THE  BIG  PICTURE:
A Summary of the History of
Magical Miniature Landscapes

© 1999-2016  Robert J. Baran





       Large richly-modeled rocks and boulders, often in the shape of the sacred mountains, were originally used in China as contemplative garden features three millennia ago.  As some private gardens decreased in size, so did the rocks employed.  The ancient seekers (who adopted the name of "Daoist" around the first century because of similar beliefs held) collected similar peculiarly-shaped stones which were less than two feet tall.  The smaller the stones and the more detailed their natural resemblance was to the mythical Western mountain kingdoms of the spirit beings, the more focused and powerful these portable talismans were believed to be.  Possessing these aesthetic charms thus conveyed their energies to the human owners.

       Some of the portable minerals which contained natural openings and hollows -- caves where dwelt the Immortals -- were subsequently used as incense burners.  The rising curls of fragrant smoke resembled mist swirling about the mountains.  More elaborate and artistic versions of these boshanlu were made out of bronze, terra-cotta or porcelain.  (The stones with or without openings would be sought after and collected up into our own times.  Some emperors would issue catalogs of these shangshi in their possession.  Individually-fitted custom wooden stands would be made for the more prized rocks.)

       At some point some of these stones were set in pen, shallow water bowls of neolithic origin which were among the vessel shapes re-created in bronze and used in religio-political ceremonies.  As the Eastern isle homes of the Immortals were encircled by the oceans, it was a logical step that their tabletop namesakes should also be surrounded by water.

       By the second century, the contemplative Dhyana Buddhists from India had brought with them knowledge of ancient Ayuvedic medicine.  This may have included the observation that some trimmed medicinal herb bushes took on dwarfed characteristics after being cultivated in small containers for a few years.

       Some of the Daoist micro-mountains probably had bits of lichen, moss, grasses, or other small plants naturally growing on them.  With the horticultural ideas from the Dhyana -- some of whose concepts were being blended with material from native Daoist groups to become Chinese Chán Buddhists -- it was a natural progression to include seedling trees in the pen mountain compositions to further the very practical capturing of miniature reality magic

       Individual tree pentsai or landscape in a shallow bowl penjing were developed and practiced upon using all manner of plants, but especially those with supernatural or positive symbolic meanings.  The chief practitioners were those with leisure time and ready-access to what were initially only naturally deformed trees: Buddhist and Daoist monks and certain high officials.  The more curved, ancient, and unusable in a practical/profane sense was the tree, the more potent were its own spiritual powers.  And, again, such portable proximity to humans allowed ready transfer of essence.  General horticultural techniques were adapted for these artistic potted plants.  The quality, texture and patterns of a wide range of containers in use improved over the centuries.  Different size pots were employed as larger or odd-sized landscapes were composed. 

       Now, Buddhism began to be preached in Korea, then across the short stretch of water to the islands of Japan by the mid-sixth century.  Diplomatic agents who ventured to the mainland brought back much of the vast sophisticated Chinese culture.  All things Chinese were readily assimilated in the islands from architecture, literature and calligraphy to the fine arts, ceremonies and horticulture.  Knowledge and souvenirs of these fields were continually brought back to Japan.  The making of miniature landscapes with all their Buddhist symbolism was part of the rise in gardening arts. 

       Around the time of the Chinese introduction, Japanese contemplative gardens were called shima ("islands").  These were scaled-down models of sea and island scenery, some faithfully copying particular locations using the basic form of a pond with a central island.  (This native design would be applied to gardens up into the twentieth century.)  Some of these landscapes would be "dry," consisting of only sand and stones.   A blend of the Japanese contracting of nature with the Chinese ideas resulted in bonseki ("tray rocks"), dry mountain landscape gardens reduced to the size of a box or tray. 

       Attempts with plants similar to those used in China gave way to compositions making use of native plants and rocks.  As the much smaller Japanese natural island landscape had relatively less diversity compared to that of mainland China, the gardens and tray landscapes of the former tended to be more plant-oriented.  Monastic students of Chán Buddhism returning home to Japan continued the teachings there as Zen, the Japanese pronunciation.  The core of its philosophy could be summed up as "beauty in severe austerity."  All nonessentials were stripped away to reveal the true Buddha-nature of a thing.

       The interest in certain naturally shaped stones had also come over to Japan where, again, a more narrow range of criteria was employed.  While the Chinese developed a four part system for evaluating these special stones -- perforation, furrowedness, refinement, unadorned strength -- the Japanese were concerned with three qualities: hardness and surface texture, shape, and color.  Under the influence of Zen, prized stones were subtle, profoundly quiet, serene, austere, and unpretentious.  The resulting appreciative art in Japan was called suiseki.

       Both natural and carved wooden display stands would be added in China by the fifteenth century to formalize and set apart the miniature landscapes during temporary indoor visits.  At one point sixty-four distinct regional styles of penjing could be identified throughout China due to variations in climate, natural environment and cultural background.  From the sixteenth century onward, several books in part or whole dealt with their creation.  Scrolls and paintings of private gardens showed these compositions.  Poems reflected upon their symbolism.  Regional exhibitions of scholars' trees were occasionally held.

       In Japan, the epitome of dwarf potted landscapes representing the interplay of the natural with the supernatural became those distilled down to a single ideal tree.  As in China, at first monks, scholars and some aristocrats were the ones who cared for and designed these dwarfs.  Eventually the image of a potted miniature tree was adopted by everyone from a shogun down to merchants and common folk who delighted in the seasonal changes of these portables.  The ideal faded somewhat as the hachinoki, trees in bowls, became a commodity almost anyone could afford.  While the best specimens still were those gathered from the wild, many more were available through the equivalent of nursery propagation.  Scrolls and, later, woodblock prints occasionally included one as a decorative feature or even still-life subject.

       (The same expression of reduction to bring the universe into a smaller space is seen mirrored in haiku, the minimalist 17-syllable poetry of Japan, and ikebana ("dancing flowers"), the art where nature contracted beauty is focused in the overall arrangement of the varied plant parts more so than in the blooms themselves.)

       At the turn of the nineteenth century, a group of Japanese who studied traditional Chinese culture and philosophy decided they needed a specific version of these artistic pot plants, one that perhaps was "purer" and closer to its Chinese roots.  They studied the classic painters' manual, adopted much of its terminology, and named their trees bonsai, the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for pentsai.  A handful of Japanese works on the creation of these were about to be published.

       By this time some Chinese cultivators were using combinations of lead strips, weights, bamboo sticks, and iron wire to produce the desired three-dimensional effects on trees that possessed fewer artistic characteristics.

       A century later, Japan saw the likes of bonsai specialty magazines, organizations of enthusiasts, national exhibitions, the importation of Chinese pots, the fabrication of Japanese containers, and the use of copper wire for more intricate shaping of branches and trunks.  There had been at least three distinct stages in the art's development during the past few generations and the rise of so-called modern bonsai was beginning. 

       One specialty side branch saw the ultimate reduction in size, the greatest condensing by the Japanese of hundreds of years of nature and vast amounts of space.  Many different varieties of trees were also now cultured as mame ("bean") bonsai.  Growing in thimble-sized planters, these were/are small enough to fit a representation or two of the universe in the palm of one's hand.

       The Lingnan school of "Clip and Grow" was founded at a monastery in southeastern China.  Using non-coniferous trees, this method fairly rapidly produced natural appearing effects similar to the Chinese brush paintings of trees.  Various styles within this school developed alongside the other ongoing natural and artificially shaped dwarfed potted trees.

       In the 1920s tools specifically designed for use on bonsai, including the concave-cutter, were becoming available in Japan.  Two years after the Great Earthquake of 1923, thirty families of professional bonsai growers from downtown Tokyo re-established themselves to the northeast in a forest clearing on the northern edge of the town of Omiya.  This Bonsai Village and its resulting students, teachers and trees -- especially after WWII -- would become the center of the bonsai world.  (You are invited to watch this two-part contemporary video of Omiya.  There is about a two minute overlap at the end of the first part and start of the second.)

       The first Kokufu Exhibition was held in Tokyo and would eventually become the annual and most prestigious show in this art.  Also by the mid-1930s, the principles for display of bonsai were altered as attitudes changed and the trees were shaped by more people than ever.  The individual beauty of the tree was at last recognized as more important than any spiritual or symbolic significance it might hold.  The assorted styles and types of trees continued to take their turns in the spotlight of what was considered fashionable in the art.

       Following the widespread devastation from and depression after World War II, the remnants of the art of bonsai in Japan slowly were revitalized as seeds of interest planted around the world began to take root.  Because of a dearth of mature raw material, young plants had to be more often utilized.  The art of saikei is an offshoot of that.

       Penjing development was severely restricted in mainland China following the 1948 establishment of the Peoples Republic.  The tumultuous and often misdirected Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) destroyed many of the remaining collections of penjing (especially in the north) and sent most of the old masters to labor in the rice fields. 

       The return of penjing as a vital native art was spurred by the writings, lectures and efforts of Wu Yee-sun, grandson of one of the founders of the "Clip and Grow" method and a master in his own right.  He had previously fled the mainland for the safety of Hong Kong.  There in the late 1960s, this well-known banker and financier displayed part of his superb collection in a few very important flower shows and won championship cups each time.

       Now, traders, explorers and missionaries had brought back the first descriptions of dwarf potted trees to Europe by the early seventeenth century.  The special care required by these containerized trees was not always given during their transport from the East or stays in the West, and thus the belief in Oriental secrets for their care developed and persisted.  The true requirements eventually were learned and applied.  The art blossomed on other soils.

       Individuals and then clubs tried their hands with traditional Asian plant materials.  Expositions, newsletters, magazines, conventions, and an explosion in published books spread awareness.

       Due to Western politics, the first teachers of dwarf potted landscapes to Europe and America were Japanese.  Hence, the West first learned about this gardening art from the Japanese perspective and scale.  It is only since the 1970s that the Chinese view of more wild looking miniature landscapes has been increasingly brought to the West's attention.  (Because of placement in large courtyards and palace grounds, some Chinese penjing could be up to ten feet tall, six or more feet wide.  While Western students of the Japanese schools predominantly stay within a four foot limit, a few of their compositions have been bold and strong enough to harmoniously claim larger sizes.  And while the first teachers of the art in Africa and Australia were of Chinese heritage, they developed smaller size trees as well.) 

       In the meantime, non-Japanese and non-Chinese students and teachers of the art have begun exploring its possibilities worldwide with their own native plant and rock materials, developing distinct regional styles reminiscent of the full-grown trees and topography in their lands.  Nursery stock -- untrained or partly trained -- is the primary source for today's trees.  People cultivate and train these for the recreative pleasure of horticulture, for the aesthetics of a living sculpture, for the challenge of designing a prized specimen, for the sake of bringing a reminder of the wild into the environs of their concrete jungle caves.  The original connotations of these magical miniature landscapes were not always passed along in the various teachings and translations, but they can still be detected in the best compositions of bonsai and penjing.

       Japan's gift of fifty-three bonsai and six suiseki to America's Bicentennial celebrations sparked the growth of the various facets of the National Bonsai Collection in Washington, D.C.  Other important collections in this country and elsewhere also reflect serious appreciation of the art.

       The first World Bonsai Convention was held at Omiya in 1989 with thirteen hundred enthusiasts from twenty-eight countries gathering for the four-day event at which three dozen Japanese masters gave lectures and demonstrations.  The World Bonsai Friendship Federation debuted at this event.  These Conventions are held every four years at locales around the globe.

       The first International Stone Exhibition was held in Taipei in 1991, and was repeated in the region for the next nine years.  There are some four hundred thousand suiseki enthusiasts in Taiwan alone.  The Asia-Pacific Bonsai & Suiseki Exhibition & Conventions took place first in Bali in 1991, and these biennial events continue to this day with lecturers and demonstrators from around the globe.

       Since 1993, there have been newsgroups and an increasingly diverse number of web sites on the Internet offering information, discussion forums, club newsletters, shared experiences, pictures, products including wonderfully creative hand-made pots, and more to newcomers and enthusiasts of this family of arts.  And who knows what the future holds for these Magical Miniature Landscapes?




Here are a few heavily RJB-influenced versions elsewhere on the Web
with selectable flags for other language versions:

Bonsaiempire.com "What is Bonsai?" + / / / / /

Bonsaiempire.com "History of Bonsai" + / / / / /

Bonsaiempire.com "How BIG is Bonsai worldwide?"

(and, thus material in Bonsai Empire's "Bonsai: A Beginner's Guide"  + / / / / / )

Wikipedia.com "History of Penjing" +

Wikipedia.com "History of Bonsai"

Wikipedia.com "History of Hòn Non Bô" +

Bursabonsai.com "History of Kusamono"



A Suggested Timeline
Chronology of Notable Histories
Some of What We Don't Know
On the Creative Process of Compiling This History


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