The art of bonsai in constant evolution

It is believed that the practice of plant miniaturization came from China to Japan around the 7th century, when the two countries formally established diplomatic relations. By this point, Chinese gardeners had probably created potted landscapes, or penjing (“Pot landscape”), for hundreds of years, bringing nature into the homes of political elites, painters and calligraphers. Penjing, as it developed over the centuries, did not idealize nature but rather depicted – or, as some bonsai scholars suggest, exaggerated – its eerie, expansive beauty. Until the 1970s, when the Chinese government began codifying five regional penjing schools, each with its own approach to styling local species by cutting, wiring, or pinching, there were few rules: the first guides published in the 16th and 17th centuries suggested that practitioners should attempt to imitate values ​​such as vigor and austerity represented in classical landscape painting, says Phillip E. Bloom, the 38-year-old curator of the Chinese Garden in Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Often the principles were abstract – a craftsman could have aimed, according to Bloom, “to somehow create paradise in the tree” – which left penjing open to poetic interpretation.

By the 12th century, Japanese artisans and monks had also evolved the art into a form of controlled observation, later known as bonsai (“pot planting”); While the term itself had been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the Meiji era (1868-1912) that it took on its modern meaning. By this time, researchers had started classifying things like trunk shape, branch placement, and preferred species – any locally grown woody-stemmed perennial with true branches and relatively small leaves, including pine, maple, juniper, beech, elm, cherry and plum. Bonsai trees could range in size from a few inches in height to imperial trees that could exceed six feet. Regardless of size, species or age, each tree exudes the sublime beauty of an ancient forest. Today, Kyoto’s curator and bonsai scholar Hitomi Kawasaki, 41, compares the ideal shape of classic bonsai to the kamae Noh theater posture, with the actor’s knees slightly bent and arms outstretched from the body. “If you’re in that position it’s the most stable point, and if you can let go it’s almost like floating,” says Kawasaki. “With bonsai, it’s similar: there is a point of balance, you strengthen this point and everything falls into place.” When practitioners succeed, their trees can outlive them for centuries, their growth slowed down, but never completely stopped, by confinement; if the specimens are out of balance, they will eventually wilt. Between control and abandonment, creation and destruction, life and death, art is, as Kawasaki writes in a forthcoming essay, “an attempt to find a middle way out of dualism.”

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