Bonsai is the art and science of growing miniature trees and shrubs in containers by regular pruning or roots and branches. It has been practised in Japan for at least 1,200 years, and includes training, styling and maintenance of the trees. Bonsai originated from the Chinese practice of penjing.
Penjing is the art of and science of growing miniature landscapes in a pot or tray, and can include rocks, different types of trees and ground covers, and perhaps small objects or figurines. Penjing may have a story, name or piece of poetry attached to it, and has been practised in China for at least 1,400 years.
The creative practice of bonsai and penjing requires vision, planning, horticultural and artistic skills and a great deal of patience. Bonsai and penjing creations are so valued that they are often handed down through generations of families.
Growing bonsai and penjing
Shaping the trees is done by either ‘wiring’ or ‘clip and grow’ techniques. The trees are not genetically altered - growing them in containers and shaping the branches and foliage creates the size, shape and style.
The branches and foliage are pruned at least once a year, sometimes more frequently. The roots are trimmed and the potting media is replaced on a 2-5 year cycle; promoting new root growth and enabling the trees to remain healthy in pot culture.
Sunlight, water and fertiliser are the three primary elements needed to keep the trees in good condition, and encourage flowering and fruiting in certain species.
In nature, trees can live for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, while bonsai and penjing can live indefinitely because of the constant trimming and promotion of new growth.
Bonsai and penjing grew out of the cultures of China and Japan. They are infused with concepts from Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, such as reverence for old age. Zen aesthetics are minimalistic and uncluttered, sometimes expressed as ‘less is more’.
Penjing artists will sometimes place small figurines, bridges, boats or animals in their settings with the miniature trees. These are often included to enhance the sense of perspective and proportion. The figurines are intended to show the place of people within a landscape: making use of it, living within it, but not dominating it. They are often misunderstood as being just ‘decorative’ or kitsch.
In western cultures, the aesthetics often focus on the beauty of the miniature tree. The deeper significance of bonsai and penjing in the west is still evolving. Some practitioners look to the ancient ideals, while others focus on artistic form, horticultural craftsmanship and appreciation alone.
Bonsai and penjing artists sculpt the living tree, combining horticultural and artistic practices to produce a miniature version of a full-size tree growing in the wild.
A bonsai artist looks at which qualities, in particular ‘line’, convey the sense that a tree is ‘old’. A tree does not have to be very old to look very old; characteristics of the trunk, branches and foliage distribution can create the illusion of great age.
An important philosophical principle of the east Asian aesthetics of bonsai and penjing is that of ‘reverence’ for old age – of respect for the elderly; of recognising that individuals who have survived life’s difficulties with humility and dignity are due respect from those younger, who may be able to learn from them. The trees are often designed to show great age and stature yet humility.
All the usual artistic considerations of line, mass and proportion are important in bonsai and penjing. Asymmetrical balance, colour, texture and use of negative space are also significant elements. Creativity and aesthetics are part of the art form.
In most bonsai and tree penjing, the first focal point is the tree trunk, then branches and then the foliage (leaves or needles). Miniature landscapes are more complex forms of the art.
Artists may choose to have their trees tell different stories. It is always good to look for the ‘story’ being told by the tree.
Learning how to look at bonsai and penjing, to interpret the meaning that the artist may have intended, is an important part of bonsai and penjing appreciation.
A brief history of bonsai and penjing
The cultivation of small trees and plants in ornamental pots began in China at least 1400 years ago, where it was known as penjing. The practice of growing miniature trees in pots is first recorded in an ancient painting of the presentation of such trees to the Emperor in the Tang dynasty in the early 700s in China.
Buddhist monks brought the art form of penjing from China to Japan at least 1,200 years ago, where it became very popular and acquired the name bonsai.
The western cultures are known to have heard about miniature trees as early as the 1800s, as recorded in a Portuguese-Japanese dictionary.
In the USA, bonsai were displayed at the World Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. After American troops began returning home from World War II in the early 1950s the practice of bonsai became widely known in the USA, then spread rapidly around the world.
In Australia, the first penjing specimens are attributed to Chinese migrants who settled here in the late 1800s. As in the USA, Australian soldiers returning from World War II brought the practice of bonsai back with them and in the 1950s bonsai started to become more widely popular.
From the late 1960s, bonsai clubs sprang up and today this living art form is practiced worldwide.