Art of Bonsai
The definition of the term “Bonsai” is a plant, usually a tree or shrub, that is grown in a container and made to look like a mature tree through the use of various training techniques. The plant usually does not exceed 1 meter in height. The art of bonsai as we know it, traces back almost 2000 yrs. The word ‘bonsai’ is made up of 2 Japanese characters or word phrases, “bon” & “sai.” “Bon” is the pot, tray or container; the “sai” is the tree or potted planting. The original word Bonsai comes from the Chinese word “P’en Tsai” which sounds similar to bonsai and has nearly the same meaning. It couldn’t be further from the true spirit of bonsai, howerver, if we restrict our interpretation in this way. It is indeed a tree in a pot, but a tree that has been subjected to a number of horticultural and aesthetic disciplines through which visual harmony and botanical well being is achieved. The essence of classical Bonsai is to produce a healthy miniature representation of a tree.
The ultimate challenge for the bonsai designer is to expose the essence of the tree. The art of bonsai is telling a story through living illusion. The artist strives to find avenues for personal expression within the confines of good horticultural practice. Bonsai is a pleasant mix of form, thought and suggestion in a miniature world and like all good art, it endures.
Beginners and students often share the same concern: having the ability to maintain a healthy plant. The key is in being able to control the degree of stress that a plant will take and still remain healthy. “Stress” here is not psychological stress, but referring to the horticultural practice of being able to know how much is too much, and how much is too little. This principal applies to all aspects to Bonsai culture, including air, water, soil, sun, nutrients, temperature, altitude, pruning, etc. The challenge is to have the willingness to learn, experiment and accept the results of these efforts. Another aspect central to bonsai is time. The growth process takes time, and there are no shortcuts. A growing year is the usual yardstick by which success is measured. Caring for your bonsai over time creates a deep sense of satisfaction. There is no replacement for time; it is always constant and moving forward.
Bonsai is about trees, trees grown in miniature. It is also about time and space and about life and attitudes. Historically, Bonsai was a part of the culture, an important part of family heritage. Equally, Bonsai can be simply a horticultural past time requiring no more than a measure of common garden sense, some artistic ability and plenty of patience.
History of Bonsai
While the art of bonsai has long been associated with Japan, it actually originated first in China and then spread eastward to Korea and then Japan. In addition, the art of bonsai was also spread by Buddhist monks who wished to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples. From ancient paintings and manuscripts, we know that “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars feel that bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 or 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.
It is no accident that artistic plant cultivation originated in China. The Chinese have always loved flowers and plants, and the country is naturally endowed with a rich diversity of flora. The Chinese also had a passion for gardens. In fact, many of these gardens were on a miniature scale and included many miniature trees and shrubs, planted to reinforce the scale and balance of their landscapes. The Chinese, however, were also infatuated in miniaturization as a science in its own right. They believed that miniature objects had concentrated within them certain mystical and magical powers.
The development of Chinese and Korean ceramics played an important role in the development of bonsai as we know it today. Without the development of beautiful Chinese containers, bonsai trees would not have been admired as much as they have been. Bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity. Even to this day the most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often antique Chinese containers.
Bonsai has evolved and developed along different lines in China and Japan. Chinese bonsai is still very much in the ancient tradition, and often appear “crude” to the uninformed. On the other hand, the Japanese styles are more pleasing and naturalistic. The Japanese trees are for the most part more refined and better groomed. Both types have their own individualistic charms and admirers.
In the post World War II era most of the bonsai seen in the United States and Europe are Japanese in origin. The monopoly that Japan has enjoyed until recently is coming to be shared with a number of other countries, though the quality of Japanese trees continues to be of the highest quality.
Finally, we owe a great debt to the Japanese and Chinese artists for developing this beautiful art and for keeping it alive for almost 2,500 years. Without their enthusiasm, artistic tradition, and patient stewardship, we would not be enjoying bonsai as we know it today. The aesthetic sensibilities of bonsai, which have their roots in the Zen Buddhist tradition, contribute significantly to the complete bonsai experience.