Bonsai, literally translated, means tree-in-a-pot. This, however, is a broad definition that needs qualification. Perhaps it would be easier to explain what bonsai is not: A bonsai is neither a dwarf variety nor is it a tree miniaturized by means of magic. Keeping the roots confined in a pot assists with mobility and allows for a unified composition but that is not what keeps a bonsai small and beautiful, either. The size, shape, and attractiveness of a bonsai are entirely dependent upon its owner’s dedication to its daily care and his or her taste and artistic ability.
The Chinese were the first over 2000 years ago
Nobody knows when the idea first arose that one could shape trees in containers to mimic their full-sized counterparts. There is clear evidence that the Chinese were doing it over 2000 years ago. Paintings of that period depict shallow pots with trees and rocks, which look like landscapes in miniature. However, it was the Japanese who took up, refined and developed the practice.
Much of Japanese culture and art throughout history has come under the influence of the Chinese. The Japanese script even uses the same characters for the word bonsai as does the Chinese. But within the past few centuries, the two cultures have moved further and further apart. In China, most bonsai, (pronounced ‘pun sai’) include elements of the landscape.
Japanese people perfected the art
The Japanese have simplified the bonsai image, distilling it to its basic elements. They have refined both the artistic and horticultural aspects of bonsai culture to such an extent that they have set almost impossibly high standards for the rest of the world to follow. Certain classic styles have been defined, based on the attitudes of the trunks. The ideal positions of branches, the proportions of the trees, the shape of the trunks and the relationship between the plant and its container, have all been perfected by them.
Emotional ties to trees
There is something about a tree that touches one’s very soul. This feeling probably dates back to primeval days when early humans relied upon trees for protection, warmth shelter, and food. Where trees were found, there was a potential home. Trees played a major role in primitive religions and people have attributed mystical powers to them. This strong emotional tie still resides within all of us and the pleasure that is to be gained from creating and keeping a miniature tree of one’s own appeals to a great many people.
The possibilities are endless
In spite of all the horticultural knowledge and practical techniques, you may master, bonsai is a visual discipline. It is all about forming an idealized, miniature image of a tree in an imagined natural setting. This could be a graceful lowland maple standing proudly in an open meadow, a forest of elms on a distant hill, or an ancient pine, torn and battered by mountain storms. The possibilities are endless, the horizons limited only by the scope of your own imagination.
The artistic sense is the priority
Nowadays, some artists go way beyond the accepted image of the tree and create abstract, living sculptures, with a mass of swirling deadwood interlaced with foliage. But, to those brave souls prepared to take the imaginative leap, these may be seen as credible arboreal forms.
A bonsai, of necessity, has to be an over-simplified image. A fully-grown pine tree could have around 50 branches, but on a bonsai, there is obviously not enough room. Leaves or needles will be reduced in size, though they are never so small as to be in perfect proportion to the tree. In order to accommodate such subtle simplification, bonsai has its own set of aesthetic ‘rules’. These have only been developed as guides to design, they are not meant to be rigidly followed at the expense of your own artistic touch.