The art of Bonsai began in China. And it is known by several different words. The word "pen-jing" covers all of the art of bonsai. And there are two other important words, "pun-sai" which means a tree planted in a container without any landscaping. And "pun-ching" which means a tree that is planted in a container along with a landscape.
Earliest mentions of these arts are in chinese literature and art dating back to around 200 BC during the Ch'in dynasty and the Han dynasty.
Legend has it that in 4th century china a Poet and civil servant named Guen-ming, upon retiring from his job embarked on the hobby of growing chrysanthemums in pots and bringing them into his house. This might have been the beginning of potted plants and indoor container gardening.
And we have records from about 200 years later (the T'ang dynasy 618-906) that show the growing of various types of miniature trees in pots. It is believed that this period of time is where bonsai began.
Up until this time the art of bonsai was something practiced only by the highest strata of society in china - the wealthy aristocrats. But during the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911) it slowly made its way into all levels and strata of society effectively becoming a hobby for all.
Bonsai comes to Japan
During the Tang dynasty there was a lot of cultural exchange between Japan and China and delegates from Japan took this art of growing trees in dishes back with them to Japan. They further developed the art and made it their own; giving it the name we know today "Bonsai" which translates as "to train in a tray".
And a very important event in the growth of Bonsai in Japan was when a Chinese official fled from China too Japan in 1644. He brought with him a significant collection of literature about bonsai. His knowledge is considered instrumental in the rapid spread of bonsai throughout Japan.
Bonsai is introduced to the world
Bonsai remained in Asia for many centuries and it was first introduced to western civilization at two World Fairs. First in Paris in 1878 and again in London in 1909. At first the art of bonsai was not recieved well by the western world. It was considered to be an art that stunted and deprived the trees. Aesthetically it wasn't pleasing. But with time the beauty and art of it came to be more accepted.
Bonsai Comes to America
The art of Bonsai came slowly to america and the first examples were Japanese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries who settled on the west coast. But the art really took hold in america after American servicemen started bringing them back from Japan after World War 2.
Earliest collections in America
The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens started its collection of bonsai with 32 specimens in 1925. And the Arnold Arboretum in Boston has a collection that was begun in 1913. I visited the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Check out the pictures here.
The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Bonsai: The essential step-by-step guide to creating, growing, and displaying bonsai with over 800 photographs This book defines and describes the ancient craft of bonsai. The techniques of this precise art form are clearly described, and provides a stunning and fully comprehensive reference that is ideal for the beginner as well as the more experienced bonsai artist.
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