A short history of bonsai

Bonsai’s story is deeply intertwined with the proliferation of Buddhism as it spread across China to Japan to the entire world, and while bonsai practice is known worldwide today, it has only become an international phenomenon over the last few centuries. 

diagram depicting the parallel spread of buddhism through chan to become zen and penjing to bonsai

How a cross-cultural practice spread around the world

In terms of recorded history, the miniaturization of plants and trees can trace its roots back to 1st century China. While Buddhism spread and became a transformative influence in the region, it merged with local traditions of miniaturizing scenery to formalize into a practice called penjing. 

Eventually spreading to Japan and integrating with local traditions and religion, the practice took on new forms and meanings along the way. Nearly a thousand years later, bonsai cultivation survived multiple wars and famines, with many bonsai being cared for through times of scarcity and hardship. Japan’s ties with Europe and the United States grew over the last few centuries through opening trade and eventually war itself, with bonsai finding itself new homes and new styles as it continued its spread around the world.

Origins: Tao became Chan

Prior to Buddhism, native shamanism and mysticism were the prevalent religious forces in China, one of them being Taoism. Many practitioners of Taoism believed that ‘the spirit of nature’ can be captured from what they believed to be sacred sites, by recreating these sites in miniature and placing them in communal living spaces. 

As various schools of Buddhism gained popularity over centuries, by the Tang dynasty in the 6th century, ancient spiritual Taoist beliefs blended with Buddhist practices and methodologies to become what we know as the Chan school of Buddhism.

Penjing: an ancient Chinese tradition

The Taoist tradition of harnessing nature into miniature scenes was inherited by the Chan school of Buddhism and informed the tradition into a practice known as cultivating ‘penjing’. 

penjing landscape in tray
Penjing landscape and photo by Debreceni Bonsai Club

Penjing is an arrangement of carefully pruned trees and rock formations creating a miniature landscape. The wilder, more gnarled and deformed (natural) these penjings looked, the more practitioners of Chan Buddhism believed they possessed a mystic energy that can be transferred to the viewer.  

mural in a Tang dynasty tomb depicting what is considered to be one of the first depictions of penjing and thus bonsai
Photo credit: unknown

The earliest known depiction of penjing is a Tang dynasty mural c.706 AD of prince Zhang Huai.

Influenced by Taoist principles of Yin and Yang, penjing cultivation seeks to embody spirit and essence through demonstrating contrasts. Penjing is often characterized by dramatic landscapes and small figurines to add scale and theme. 

When Chan became Zen, Penjing became Bonsai 

By the 12th century AD, commerce via the silk road facilitated the spread of Buddhism from India and China where it had established itself as Chan Buddhism to Korea, Vietnam and Japan. 

The merchants, foreign dignitaries and travelling students that facilitated the spread also brought with them the Chinese penjing as souvenirs and gifts. The spread of penjing to many parts of Asia was not limited to Japan, in Vietnam, an adapted version called Hòn Non Bộ emerged as well. 

The earliest known depiction of a dwarfed landscape in Japan was a set of hand-painted scrolls called Kasuga Gongen Genki E made by members of the Fujwara clan in 1309 AD.

close-up scan of kasuga gongen genki e scroll depicting bonsai in tray
Detail of Kasuga Gongen Genki E with bonsai depicted on a tray in the upper right hand section

When Chan Buddhism reached Japan, the school of thought fused with existing cultural practices where, by the 13th century, it transformed into Zen Buddhism. In contrast to the ‘wild’ spirit of Chan, Zen emphasized rigorous self-control and practiced the distillation of things into singularities. Zen favored training, practicing and cultivating the mind through activities like painting, calligraphy, poetry, gardening, flower arrangement, tea ceremony and bonsai. 

As the practice of penjing transformed into bonsai, the aesthetics split as Chan became Zen with each embodying their respective fundamental spirit. Where Zen became more formalized and in some ways, austere, Bonsai cultivation and aesthetics became the same as well. Bonsai is usually characterized by singular trees in a refined manner whereas formal penjing is often multiple and wild landscapes.

bonsai part of the collection in National Bonsai Museum in DC
©Cannabonzai

Bonsai beyond Japan

After World War 2, bonsai began to spread to the United States and France rapidly. Contemporary styles were created forming newer schools of bonsai cultivation, with many schools and trainers operating in California. 

The practice of bonsai never faded in Japan, with many bonsai growers having passed down their practices through generations. Similarly, penjing is still practiced in China today albeit loosely in most cases, most potted plants residing in homes are referred to as penjing. 

While Cannabis and Bonsai have had few points of intersection in the past, cannabonsai themselves have not been documented until quite recently. But there is one interesting point where cannabis and bonsai have met in the past: in the mid 1800’s, records show hemp twine was used to tie and shape bonsai. 

The practice of connecting with nature

The practice of working and revering nature, from which Penjing and Bonsai are borne from, is a concept that has been transformed many times and has transcended through generations and cultures. When you practice bonsai, you are continuing an ancient practice connecting with and respecting nature. 

Further Reading

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Penjing#/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_bonsai

https://www.magiminiland.org/

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