Bonsai is the art of creating miniature landscapes and trees using root pruning and training with wire. In addition to those techniques, careful pruning of branches and difficult driftwood and jinning techniques are common in bonsai. The history of bonsai is closely associated with Imperial China and the transmission of Chan (Zen) Buddhism from China to Japan.
Bonsai, pronounced "bone-sigh," originated in China as a way of creating trees for miniature landscapes that represented different parts of the empire. A Han (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) emperor requested the re-creation of the most beautiful landscapes in the empire in miniature in an imperial courtyard. It is said in Chinese folklore that the emperor declared possession of bonsai outside of the imperial palace punishable by death.
The earliest written record of bonsai points to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) and prince Zhang Huai. Two wall paintings in his tomb show servants carrying plants that look very much like bonsai. One painting shows a servant carrying a tray-based landscape. The other painting shows a servant carrying a small tree in a small pot. The existence of these paintings indicates that a well-developed art and culture of bonsai existed by 706 A.D.
Introduction to Japan
The art of bonsai began being transmitted to Japan with Buddhism during the Kamakura period (1185 AD to 1333 AD). The earliest written record of bonsai in Japan is a scroll that dates to 1195 A.D. In Japan, bonsai was initially grown primarily by the aristocracy. It was later adopted by monks as a form of meditation.
20th Century Asian Bonsai
Bonsai continued to become popular in Japan throughout the 20th century. In addition to being practiced by the aristocracy and monks, it was adopted as a hobby by middle class and upper middle class aficionados. Bonsai cultivation continued in the Republic of China, and is still very popular on Taiwan. However, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China on the mainland, bonsai cultivation was frowned upon. Many bonsai collections were destroyed between 1966 and 1976, during the cultural revolution.
Transmission to the West
Descriptions by trades and missionaries of bonsai were known in Europe as early as the 17th century. Early trees died in transit back to Europe due to the view that bonsai were created using secret Chinese methods. Bonsai didn't become popular in the west until the late 20th century. Early bonsai teachers in the United States were primarily from Japan. As a result, bonsai is strongly associated with Japanese culture in the west. The Chinese miniature technique was not well known until late 20th century.