History of the Elegant Bonsai: An Artform Built Through Time

  • By: Josh Koop
  • Date: August 24, 2021
  • Time to read: 15 min.
Affiliate Disclaimer

As an affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases. We get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

Bonsai trees have been around the world for a few centuries now. If you want to know the history of stylish bonsai that has become advanced through the years? Continue on below to learn more about the detailed history of bonsai. 

Over the years, many styles and structures have advanced to classify bonsai trees. The bonsai has now become an icon of Japanese culture, and the art’s origin is the Chinese empire.

In the year 700 AD, the Chinese began the art of ‘pun-sai’ using a unique ability to develop dwarf trees in pots.

Bonsai is not any tree species but an art form that shows complex ideas and emotions. These trees mostly remain under 4 feet (or a meter) in height.

Any plant species with an excellent woody stem or trunk that grows real branches can be successfully grown in a pot or container.

To limit its roots or food storage capacity and has smaller or reducible-leaves can be used to make a Bonsai. 

What is Bonsai?

Bonsai is an art thatuses to spread ideas and represent complicated feelings. The aesthetic part of a bonsai tree has meaningful symbolism. 

A bonsai gardener is often thought of as an artist because bonsai need both horticultural and artistic techniques. For both of these methods, purification over centuries throwback the aesthetic qualities in nature via balance, simplicity, and peace. 

Creating bonsai, organizing rocks in the miniature landscape, clipping, and building on new elements is a procedure of active meditation. Bonsai is often observing as an object of meditation.

The design structure of the bonsai tree is a thoughtful and Zen practice. The Chinese way of meditation motivates the liberation of the mind encouraging it to move naturally.

Creating bonsai, organizing rocks in the miniature landscape, clipping, and adding new parts is a procedure of active meditation. 

The primary purpose of bonsai is to recreate nature in a pot and catch the spirit. The Chinese observe the universe as having two parts of cosmic energy named the yin and the yang.

A bonsai tree represents drama, rhythm, and balance. Generally, unity is essential.

However, many considerations have to be built. These include the type of pot, the positioning of the bonsai tree, the tree species, the structure, shape, and color of the bonsai—also, other details like the rocks have to be chosen.  

History of Bonsai

History of Bonsai in China 

Chinese bonsai is the fine art of designing a miniature tree in a shallow basin or flattened bowl or simplistic pot or container or a landscape.

Bonsai (that means “tree in a pot”) is also familiar as ‘pun-sai’ and ‘penjing‘ (the word “pen” or “pan” or “pun” means pot and the word “jing” means scenery).

Chinese bonsai is mainly originated in China around 2300 years or as far back as 500 or 1,000 BC ago. At first, bonsai practiced by the elite ancient families of China. The miniature trees are known as luxury things, and they give as gifts.  

The Chinese people have always loved plants and flowers, and the country was still naturally flourished with a wide variety of flora. Their gardens were on a miniature scale that included trees and shrubs.

Those trees planted mostly to reinforce the miniature scale and balance to maintain their landscape balance. 

History of Bonsai in Japan

Japan is the home of the most beautiful bonsai trees that must visit for at least once in a lifetime. The practice of growing stylish and transportable plants possibly began with Buddhist monks traveling from ancient India.

In the time of great wealth of art, architecture, and gardens growing miniature trees in a pot or landscapes became popular. 

In 960–1279 AD – A classic time of penjing practice started in the Song Dynasty when the Chinese landscape painting was also famous.

In 1644–1911 AD – The publication of many penjing manuals in the Qing Dynasty’s time confirms this art form’s popularity. It’s known that the Buddhist monks from China brought penjing with them as they traveled to Japan.

At the starting of the 6th century AD – Many cultural ideas of China, included in Japanese life, and for many centuries penjing in Japan hold onto its Chinese influence.

By the 13th century – Penjing was performed by many of the Japanese samurai and aristocracy. As the art form is supposed to be a Japanese identity, it turns out to be known as Hachi-no-ki, which translates as “tree in a pot.”

In the 1800s – The name of bonsai is adopted in Asakusa Park, and it is now a famous bonsai center in Tokyo.  

China plays an essential role in developing the art form of bonsai trees and landscape, but the Japanese introduced this beautiful art to the rest of the world. 

History of Bonsai in the West

In 1604 – there was an explanation in Spanish about how Chinese newcomers were growing little ficus trees in the Philippines’ tropical islands. They were just hand-sized sections of coral.

In 1637 in China or Macau – The English government recorded the earliest known observation of dwarf potted trees. The following reports during the next century from Japan were all root-over-rock samples.

Many travelers mention the dwarf trees when they come back from China or Japan. All of these were circled again and again in book reviews and articles of popular magazines. The Japanese dwarf trees were in many expositions all around the world during that time.

In 1902 –A bonsai specialist wrote a French book entirely about Japanese dwarf trees and an English one in 1940.

In 1957 – ‘Miniature Trees and Landscapes’ by Yoshimura and Halford published, and it was very well known as “Bible of Bonsai in the West.”

Yoshimura significantly links with Japanese Classical Bonsai art and a progressive Western approach that caused its vast popularity in the modern world.

Then John Naka, from California, shared this knowledge via print and person teaching for the first time in America. That was a massive step for Japanese landscapes such as bonsai introduced to the Western countries.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s – America is the first country that became fascinated with bonsai trees as they made their path from expositions and fairs.

Though they did not genuinely take off in the West until after World War II, many American peoples started to get interested in trees.

Soon after that, bonsai cultivation books began to get published in English and other languages. In that way, anyone who wanted to learn about bonsai’s art could get the knowledge successfully. 

How Bonsai Trees Are Shaped Over Years?

A bonsai is an art form, and it is not a miniature version of a large tree in the same way you may see a teacup poodle. Instead, bonsai trees are made from young plants, mainly a junior pine tree, and materials to alter the tree’s shape. As well as pruning the bonsai to make sure it does not get too big.

In the past, people built bamboo or hemp fibers into a type of rope that would pull and twist the young tree’s flexible branches. As the stems grow up, they are modeled into a shape that artists wanted them to be. 

These days many bonsai artists structure their trees spiraling with sturdy wire all over the trunk and branches, bending them into whatever structure they choose.

Exceptional pruning techniques are used to keep the small tree size, as most of the bonsai trees are only one to two feet tall.  

Bonsai Styles Evaluation Over Years

Early Versions

The Japanese art of bonsai mainly came from the Chinese practice of penjing.

From the 6th century – Some Buddhist students from japan visited and returned from mainland China. On their trip to China, they bring back souvenirs including, pot plantings.

In the 7th, 8th, 9th-century – Japans historical Shocoin, which mainly artifacts and material from the Japans Tenpyo period, includes an elaborate miniature tree exhibit dating from that period.

That artifact is created from a shallow wooden tray helping as a base, sculpt wooden mountain models, and sand portraying a riverine sandbar. The artifact contains small tree sculptures in silver metal intended to be put in the sand to give a table-top picture of a treed landscape.

This artifact is closely similar to the Japanese bonkei than to a living bonsai, and it reflects the time’s interest in a miniature landscape. 

When the year 970 comes to the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese, Utsubo Monogatari contains a passage, “A tree that is left growing on their own in nature is a crude thing.” At that time, the idea of fashion and beauty becomes true beauty only when it is modified according to the human ideal. 

In the medieval time, recognizable bonsai started to perform in handscroll paintings such as the Ippen Shonin Eden (1299).

In the year 1195 – Saigyo Monogatari Emaki was the earliest scroll to portray dwarfed potted trees in Japan in the Kamakura period.

In the year 1309 – Wooden tray and dishes such as pots with dwarf landscapes on the modern structured wooden shelf or benches are displayed in the Kasuga-Gongen-Genki scroll. 

This work of dwarfed potted plants is sacred teaching handed down from master to students through a limited chain until it was widely known to the world in the early 17th century. 

Hachi-no-Ki

Around the 14th century – The name dwarfed potted tree was named “the bowls tree” (Hachi no Ki). Hachi no Ki is also called from a Noh play by Zeami Motokiyo (1363–1444), based on a story from c. 1383.

In that story, a samurai sacrificed his last dwarf potted trees as firewood to give comfort and warmth to a traveling monk on a winter night.

The monk is an official disguise who later gives the reward of three lands to the samurai whose names contain the names of the three sorts of trees the samurai burnt: Ume (plum), Matsu (pine), and Sakura (cherry).

By the 17th century – Stories referring to bonsai started to highlight more often. Bonsai dating to the 17th century has survived to the present world.

In 1610, the tree was at least 500 years old and was first trained as a bonsai. A five-needle pine well known as Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu registered as having been cared for by Tokugawa Iemitsu.

It is one of the oldest living bonsai known as one of the National Treasure of Japan. It is situated in the Tokyo Imperial Collection.

In 1681 – Miniature potted trees were known as Hachi-ue in a book of horticulture.

By the end of the 18th-century – Bonsai cultivation started getting popular day by day and begun to interest the public.

In the Tenmei era (1781–88) – A display of traditional dwarf potted pines started to be held every year in Kyoto.  

Classical Period

In the early 19th century in Itami, Hyogo (near Osaka), some Chinese arts professors collected to talk about recent styles and structures in miniature trees’ art.

Their version of these, which had been earlier called “hachiue” or other terms, was renamed “bonsai” (the Japanese accent of the Chinese period Penzai).

The name had the connotation of a shallower pot where the Japanese now keeps the more successful styles of small trees. 

In 1829 – A book that has been first established about classical bonsai art named Somoku Kin’yo-shu was published. It contains the necessary criteria for the perfect form of the classical pine bonsai, in detail and illustrations.

In that same year of 1829 – Small Tako-Tsuki (octopus-styled) trees with long, wavy-branches started to be offered by a gardener in Asakusa Park, a north-eastern Edo suburb. Within 20 years, that neighborhood started getting crowded with nurseries selling bonsai.

In 1833 – The three-volume Kinsei-Jufu, perhaps the first book of bonsai, tools, materials, pots or containers, and dates.

By the late 1860s – Bonsai shaping became more aesthetic, and those techniques became more popular over the years.

Artists used thick combed and wetted hemp fibers to forcefully shape the trunk and branches of miniature trees by pulling and tying them.

But the process was monotonous and bothersome, and the outcome of the final product was unsightly. Points of branches would come only at an open level.

Long, wavy branched Tako (octopus) style trees were the most produced structure in Tokyo for the increasing foreign trade rate.

While the finer and delicate bunjin-style trees structured and well designed in Kyoto and Osaka were for use in Japan. Tokyo mostly liked big trunks out of proportion and did not prefer Kyoto’s finely designed slender trunks. 

Pots transport from China between 1816 and 1911, especially in the late 19th century, shallow rectangular or oval stoneware with sculpting feet and drainage holes. Pots or containers like this type were used at ancestral shrines and treasured by the Chinese.

After the mid-century – Some Japanese antiquities dealers imported them and got popularity for this sort of pots for bonsai, and it created a massive demand around the world.  

In 1910 – Artist started shaping with wire with bonsai, and it was described in the Sanyu-en Bonsai-Dan. Some artists initially used the zinc-galvanized steel wire for bonsai, and expensive copper wire was only for trees with real potential. Wires now accomplish significant changes in trees shape. 

In 1952 – Many of the older and limited varieties of trees were no longer accessible, and the bonsai think about in fashion changed partly because of this shortage.

Also, the copper wire was now primarily replaced with the ordinary iron wire for structuring better trees. However, the latter still would be used for producing a massive amount of commercial bonsai. 

Ancient Japanese Red Maple Bonsai Tree

Modern Bonsai

After World War II – Some trends made the Japanese tradition of bonsai popular and increasingly accessible to the western and the world audience.

The key trend is the popularity of bonsai exhibitions and the number of styles, designs, and shapes. Other countries also started to present their bonsai display and recurring events in several Asian countries, Australia, the United States, some European countries, and others. 

Bonsai has now reached a worldwide audience, and there are thirteen hundred books of bonsai-related arts, and there are at least 26 languages available.

Bonsai is now available in plant stock, soil materials, tools, pots, and other accessories. Most countries now have local nurseries giving plants stocks. 

But specimen bonsai is difficult to find outside Japan, and bonsai enthusiasts will often begin with local trees that have not been pre-structured into bonsai. 

What Does a Bonsai Tree Symbolize?

Bonsai is the ancient art that uses horticulture techniques to design miniature replicas of trees as they are set up in nature. This art is used to transfer ideas and represent complex emotions.

The Japanese art of bonsai is mainly inspired by the Chinese art of penjing (“pot landscape”). The beautiful art of bonsai has powerful symbolism in many different cultures around the world. For many, bonsai symbolize harmony in life and the balance of nature. 

A bonsai gardener is known as an artist as the bonsai needs both horticultural and artistic techniques. Over centuries, both techniques’ purification displays the aesthetic qualities in nature through balance, simplicity, and peace.

Bonsai trees have different meanings and symbolization that depend on three types: their beauty, abundance, and passion or love.  

  • Azalea – Femininity, Abundance, Passion, Wealth
  • Boxwood  Immortality
  • Cedar – Immortality, Generosity, Protection, Strength
  • Cherry Blossom – Mortality, Female Dominance, Renewal
  • Chinese Elm – Harmony, Love
  • Ficus – Unity, New Beginnings, Abundance
  • Jade – Wealth & Prosperity, Good Luck, Friendship
  • Japanese Maple – Peace, Beauty
  • Juniper – Purification, Protection, Power
  • Oak – Power, Longevity

Bonsai tree mainly represents peace and harmony with nature, although different types of trees carry different meanings. When you pick up a bonsai tree, make sure you know the importance behind the tree.

Many big trees with strength, power, and protection represent a well-built culture. Other ways flowering plants are familiar with their femininity and are signs of feminine power and beauty. 

Top 6 Oldest Bonsai trees

Bonsai trees can develop for thousands of years if they are taken reasonable control. Bonsai trees can survive and grow very old if they are well kept and passed down as a family heirloom.  

Ficus Bonsai Tree at Crespi, Italy Over 1000 Years Old!

The Ficus Bonsai tree is more than a thousand years old, the oldest Bonsai tree in the world. It’s the main display at the Italian Bonsai museum known as “Crespi.”

The tree was previously taken good care of and shaped by the Chinese master, and in the first year of Italy, it was shaped by Japanese bonsai masters.  

The Ficus genus is the property of the family of mulberry plants or Moraceae, and it is the most well-liked indoor tree species for Bonsai beginners.

They can be found on every mainland in the tropical regions and are very worthy of keeping them for indoor bonsai.

Old juniper Bonsai tree at Mansei-en That is Japan Over 1000 years old!

The Old Juniper Bonsai tree is tested to be a thousand years old, and it is collected in Japan’s wild. It is situated in Japan’s Mansei-en Bonsai nursery of the Kato family in Omiya. 

Masei-en is one of the six famous bonsai gardens all over the world that is situated in the Omiya Bonsai Village.

It is the oldest garden situated in the village as the Kato family has owned this garden since the 19th century and officially bonsai exhibition opened for people in 1925.

This garden is home to many old bonsai trees as well as a 700-year-old Shimpaku Juniper tree.  

800-Year-Old bonsai, at Shunka-en, By Kunio Kobayashi

This tree is displayed at Shunkaen, and it is around eight thousand years old. The Shunka-en Bonsai webpage has more information available for the public. 

An 800-year-old Bonsai Tree at Shunkaen

This tree is also at Shunkaen, and it is reported to be eight thousand years old, which is in the group of most expensive Bonsai trees.

Master Kobayashi is the owner of it, and he is one of the most known Bonsai artists in the world. He has been practicing the art for over 30 years, and he got the prestigious Prime Minister award four times in Japan.

Red Pine Bonsai at Akao Herb & Rose Garden

The red pine bonsai is the oldest and one of the largest bonsai trees in the world. The bonsai tree is over 16 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and its size is unusual for a bonsai.

The red pine still counts as a bonsai tree as it holds the qualities that can technically be considered a pot. The tree is so big that it needs support to hold on to the main brancher of it.  

The Japanese White Pine that Survived Hiroshima

That was trained into a Bonsai tree for almost four hundred years. It is the result of 6 generations long fruit by the Yamaki family.

Also, this tree survived the nuclear bomb from 1945 from Hiroshima. Later Japan gave it to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington to showcase.

In 1975 – Japan gave the Japanese white pine bonsai tree to the United States. This bonsai survived almost 390 years, and the family took good care of the tree.

As the anniversary of the bombing comes, the story of this beautiful bonsai gone viral. Japan did not give the bonsai because of Hiroshima, but the tree gave as a friendship gift.  

Final Thoughts on How Did Bonsai Trees Originate

Bonsai plants require regular maintenance and care, just like other plants. Watering, fertilizing, trimming, and casual re-potting (every three years or when the roots started to grow) will ensure that the bonsai is healthy and lives long for years.

The art of bonsai requires patience and proper care to make it live for generations. 

Bonsai is a living work of fine art, and some of the famous trees are hundreds of years old. These trees are priceless, and when for sale, it is a costly thing you will find. But at the same time, we can purchase from a local center for just a few bucks.

Bonsai pots can come at many different prices, and this depends mainly on their age. Old antique pots or containers from china and japan can be costly, but new factory-made pots or vessels will be less than a dollar.  

More and more people are now bringing bonsai to their lives, and above you have known why they are getting these beautiful bonsai. A bonsai is a living, growing, and full of loving entity that is happy to share with your life without damaging the surroundings around it. 

Here are some of my favorite Bonsai Items

Thanks for reading this article, I have a few items I love to use with my bonsai tree care and wanted to share the best options for the core needs for the new bonsai enthusiast!

Best Bonsai For a Beginner – Most of what you find online are starter plants where they are going to be difficult to start and grow successfully. Most beginners like to have a starter plant to work from. I highly suggest looking at Bonsai Boy directly (more options and good prices), or you can look at their inventory from Amazon.

Best Bonsai Tool SetTianBonsai makes the best quality tools for simple bonsai work, if you want tools that will last you they won’t come cheap, make the right investment the first time with these beginner tools on Amazon!

Best Bonsai PotBonsai Boy’s Beige Ceramic Bonsai Pot – The team at Bonsai Boy operates out of New York and has been perfecting bonsai in the US for over 50 years, there is a reason I love and share them, if you want to order directly from Bonsai Boy then click here, or click here to order through Amazon.