The ancient history and symbolic meaning of bonsai

Photo: Photos by Thanun Patiparnthada/Shutterstock

Bonsai trees have a strong association with Japan. But did you know that the art of growing miniature trees actually originated in ancient China? In 700 CE, the Chinese used special techniques to grow dwarf trees in containers. The practice became known as “pun-sai” (or “penzai”) and was originally cultivated only by the elite of society. It was not until the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333) that the cultivation of miniature trees in pots was introduced to Japan. And today, even western nature lovers grow and care for bonsai like living works of art.

Read on to learn the history and meaning of these special trees.

a bonsai

A Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) bonsai, China Collection 111, on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in the United States National Arboretum. (Photo: WikimediaCommons (CC BY-SA 3.0))

What is the meaning of the term bonsai?

Bonsai is a Japanese word meaning “tree in a pot”. However, the term originally comes from the Chinese word “pun-sai” or “penjing”. In Chinese, “pen” means pot and “jing” means decor or landscape.

Bonsai trees are meant to be a miniature representation of nature, planted in decorative containers.

What does bonsai symbolize?

When bonsai trees were first introduced to China over 1,300 years ago, they were considered a status symbol among the elite of society. Today, however, bonsai trees are enjoyed by people all over the world.

Depending on a person’s culture or beliefs, bonsai trees are considered symbols of harmony, balance, patience, or even luck. Many people simply use potted trees as living ornaments for interior decoration, while others – Zen Buddhists for example – think of bonsai as an object of meditation or contemplation.

The history of bonsai in China

a bonsai

Penzai mural in the Tang dynasty tomb of Prince Zhanghuai, 706 AD (Photo: WikimediaCommons Public Domain)

In ancient China, early explorers were probably the first to discover miniature trees growing high in the mountains. This climate saw harsh conditions where growth was difficult, so the prized dwarf trees were particularly gnarled in appearance. As early as the 4th century BCE, Taoists believed that recreating aspects of nature in miniature allowed people to access their magical properties. Hence, penjing was born. It involved creating miniature landscapes displayed on earthenware.

In an effort to recreate the natural trees they found in the mountains, the Chinese developed pruning and binding techniques that gave plants twisted shapes and an aged look. Some historians believe that the Taoists shaped the branches and trunks of miniature trees to resemble animals from Chinese folklore, such as dragons and snakes. Others believe that the distorted plant formations resemble yoga positions.

The first pictorial evidence of artistically formed miniature trees appeared in 706 CE in the tomb of Prince Zhang Huai. Upon entering, archaeologists discovered murals depicting servant girls wearing penjing, which contained miniature trees and rocks.

The history of bonsai in Japan

a bonsai

Japanese woodblock print by Keisai Eisen, 1848 (Photo: WikimediaCommons (CC0 1.0))

During the reign of the Hang dynasty, Chinese monks migrated to Japan and other parts of Asia, taking with them examples of penzai. Japanese Zen Buddhist monks learned the techniques needed to make miniature trees, later known as bonsai. The Japanese developed their own methods for creating dwarf trees, resulting in different styles compared to Chinese penzai.

Japanese bonsai trees were usually about one to two feet tall and required many years of expert care. The branches, trunks and roots got their twisted look by maintaining the desired shape – using bamboo and wire – as the tree grew. And to achieve a particular shape, artists often grafted new branches onto existing ones. Some species even bore fruit, while others bloomed leaves and flowers. By the 14th century bonsai trees were considered a highly respected art form. Prized plants quickly made their way from monasteries to the king’s houses. Just like in China, trees have become symbols of status and honor.

In the early 1600s, Japanese bonsai evolved again. Skilled artists began to use special pruning techniques to remove all but essential parts of plants. This created a minimalist look, which reflects the Japanese philosophy and belief that “less is more”. In medieval times (1185 to 1603), bonsai became accessible to people of all social classes. The increased demand meant that more people had to learn the art of bonsai, and soon miniature trees were commonplace in almost every Japanese home.

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