13 April 2011

Things Japan Stole from China: Bonsai

It’s widely known that Japanese culture was greatly influenced by the Chinese; however there are many things that people accredit to the Japanese with but were actually created in China. In this series, I look into these misattributed creations and why they got that way.

A Bonsai tree

Bonsai is the art of miniaturizing trees, growing them and caring for them for aesthetic purposes. Bonsai trees are a common sight in any Japanese garden. They are also popular in homes and among horticulturists. Bonsai emerged in Japan in the 1300's and slowly grew more popular over time. Eventually they had become ubiquitous throughout Japan. But the story goes much deeper than that. Bonsai comes directly from the Chinese art of Penjing (盆景) literally "tray scenery". While bonsai focused mostly on the tree, Penjing was centered around creating entire miniature landscapes in a tray. They could be as complex as a mountain range or as simple as a single tree. Penjing is over 7000 years old. Its origins emerged in primitive form in prehistoric China in Yangshao culture. Primitive trays called "pen" were frequently constructed in early China. They were used for things such as incense burners, water dishes and vessels used for rituals. These would eventually be used in Penjing. Over time they were made of other materials such as wood or stones with moss. By the first century CE, Taoism and Buddhism had taken a strong root in China. In Taoist mythology, those in line with the Tao had the power shrink whole landscapes to a small size. Many Taoists tried to emulate this power, and thus the art of Penjing was created. From the Tang Dynasty onward, Penjing became a widely praised and respected art form. Trees with knots and unusual shapes were the most sought after, because it was believed that they were bestowed with unique energy. Bonsai was brought to Japan as souvenirs by Japanese diplomats to China in the 6th century. The art slowly took root from there.

A Penjing, encompassing a larger landscape

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