Dwarfed shrubs or trees grown in a pot or container are known as bonsais. While such trees rarely grow taller than 70 cm, when we look at bonsais, we get the impression that the tree is almost similar to those growing in nature. The expression "bonsai" is derived from two words - "bon" denoting a dish or a tray, and "sai" signifying a plant or tree. Together, these two words mean a "tree grown in a dish". Precisely speaking, a bonsai is actually a miniaturized tree nurtured in a container or dish and, in every respect; it bears resemblance to its larger counterpart growing in nature.
In fact, the bonsai art was originally developed in the East Asian countries (known as the Far East), where people believed that it is a manifestation of conformity between man and nature and, broadly speaking, between heaven and earth. The spiritual foundation of bonsai is based on the philosophy of life in the Eastern part of the world, which endeavours for a union between man and nature - a harmony that is obvious when an understanding is accomplished via the process of all developments and growth. Perhaps, the development of bonsai is the most appropriate example of such harmony between man and nature.
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Any person who is an aficionado of bonsai will always devote some time for caring as well as examining his trees. By devoting time and caring for their trees, a bonsai aficionado not only experiences a different cadence of the seasons, but also cultivates the power of creativeness within him while giving shape to and miniaturizing his small plants. In fact, one requires devoting great care as well as attention while cultivating a bonsai tree. However, the rewards of growing a bonsai tree successfully too are great. Apart from bringing peace to the mind, it also makes one feel revitalized and gives them internal composure.
There is hardly anyone who will not be enthralled by bonsais - wonderful little trees, growing in containers or dishes and bearing resemblance to trees growing in the nature in all respect, except their size. However, one needs some skill to be able to shape as well as nurture the bonsais and any person, who has successfully grown other plants, will derive a lot of pleasure from growing his own bonsai. The art of bonsai cultivation was initiated by the Chinese and, even to this day, it remains an integral element of Chinese culture. Bonsai not only enjoys an important position in all Chinese communities. Its presence can be seen even in the Chinese community beyond China, for instance, in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand.
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Present day Chinese bonsai masters continue to distinguish between two types of bonsais -"pun-sai" and "pun-ching". Many people consider the term "pen-jing", which refers to both bonsai forms. While the expression "pun-sai" has same characters as the Japanese term for bonsai, it means a miniature tree grown in a container with no landscape. On the other hand, the term "pun-ching" refers to a small tree grown in a tray or container and is landscaped. Actually, the knack of "pun-ching" is very old and, according to available documents, it dates back to the initial period of Han dynasty (about 206 B.C. - A.D. 220), the time when Chinese landscape artists first commenced designing miniature adaptations of artificial rock gardens that were already famous. Going by legend, Jiang-feng was bestowed with a supernatural power to create tiny landscapes on a dish complete with trees, rocks, houses, people, animals, and mountains.
Approximately at the same period when the art of "pun-ching" or creation of miniature landscapes came into existence - which is still immensely popular in the China as well as the Chinese culture across the globe, there is mention of another art called the "pun-sai". It is believed that the art of "pun-sai" began at some stage in the Ch'in dynasty (221 B.C. - 206 B.C.). Available documents reveal that all this was started by a highly placed official and famous poet named Ton Guen-ming, who after getting tired out of the government, retired from his job to lead a peaceful life in a country setting. Initially, Guen-ming started cultivating chrysanthemums in containers. While this may be considered to be the foundation of growing potted plants, sooner or later, it certainly lead on to developing miniature versions of large trees. Paintings belonging to the Tang period, some 200 years after Guen-ming started growing chrysanthemums in pots, reveal that by then people had already started growing miniature cypresses, pines, plum trees, bamboos and other trees in dishes.
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In fact, the Chinese tradition of "pen-jing" formed the basis for the Japanese bonsai art. Since the 6th century, personnel at Japan's Imperial embassy as well as the Buddhist students have been making numerous visits of mainland China and, when they returned, they brought back various souvenirs including container plants. Precisely speaking, no less than 17 diplomatic missions were purposely sent from Japan to Emperor Tang's court in just over two centuries between 603 and 839.
The historical Shōsōin, which accommodates artifacts from the 7th, 8th and 9th century, together with various objects from Japan's famous Tempyō era, contains detailed miniature tree exhibiting the date of this period. This artifact comprises a wooden tray that served as the base, mountain models carved from wood and sand representing a riverine sandbar. In addition, it included sculptures of small trees in silver meant for being placed in the sand. The entire artifact was meant for producing a table-top illustration of treed scenery. The display of this artifact in Shōsōin is actually very similar to the bonkei display of Japan rather than a living bonsai, but it certainly mirrors the interest of the people of this era in miniature landscapes.
The first extensive fiction in Japanese titled "Utsubo Monogatari", meaning the Tale of the Hollow Tree, started appearing from around the year 970. This work of fiction has a passage that reads, "It is a crude thing to leave a tree growing in its natural condition. Hence, the shape as well as the style of the tree will gain the aptitude to move an individual only when it is kept close to humans who would modify it with love and care". Therefore, the idea that natural beauty turns into genuine beauty only when a tree is fashioned in line with human values already existed at that time.
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During the medieval period in Japan, bonsai started appearing in hand scroll paintings such as the Ippen shonin eden (1299). In fact, Saigyo Monogatari Emaki is believed to be the first such scroll that illustrated miniature trees planted in pots. This hand scroll painting belongs to the Kamakura period (1195). The Kasuga-gongen-genki scroll painting, which dates back to 1309, depicts a wooden tray, some pots akin to dishes having miniaturized landscapes on wooden benches/ shelf that have a contemporary look. These unique hand scroll paintings boast the wealth of their owners and were perhaps exotic items that were brought in from China to Japan.
Apart from people from Japan visiting mainland China frequently, even Buddhist monks from the Chinese Chan visited Japan to teach in the monasteries there. Among the various activities of these monks, one was to familiarize the then political leaders of Japan to different objects of miniature landscape art, as a perfect achievement for people with advanced learning and superior taste.
People witnessed a rise in rhymed prose essay in China. Kokan Shiren (1278 - 1346), a renowned priest as well as an expert in Chinese poetry composed the "Bonseki no Fu" (or Tribute to Bonseki) wherein he described the artistic or creative principle for the arts that are known as bonsai, bonseki as well as the garden architecture. Initially, the Japanese used the miniature trees or bonsai grown in containers for decorating their homes as well as gardens.
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While bonsai was considered to be an accomplishment, there were criticisms too. In fact, one chapter of Tsurezuregusa, the mammoth 243-chapter compilation dating back to c. 1331, features criticism of the interest of some people in strangely dwarfed specimens of plants grown in containers/ pots. Initially, this compilation was considered to be a revered teaching that was passed on from masters to students via a restricted succession of poets, some of whom were famous, till it was eventually published extensively in the early part of the 17th century. Prior to this, there was only a reserved criticism of the culture involving dwarfed plants grown in pots and its effect was mild too.
A few years later, the Boki Ekotoba painting scroll, which dates back to 1351, depicted dwarfed trees on short poles. In addition to this scroll, several other paintings and scrolls also included portrayal of such types of miniaturized trees. With a view to append themes and scale, potted landscape layouts done over the next century or so also included figurines based on the Chinese fashion. Eventually, Japanese artists, who were making their creations simpler following the spirit of Zen Buddhism, decided to exclude such decorations from their works completely.
"Pun-ching" as well as "pun-sai" turned out to be a popular hobby among the aristocracy and other strata of the Chinese society during the Ch'ing dynasty (1644 A.D. - 1911 A.D.), the period known as the era of peace.
Interestingly enough, it was the Japanese and not the Chinese who actually helped to introduce the bonsai art to the West. First, the Japanese exhibited the art of bonsai in at the 1878 World Fair in Paris and, some years later, they also introduced bonsai in London in 1909. It is believed that the Buddhist monks introduced the bonsai art into Japan sometime during the 10th and 11th centuries. These Buddhist monks considered the dwarfed plants grown in pots to be religious objects that were their green steps leading to heaven, thereby helping to build a relation between God and humans.
Ministers of Japan government as well as merchants who visited China during the Yuan dynasty (1280 A.D. - 1368 A.D.) took home bonsais that were presented to in China. According to records, sometime around 1644, a Chinese official named Chu Shun-sui fled the rule of Manchus and landed in Japan with his complete bonsai literature collection. In fact, Shun-sui was a specialist in bonsai art and his knowledge largely contributed to the spread of bonsai art in Japan. Meanwhile, Japan was starting to establish its own variety of bonsai cultivation around the same time. Initially, the art of bonsai was a privilege of the Samurai, the aristocratic class of Japan, and it remained so for several centuries. It was only at the end of the 20th century that bonsai became a leisure pursuit for everyone in Japan.