Most of us when we think of a Bonsai tree we immediately think of Japan. There’s nothing wrong with that because the Japanese have been creating beautiful Bonsai trees for quite some time. However, what most people don’t realize is that the first Bonsai actually came from China and then after China the art of the Bonsai spread East over to Korea where it finally reached Japan.
It was the Buddhist monks who began the art of Bonsai. You see, these monks wanted some way to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside their temples. Historians discovered from their ancient paintings as well as ancient manuscripts that there were artistic container trees being cultivated in China around the year 600 AD and some historians even believe that the Bonsai or at least some form of potted trees were actually being grown in China as long ago as 1,000 BC. Even though to this very day most people equate Bonsai with Japan, it did not first make it’s appearance there until about the 12th century.
For centuries the people of China have love artistic plant cultivation so it’s not by accident that this kind of planting originated in China because the people of China have for centuries and centuries loved flowers and plants. It’s easy for them to do so because China is a country that is well endowed with a huge variety of flora. Chinese people also have had a huge passion for gardens for centuries and truth be known a lot of their gardens were all done on miniature scales and many of them included a variety of miniature trees and shrubs. These were often planted in order to reinforce the actual scale and balance of their beautiful landscapes. One thing about the people of China is that they were so infatuated with this miniaturization of gardens that they actually believed that all miniature things held mystical as well as magical powers.
Something that helped the Bonsai become so popular was when the Chinese and the Koreans started creating beautiful ceramics. These ceramics were used to hold the little miniature plants and it is through these ceramic containers that the Bonsai developed into what we see today. Without these beautiful containers, our little Bonsai trees that are now so admired may not have become as popular as they are.
The word Bonsai actually means when literally translated “tree in a tray”. It has been a tradition since the creation of the Bonsai that the tree and it’s container has to form one single entity. Even to this very day you will find that often the most coveted containers for even the best Japanese Bonsai is often an antique Chinese container.
The little Bonsai tree has really evolved and developed over the centuries and along different lines in both China and Japan. The Bonsai of China are still done in the very ancient tradition and not much has changed and to the untrained eye they might appear to be crude not as artistic as Japanese Bonsai. Then there comes the Japanese style of Bonsai which for most of us are far more pleasing looking and much more naturalistic. The Japanese Bonsai trees are far more refined and a lot more groomed than that of the Chinese variety. However, both types of Bonsai trees carry their own personal and individual charms that appeal to a variety of people.
By the end of World War II and into the post war era, the majority of the Bonsai trees found in the United States as well as Europe ended up being the Japanese Bonsai and not the Chinese Bonsai. Eventually Japan ended up having a monopoly on the art of Bonsai and enjoyed being at the top for decades and continues today. However, other countries are now starting to share in the beauty of the Bonsai. But, the quality of the Japanese Bonsai still remains the highest in the world compared to all others.
As far as I am concerned if you love the Bonsai as I do, we truly owe a great debt to both the Chinese and Japanese artists for both developing such an incredibly beautiful gardening art form and for keeping its beauty alive for nearly 2,500 years! Because without their love, dedication, enthusiasm, stewardship of patience and their artistic traditions we would not be able to enjoy the beautiful Bonsai as we do today. The sensitive and aesthetic beauty of the Bonsai, which actually has it’s roots in the Zen Buddhist traditions, is what helps to contribute hugely to the overall experience of the Bonsai tree.