The first known miniature trees in Japan were imported from China by scholars and Buddhist students in the 6th century. These trees were called penjing, a Chinese term meaning”tray scenery,” or penzai,”tray plant.”
In China, Zen Buddhists prized these dwarfed trees, which have been found in the wild and full of knots and twists. Of no practical value, they were considered to be full of natural energy because of their uncultivated nature. Later, as the popularity of the art spread, techniques were developed to cultivate dwarfed trees in order to fulfill demand that exceeded the availability of wild specimens. They have been popular among scholars and the wealthy, who used potted trees to accent their elaborate gardens.
In Japan, the influence of Zen aesthetics and the idea of”beauty in austerity” led to the creation of a distinctly Japanese style. Bonsai, a Japanese pronunciation of penzai, highlighted a single ideal tree rather than emulating a natural landscape. From the 14th century, the term for these potted trees was hachi-no-ki,”tree in a bowl,” suggesting that at this time, the trees had been planted in deep strands of Chinese style. Bonsai as a term became popular in the 17th century, when clinics shifted to utilize shallow Japanese-style trays to cultivate bonsai; the method preferred now.
The Chinese tree-sculpting techniques expanded to include a variety of practices and tools designed to produce an illusion of age and wildness from the cultivated trees. These included special pruning techniques that create natural-seeming branch breaks and holes rather than artificial stumps, pruning and wiring to form branches, and a suite of bark-removal methods that create dead wood, in order to simulate the appearance of trees which have been damaged by fire, struck by lightning, or otherwise subjected to natural hardships in their lifetime. Development of these techniques continues to the modern day.