Bonsai: history and philosophy
History and philosophy
Bonsai, man, nature and divinity are closely connected in the Japanese culture. This thought is based on Zen philosophy in which spirituality is expressed by minimalist aesthetic means. In this sense, human involvement in bonsai can be seen as an attempt to capture the nature’s force of the gigantic trees and to encapsulate it into little plants, still maintaining their natural beauty. A bonsai is for oriental people a spiritual exercise, a living symbol of the soul of the person who has taken care of it. For neophytes, the best way to get familiar with such philosophy is to properly begin with the meaning of the word bonsai itself, which is: “tree cultivated in a pot”. We don’t know exactly when it has been recognized as a form of art, but it seems that the bonsai was initially cultivated in China and called pun-sai. Neither have we a precise documentation allowing a reconstruction of the bonsai history; but there are both orally transmitted records and written or painted fragments dating back to hundreds of years ago. For instance, a legend of the Han period (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) tells of a man who had a gift for miniaturizing landscapes; besides, some documents tell that Bamboos and Pines were cultivated in pot during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.).
Bonsai arrive in Japan
Quite probably, bonsai arrived in Japan through Cina in 1195 A.D., as proved by evidences discovered in a parchment of that time. The Buddhist monks surely had an important role in the bonsai spreading, as a consequence of their philosophy of love and respect for nature. Yoshiroda, author of several publications on this subject, says that the first found reliable document about bonsai is a parchment dated 1309 which reads: “appreciating and enjoying those oddly bent trees in their pots means loving the deformity”. It is this very document that convinced the scholars that the bonsai was already well spread in remote times, surely before year 1300, at least among the richer classes. In Japan, bonsai had a great success at first as a decoration in the temples and in the princely residences and then more and more in the popular culture. Having found full correspondence in the local culture and customs, the bonsai imposed itself and acquired its own dignity which brought it to its modern form.
Bonsai spreading in the world
When Japan opened up its frontiers to world trade in 1850, several travellers told having seen miniature plants cultivated in little pots. At the end of XIX century the interest towards Japan reached its climax, also owing to its participation to the most important international exhibitions, i.e. London in 1862, Paris in 1867 and 1900, Wien in 1873. This promoted the trade of ornamental plants of Oriental origin and the interest of thousands of visitors towards these tiny trees in a pot. Collectors started to look for “naturally dwarf” plants. The increasing demand of trees with reduced dimensions led the Japanese to the realization of nurseries especially dedicated to bonsai. New species and new cultivation techniques were so introduced. Today the bonsai technique has reached the highest levels which enable the creation of pure masterpiecesi.
The art of bonsai is nowadays spread in almost every country and has developed to suit the different cultures and nations in which it is practised. Walking in a residential neighbourhood in Japan you may notice bonsais on the windowsill or on the benches placed before the entrance of houses or shops. The bonsai is often exhibited in a tokonoma, which is the typical niche in the traditional Japanese houses used to display a work of art. In Japan a bonsai is handed on from father to son, thus becoming a pure symbol of the family continuity, whereas in the rest of the world it is mostly considered a hobby, especially practised by men even if women show a steadily increasingly interest. Not too far from Tokyo there is the town of Omiya, also called “bonsai village”, where you can see the most beautiful and famous bonsai. In Italy, the first man who imported these little trees was Luigi Crespi, founder of Crespi Bonsai back in 1979-1980. His ambition was not only to spread the interest for these beautiful plants but also to bring to light the Oriental culture where the millenary tradition of bonsai plunges its roots. For us Westerners, the bonsai has lost part of its mystic-religious meaning, though it anyway offers the opportunity to get closer to nature: in fact, stimulating his/her fantasy, it guides the observer to a reflexive and silent dialogue with nature that teaches him/her how to love and respect it.
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