Bonsai is a Japanese term for "tree in a pot/tray". Bonsai is also best known as a Japanese horticultural art form. However, the birth of gardening miniature trees originate from China. In China, growing miniature trees is known as “penjing”. The literal translation of penjing in english would mean "pot and landscape". Their art is more of reproducing a miniature landscape then creating a perfect tree as Japanese are trying with their bonsai. To this day, the terms penjing and bonsai are written in Chinese and Japanese with the same characters.
It was almost 2000 years ago, in the Han dynasty that bonsai was first seen. In 1978, frescoes found in Hopei, in the graves of nobles who lived during the Han dynasty, were depicting floral tree in a pot on a table. Six of these trees were painted which shows that tree in a pot were already adored by people. Bonsai at that time was a thing of the aristocrats and nobles. It was said to be too enriching spiritually for the masses and only those of noble birth were allowed to one a bonsai.
A legend as it that one ancient emperor had is garden designed to represent is empire in miniature. The design was complete, with rivers, mountains and trees all in miniature. This way, we could overlook is empire from is palace. Furthermore, anyone who would reproduce a small landscape was being pursued as a traitor of the nation, judged and killed.
The word Bonsai
The oldest document relating the term bonsai was an ode of the Eastern chin dynasty entitled “Returning Home”. The document is written by Tao Yuan-ming around the years 365-427 A.D. after he returns home from serving an official post. He wrote the 2 terms “pen” (bon) and “tsai” (sai) while comtemplating the beauty of the wild chrysanthemums. The same Tao yuan-ming was the founder of the South China school of bonsai.
The first work on bonsai was a three volumes collection known as “The cultivating of Trees”. The three main subject treated in this work were, cultivation, pruning and propagation of trees. It was written by Kuo Tuo Tuo. The expertise of Tuo Tuo was also described by a scholar named Liu Tsung-Yuan who wrote a biography of Tuo Tuo life named “The biography of the Botanist Kuo Tuo Tuo”. Furthermore, a 1000 years later, the first Japanese work on bonsai appeared and it was made a reference to the “Master Tuo”.
Schools of Chinese Bonsai
China is a very vast country and many traditions of bonsai cultivation have emerged. These are known as bonsai schools. The regional differences in customs and traditions but also climatic conditions have created divers technique of training miniature trees. The various schools of bonsai were also created and inspired by a few expert botanists who shaped their trees to their personal preferences and convictions. The principal schools of bonsai are:
- Lingnan bonsai school (southern school)
- Su bonsai school (northern school)
- Chuan bonsai school