The Origins of Bonsai: A History 

The art of bonsai originated in the Far East, and although many assume it began in Japan, it is in China that bonsai first appeared. The Chinese were the first to plant miniature trees in small trays or pots, and to this day, bonsai still remains a part of Chinese culture, having a place in every Chinese community including places such as Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore

The word ‘bonsai' is derived from two words in Japanese, namely ‘bon' meaning a dish or tray and ‘sai' meaning a tree or plant. Thus, a bonsai is a tree, albeit a miniature tree, planted in a small container, but a small version of what we would see in nature.

Before the Japanese began to develop bonsai, the Chinese had already established it as an art form. They used the terms ‘pun-sai' and ‘pun-ching' to describe their creations. The word ‘pun-sai' is made up of very similar characters to that of the Japanese term ‘bonsai'; in this instance, it means a tree planted in a container without any landscape. ‘Pun-ching' however, means that the tree is planted in a container and landscaped by means of rocks and other features.

This early form of bonsai or ‘pun-ching' originated around the time of the Han dynasty (200 BC – 220 AD) when Chinese landscape artists began to design miniature versions of famous artificial rock gardens. At about the same time, we come across the first reference to ‘pun-sai' which came into its own during the Ch'in dynasty (221 – 206 BC). This may have been the beginning of pot plants, but it was to ultimately result in the miniaturization of trees. Some 200 years later, paintings from the T'ang period illustrate pines, cherry trees and bamboos all growing in small containers.


From this point onwards, both pun-ching and pun-sai evolved as a hobby, through to the period of the Ch'ing dynasty (AD 1644 – 1911). It was at this point in time, from the early to mid 17 th Century, that the Japanese began to take an interest in bonsai. Historically, it is recognised that the Japanese had been aware of this form of cultivation since the late 13 th and 14 th Centuries – ministers and merchants had already been introducing these miniature trees following their times in China. Even prior to that period, it is likely that Buddhist monks may have taken bonsai to Japan as early as the 10 th and 11 th centuries.

The earliest illustrations of bonsai in Japan are from around 1300. It is however from the mid-18 th century that Japanese bonsai progressed to the refined form which we now come to recognise and the term ‘bonsai' is increasingly found on the scrolls of 19 th century landscape paintings. Also, interest in bonsai was slowly but surely, increasing in the West. During the early 20 th century Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Japanese bonsai were exhibited in the United Kingdom.

One of the significant events for bonsai took place in March 1934 when the first Kokufu-Kai exhibition was held in Ueno Park, Tokyo. This exhibition was to provide bonsai with an increased status, allowing it to become a respected art form. Thereafter two such exhibitions were held in Ueno Park, one in the spring and one during autumn, these being suspended only during the Second World War, and resuming in 1947.

It is largely through the Japanese and their manner of developing this art form that bonsai were introduced to the West. Japanese bonsai appeared first in Paris at the World Fair of 1878 and again appeared in London in 1909. It was, however, not until after the Second World War, that the upsurge of interest in bonsai was to take a hold in the West. Initially this interest began in the United States, due to American forces occupying Japan. Soon after, the first bonsai societies appeared in the United Kingdom during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Today, there exist over ninety bonsai societies within the country, and each year, a number of bonsai exhibitions take place which always prove a popular attraction.