Bonsai as the name suggests is formed from two words, ‘bon’ meaning tray or dish and ‘sai’ meaning tree or plant, so its’ literal translation is ‘tree planted in a dish’. A bonsai is thus a miniaturized tree grown in a dish, resembling in all respects its larger counterpart in nature. In a nutshell, Bonsai is a tree or shrub grown in a container.
Bonsai first appeared in China over a thousand years ago, where it was the practice of growing single specimen trees in pots because it was considered as an expression of the harmony between heaven and earth, man and nature.
These early specimens displayed sparse foliage and rugged, gnarled trunks that often looked like animals, dragons and birds.
Through growing a bonsai plant a person experiences a new rhythm of the seasons, and nurtures within him the power of creativity as he shapes and miniaturizes his trees. No doubt, cultivating a bonsai tree requires some care and attention, but as a reward, it brings tranquillity to the mind, a feeling of being refreshed and, inner peace.
Travel to Japan
Many years later with Japan’s adoption of many cultural trademarks of China – bonsai was also taken up. Once bonsai was introduced into Japan, the art was refined to an extent not yet approached in China.
The word bonsai also is actually taken from a Japanese word ‘pun-sai’ which means a tree planted in a container without any landscape. With time, the simple trees were not just confined to the Buddhist monks and their monasteries, but were also introduced to be representative of the aristocracy, a symbol of prestige and honour.
For the Japanese, bonsai represented a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature. The ‘Japanese elite’ also brought bonsai indoors for display at special times.
Evolution as an art form
Over time, bonsai began to take on different styles. Finally, in the mid-19th century, Japan opened itself up to the rest of the world. Word soon spread from travellers who visited Japan of the miniature trees in ceramic containers which mimicked aged, mature, tall trees in nature.
Due to this phenomenal upsurge in the demand for bonsai, the now widely expanding industry and lack of naturally-forming, stunted plants led to the commercial production of bonsai by artists through training young plants to grow to look like bonsai.
Several basic styles were adopted, and artists made use of wire, bamboo skewers and growing techniques to do this – allowing the art to evolve even further.
The Japanese learnt to capitalize on the interest in this art form very quickly – opening up nurseries dedicated solely to grow, train and then export bonsai trees. Different plants were now being used to cater for worldwide climates and to produce neater foliage and more suitable growth habits
Importance as of today
In Japan today, bonsai are highly regarded as a symbol of their culture and ideals. The New Year is not complete unless the Tokonoma – the special niche in every Japanese home used for the display of ornaments and prized possessions – is filled with a blossoming apricot or plum tree.
Bonsai is no longer reserved for the upper class, but is a joy shared by executive and factory worker alike. These complex plants are no longer permanently reserved for outdoor display but have become an important part of the life of all by being displayed on specially designed shelves.
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