Bonsai was first introduced to the West after the opening of Japan by Adm. Perry. It was first seen in the West at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878. The English speaking world was first shown the art form in 1909 at the London Imperial International Exhibition. The cultural aspects of bonsai cultivation are often lost on westerners, who mainly consider it a hobby. Bonsai are far more than just a beautiful, stylized tree.
Bonsai originated in China. According to Peter Chan, bonsai may have been cultivated as early as 2000 B.C. It has always been tied to mysticism through its association with early Taoist priests. As Buddhism spread through China, bonsai was adopted by the Chan Buddhists. As Chan Buddhists introduced Buddhism to Japan, the art of bonsai was transferred with it. The mystical culture of bonsai cultivation also transferred with the practice. As Chan became Zen, the art of bonsai took on a unique style in Japan.
Japanese bonsai closely mirrors the Zen ideals of simplicity and austere sublimity. In many styles of bonsai, everything that is not required for the survival of the tree is removed. The literati style is often a single trunk with a single branch. The tree may have the bare minimum number of leaves to ensure the tree's survival. Other styles, like formal upright, create an idealized nature that reflects Zen sensibilities.
Views of Nature
Bonsai reflects the Japanese view that nature stylized and idealized by people is aesthetically superior to nature in its original form. However, the attempts to reflect nature in the form of bonsai makes it a reflection of nature's perfection rather than a mere mimicking of nature and natural forms. The symbolism is similar to that in Zen rock and sand gardens, where sand may create the meditative reflection of water, stones create the idea of islands and flowers the idea of forests.
In some cases, the tree selected for bonsai may have additional symbolism. Cherry bonsai, with their short-lived flowers, are symbolic of the transience of life. As they fall to the ground, red cherry blossoms symbolize the spilled blood of warriors. Camellia, another common bonsai tree, symbolizes love, a happy marriage, longevity, good fortune, happiness and victory.
Bonsai can be created from almost any type of tree. However, there are a number of traditional styles of bonsai. Single trunk styles include formal upright and informal upright. Slanting, windswept, cascading, semi-cascading, literati, broom and weeping styles are also popular simple bonsai styles. These idealized styles reflect an appreciation of the tenacity of full-size trees that grow under adverse natural conditions. The concept of these tenacious trees is often the inspiration for many bonsai trees.