising sun to the arts of miniature landscapes.
In fact, Japanese aesthetic and tradition extend far beyond the art of bonsai when it comes to horticulture and design – something that can be easily seen in the mesmerizing Japanese Zen gardens.
Bonsai trees were considered an admirable accomplishment combining learning and taste in a one-of-a-kind way while also representing gratitude and respect for the majesty of the living nature.
While the Chinese art of penzai gave rise to the art of bonsai, it is also good to know that it paved the path towards the Vietnamese art of making miniature landscapes known as Hon Non Bo.
Video by: Tree Flower and Plants – 15+ Of The Most Beautiful Bonsai Trees Ever
Bonsai trees are the whole Universe in a miniature. The wisdom of bonsai can only compete with the exquisite beauty of the incredible tiny masterpieces.
Where are bonsai trees from, you ask? The true meaning of bonsai originates in the heart of those who are eager to find harmony, meaning, peace, and tranquility in a world that is rapidly becoming deprived of these essential values. Penzai started in China but it might have never become the beloved art form of bonsai that we know today if it wasn’t for the Japanese and their profound understanding of the subtle, delicate, fragile beauty of life – an unparalleled beauty that can reach all the way down to one’s soul.