The art of shaping trees commenced probably as early as 2205 BC. This was inspired by the manicured gardens of the Chinese royalty, where many trees were shaped to conform to the design of the garden. This type of garden is still seen today and is perhaps one of the keynote features of both the Japanese and Chinese garden landscapes.
Some of the early styles created by the Chinese were in fact quite grotesque, being twisted into very unnatural forms, and others being trained into Chinese characters.
Bonsai has been a gradual evolution, and started out of need rather than art. Trees where potted for horticultural use , and also for cultural significance during particular festivals the tree represented. Many of the first shaped trees were shaped into quite grotesque shapes in the form of animals and letters in the Chinese alphabet. . It was in China in a monastery; where some monks began what is known as the ‘Lingnan method’, or clip and grow method. It was this type of pruning, and shaping that began turning potted trees into works of art.
China and Japan have a long history of cultural exchange. It was in the earlier times that Japan was influenced by China with the growing of potted trees.
One of the most probable links was from that of Buddhism. Buddhism was in existence in China prior to Japan. It filtered up from India throughout Asia where it took on various forms. It was from these monks that the art of bonsai was carried to the monks that had converted in Japan.
Bonsai became a part of the focal point of both poetry and art, much of which is still seen today. Much of the styling reflected the philosophical understanding of the east, that which was based in Taoism. Taoism is where the idea of yin and yang developed, and is seen in art were a thin line is complimented with a thick line, a straight line is complimented with a curved line and so on. Also part of the belief was that even though something in nature was very small, because of its great age it contained the power and strength of the larger specimen, and even more so because it was contained in a much smaller space.
As more and more trade began to take place between countries, the interest of foreigners grew quickly, and the export of these ‘unusual potted trees’ began to grow. It was then the demand that created a market for westerners, and the trees began to improve rapidly, which brought us to more of the current styles that we have today.
In the mid 19th century, the aesthetic principles we see today began to become popular. This shape is characterized by the asymmetrical triangular shape.
In Japan in the early 1900s a small but dedicated group had begun to meet regularly, hold exhibitions and produced a magazine. Later in 1927 the greatest breakthrough came when a public exhibition was held in Tokyo at the art gallery, thus granting the skill of Bonsai growing the status of art.
After World War 2 many servicemen who were stationed in Japan were mesmerized by the amazing shape of these small trees and began to take them back to the USA. Thus the love of Bonsai in the west began.