Though bonsai is widely recognized as a Japanese art form, its roots can be traced to China as far back as the Han Dynasty in 210 B.C. In fact, their earliest documented proof of existence can be found in the tomb of Prince Zhuang Huai, who died in the year 706. Wall paintings in the prince’s tomb depict servants carrying a miniature landscape.
The solitary sample trees raised in China more than a thousand years ago were very basic. They displayed very little foliage and their gnarled roots and trunks resemble animals, most notably fiery dragons, arched serpents, and other imaginative creatures and landscapes. Today these ancient bonsai remain among the most highly prized.
Embraced by the Japanese
It wasn’t until the 12th century that the Japanese began to adopt bonsai, as they did many other Chinese art forms. The art and technique of dwarfing trees became popular with Zen Buddhists, and for many years was restricted to the religious seclusion of monasteries. The art of bonsai eventually evolved outside the monastery walls, however, and became a symbol of prestige and honor among Japanese aristocrats.
By the 17th century, bonsai had become one of the most preferred of all the Japanese arts and had far surpassed its development as an art form in China. Eventually, bonsai trees were brought indoors by the Japanese elite, at first to be displayed on special occasions. Eventually, they would become integral to the Tokonoma, a place in the Japanese home where valuable ornaments and prized possessions are displayed.
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