Literally translated to tray planting, the art of bonsai has become popular the world over. Many people assume that it traces its origins to Japan. However, it has been widely accepted that bonsai history originates from China where the first miniature landscapes and trees were first created.

Legends and Origins

The true origin of bonsai is shrouded in a veil of mystery that must yet be uncovered. One of the earliest records of bonsai comes from a legend from ancient China during the Han Dynasty. It tells of a story about an emperor who created a landscape complete with hills, rivers, valleys and lakes as a representation of his empire in his courtyard.

It was created so he can look outside his window and see all of his empire at once. At that time, mere possession of such miniature landscapes was considered a punishable offense. The emperor wanted all this art form for himself alone.

Other legends may also point out the beginning of bonsai history during the fourth century AD. Accordingly, a Chinese poet and civil servant named Guen-ming began growing chrysanthemums in small pots after his retirement. Many historians believe this is the crucial first steps towards bonsai development that happened 200 years later during the Tang Dynasty.

The first evidence of bonsai was discovered in 1972 inside a tomb. It belonged to the Prince Zhang Huai who died in 706 AD of the Tang Dynasty. A couple of wall paintings that depict servants carrying what appeared to be bonsais were discovered.

Japanese Invasion


the sharing of ideas and Buddhist monks, the bonsai managed to make its way to Japan during the Heian Period. It was regarded as an art form and was practiced only by society’s elite. This almost caused the art form to die out until the Chinese invaded in the fourteenth century. Bonsai was freely practiced by people regardless of social stature which quickly gained ground and became popular.

Chinese influence on Japanese bonsai history is so heavy that masters still use the same characters for its depiction. It was in Japan that the art form took on a massive refinement. Several early masters put a lot of effort into improving the art which has changed it in some ways. These are the main reasons why bonsai is enjoyed the way it is today.

Western Invasion

Who would have thought that miniature landscapes and trees will conquer the world? Westerners first caught glimpse of the bonsai during the Third Universal Exhibition held in Paris in 1878. From here, Western interest slowly developed with several more appearances in 1889 and 1900. London made bonsai history by playing host to the first major bonsai exhibit in 1909. However, it was not until 1935 that Westerners began considering bonsai as an art form.

At the end of the Second World War, bonsai quickly gained popularity in the West. Soldiers coming home from active duty were among the first to bring them to the United States but many of them died shortly after. Proper care for bonsai was eventually learned from the large community of Japanese-Americans living in the US. Their knowledge was instrumental in driving American interest towards the art form.

The Bonsai of Today

Bonsai is now everywhere you look which is a testament to its popularity. These are sold in department stores, nurseries and garden centers among others. Most of these are bought as pre-bonsai and are meant as starting points. Different tools and bonsai kits ideal for beginners are available as well.

Like the masters of old, creating a bonsai piece of art requires a lot of reading and creativity. Information is the key towards success. With this in mind, you might want to join a bonsai club in your area where you can discuss and share ideas with other enthusiasts. Your tree may not grow anymore but your knowledge will surely blossom into your very own work of art.

So what has the future in store for the humble bonsai? The answer is anybody’s guess. But as far as bonsai history goes, people are bound to come up with new and exciting ways to keep the art form alive and well into the next centuries.

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