An informal history of bonsai

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An informal history of bonsai


1. 261An informal Historyo f BonsaiOne of the few positive aspects of human warfare is the in-evitable blending of cultures which takes place immediately uponthe cessation of hostile activities. For a short but crucial periodthe victor is exposed to the best and worst of the former enemy,and vice-versa. In the wake of World War II American societyhas responded with elan to this exposure and to the widestpossible variety of things Japanese. Typical of this has beenthe popularity of the shibui object, understated elegance inhome design, house furnishings, and gardens, and a renewedinterest in oriental arts and crafts.Immediately after the close of hostilities in 1945 a flood ofoccupation forces, and, a bit later, trade representatives, beganshort tours of duty in Japan. In the ten years between 1945and 1955, hundreds of thousands of Americans spent time inJapan. Persons from every walk of American society enjoyedthis cross-cultural experience, one which formerly had beenconfined to diplomats, businessmen and the affluent. (In facteven through the war years Japan and the Japanese remaineda sort of abstraction to the bulk of the American population.)Among those multitudinous aspects of Japanese culture whichremained in mind was the feeling conveyed to the westernersby those small, carefully trained but artless and natural ap-pearing trees contained by glazed or unglazed pottery contain-ers -the bonsai.Americans, who will celebrate the 200th anniversary of theircountrys founding in 1976, were faced with the living culturalartifacts of a nation which, although like the Americans inhaving been the result of wave after wave of migrations, hadnearly 2,000 years of in situ cultural history. Indeed some ofthe bonsai were twice as old as the American nation! Littlewonder that popular authors referred to the "mysterious" culturetechniques, since bonsai were another facet of the "inscrutable" 2. 262orient! In addition to age which never fails to intrigue Ameri-cans, the living trees, many of which only simulate age, alsoconvey other admirable qualities which would entrance lesnouveaux venus of every age -endurance, natural beauty andunderstated strength.Although many treasures were destroyed during the war, andmany living gardens and bonsai were lost for lack of care andwatering, one can only wonder at the large number of very oldtrees which survived. And, unlike other works of art, livingtreasures required great care after substantial initial investment.Since the importation of living plants involves permit proceduresof some complexity very few bonsai came to the United Statesin the postwar years. However, the small trees are such anubiquitous part of Japanese life that it is safe to say that tensof thousands say, enjoyed, and cherished the idea of bonsai.There were several day-to-day indications that bonsai hadcaptured the American imagination. Christmas cards printedin Japan for Americans featured a dwarf tree motif. In themid-1950s American florist and gift shops blossomed withnon-living dwarf trees concocted from driftwood or weatheredbranches topped with a flattened gray lichen to simulate foliage.A species of Filago, a flat perennial herb of the Composite fam-ily, was imported from India at this time for similar use. These"ming" trees were American equivalents of similarly artificialtrees popular among the Chinese for household decor oftenfashioned from carved semi-precious stones. One of the earliestpopular articles entitled "How to Make a Tree" [living~ appearedin the March 1950 issue of American Homes Magazine. A floodof publications to follow in the 1960s would demythologize theart for the American public. The strong economic bonds be-tween the United States and Japan has allowed the initial cul-tural flow to continue through the 1970s. As more Americanswere able to visit Japan and bonsai materials began to be ex-ported local groups were formed particularly in Californiawhere many Americans of Japanese ancestry were leaders in thefoundation of the California Bonsai Society in 1950. Later anational organization, the American Bonsai Society, with nu-merous affiliates, was organized in 1967.Before we look at the early movement of bonsai in the Westor at the earliest examples from China perhaps we should con-sider the development of the art in Japan, the country with theearliest leading exponents in modern times, the coiners of theterm itself (derived from the Chinese word pen tsai), and the"Stories of Ladies" by Chin Ying (Ming Period 1368-1644) Top: Terracescene with screen, lacquer table, small potted tree. Bottom: Garden withpotted plants and small trees. An aptly named era (Ming means bright),it was an era of native rule first in Nanhing then in Peking. Fogg ArtMuseum, Oriental Dept., Harvard University. 3. 264country which has the largest current number of practitioners.(An early use of the word bonsai appears in the Seiwanmyoen-Zushi published in Osaka in 1875.) For, as we shall see, whilemany styles of training trees and schools of culture have de-veloped into cults in Japan, and while the culturing of the treesthere is centuries old, there is evidence that the art was flourish-ing in China before the Sung Period (960-1279).The introduction of Buddhism to Japan about 550 is veryimportant in considering the history of bonsai for it was in thecenturies immediately after that the cultural flowering of Chinaduring the Tang period (618-906) flowed to Japan. ZenBuddhism was to become a popular religion and forever afterto touch the weft of Japanese life. With Zen comes the perfec-tion of the miniature and the associated ideals of self disciplineand the emulation of Nature. Potted trees kept small couldserve as objects of contemplation as well as decoration. Withinthe temples small landscapes and gardens were used symboli-cally to represent Horai-san, the sacred Taoist mountain ofeternal youth. Trees and shrubs in the ground were pruned fornatural effects so that via miniaturization a natural contem-plative scene could be achieved. Pen tsai may have originatedfrom transferring small trees from small landscape dramasand/or by artful pruning of larger potted trees used as reliefagainst the traditional oval, rectangular and square motifs ofcourts, furniture and most man-made construction. Strong cul-tural exchanges between Japan and China began early -duringthe Fujiwara Era (794-1192). Earlier the Japanese had beenawed by the wealth and sophistication of the Chinese Court.The customs and religion of China were adopted in part by theruling classes of Japan.Among early Japanese art works still extant which showdwarf trees is the scroll Tsurezure Gusa by Kenko Yoshida(1283-1351) and the fifth part of the twenty-scroll KasugaGongen Kenki by Takakone Takashima executed in 1309. Muchlater, in 1890, Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924) painting in a stylereminiscent of earlier Chinese artists of the Tang Period (618-906) produced a scroll depicting two trees in the natural style.In the Japanese literary realm the earliest reference to bonsaioccurs in a document dating to 1095 in which the cultivationof bonsai is related as an elegant activity for the samurai. Thus,only four hundred years after Buddhism was made a part of thestate religion (in 685), the technique of bonsai cultivationreceived official approbation for the ruling class. In his collec-tion of essays entitled Tsurczure Gusa, Kenko Yoshida criticized 4. Unsigned work from the Sung Period (960-1279). Pinus sp., pen tsai ongarden table. The Sung was a time characterized by a rise in commercial-ism and education. The Sung artists depicted the nouveau riche of theirtime. From The Pageant of Chinese Painting. Otsuke Kogeisha, Tokyo,1936.the bad taste of enjoying deformed trees and disproves that thisform was preferred by those of his time. In the Noh dramaHachi-no-ki of the Muromachi Period (1334-1573) the authorZeami (1363-1443) develops a story about the fifth ruler of theKamakura government who, wandering as a monk, is welcomedto the humble house of a discredited samurai. The latter iswilling to sacrifice a cherished bonsai to warm the visitor. Asa consequence the official is restored, and three flowering trees, 5. 266Ithe apricot, cherry and pine, are established as bonsai favorites-as these were made as gifts from the ruler to the filial servant.There is also the legend of Hikozaemon Okubo, an elder states-man, in the government of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu(1623-51), who threw down his most cherished bonsai whileadmonishing his ruler. In modern times post-World War IIPrime Ministers have been bonsai enthusiasts following the leadof Count Okubo of the 17th century and Kujoji Itoh of the late19th century.Records from the Edo Period (1615-1868) testify to thevogue of potted trees, and of such a kind as to rival the tulipo-mania of the 17th century Europe or the pteridomania of Vic-torian times. According to the knowledgeable Chuzo Onukiprices for potted trees went beyond bounds: "As an example,according to a publication of this period named Koshienyawa,certain trees were bought and sold at exhorbitant rates accordingto the number of buds growing on them."Variegated forms of plants requiring potted culture becamevery popular at this time and aided the focus on the use of potsfor trees and shrubs.In the late 19th century the Meiji Restoration marked thebeginnings of modern Japan. The country was opened to worldtrade and industrialization. Urban centers were born. Also atthis time the influence of the literati painters, an aestheticmovement in the arts which interpreted nature in terms ofhuman values and which was influenced by earlier Chinese art,was being felt. Small potted trees were natural objects for theexpression of the Nanga forms and tastes. Although this schoolwas centered in Kyoto and Osaka, the traditional cultural capi-tals of Japan, by the time of the turn of the century, membersof the new political and cultural class centered in Tokyo werevying with each other in garden-making and bonsai culture.(This forms a parallel with the rivalries among the nouveauriche of New York society at about the same time.)The early 20th century saw the formation of bonsai promo-tion groups with publications, auctions and exchanges. InOctober, 1927, bonsai from the Imperial Household Collectionwere exhibited at the public ceremonies held to honor theaccession of Emperor Hirohito. This symbolic act reinforcedin the publics mind the beauty and desirability of bonsai justas the Emperor Meijis encouragement of the art had fueledthe fad in an earlier era.Perhaps one of the best sources for the verification of craftor custom is the record of the early travellers. In the case of the 6. 267Orient, which was truly opened to the West only during the 19thand 20th centuries, these records are a staple of historicalresearch.Among those curious and delightful accounts of Japan pub-lished early in this century, the daily record kept by MarieStopes is one to read. Her observations rendered the incongruityof upper class life in Japan as measured against that which sheknew in England: "He has also a fine collection of dwarf trees,and I watched one of his gardeners pruning a mighty forest ofpines three inches high, growing on a headland jutting out tosea in a porcelain dish." This and other observations of thehome of Count Okuma contain a subtle humor which as we lookback on the Victorian parlor clutter and love of the material,sound outrageously judgmental. We must assume that MissStopes found the typical English drawing room of her day asincongruous. Later during a short illness, while describing thesimple beauty of her room appointments, Miss Stopes mentions"a little bent and twisted tree" which grew in "a flat earthenwarebowl."When one thinks of travellers in the modem sense, RobertFortune of the mid-1800s serves as a model. He travelled farand seemed to miss nothing along the way. But this detailingwhich in other men might be cause for skepticism has beenlargely verified by later visitors. Fortunes observations are mostimportant since he was looking for plants to send back toEngland, and searched out nurseries and gardens. Cultivationof Acorus was observed using porcelain pots, and which withthe addition of rocks containing mineral crystals formed animitative landscape (the modern term in Japanese is senkei).Fortune characterizes the garden containing these as having "anovel and striking effect." This early phrase contains much ofthe essence of bonsai. He goes on: "In Japan, as in China,dwarf plants are greatly esteemed; and the art of dwarfing hasbeen brought to a high state of perfection."In the fall of 1843, Fortune visited Ning-po, continuing hisvoyage up the eastern coast. In visits to gardens of some of theMandarins in this city he noted dwarf trees. Among these werealso trees formed to resemble animals -a form of orientaltopiary. The presence of bonsai in China at this time may beexplained as indigenous. Trading from the east coast to Japanhad been common for a thousand years, which may be anotherway in which dwarfing of trees became common in geographicalregions of both countries. Fortune also observed culture tech-niques for dwarf trees and commented on the species used by 7. 268the Chinese. Fortunes acute observations on technique, longoverlooked in the West, could be a succinct vade mecum forany fancier.In the introduction to the narrative of the U.S. Expeditionto Japan, Francis Hawks mentions the wonderful dwarfing skillsof the Japanese: "... may be seen, in the miniature gardensof the towns, perfectly mature trees, of various kinds, notmore than three feet high, and with heads about three feet indiameter. These dwarfed trees are often placed in flower pots.Fischer says that he saw in a box four inches long, one and ahalf wide, and six in height, a bamboo, a fir, and a plum tree,all thriving, and the latter in full bloom."In the West little notice of bonsai was taken until the LondonExhibition of 1909 when an exporter, Mr. Sato, brought a dis-play collection from Japan. Later he held private showings inNew York. This entrepreneurial activity may have been spurredby plants presented as gifts to officials by the Japanese, or byindividual specimens brought back by devotees of the grandtour. Previous to this in the United States Leonard and Compa-ny of Boston had a four-day auction of over 450 plants importedby Yamanako and Company. These plants were advertised as"3 year acclimated" and were sold in antique Chinese andJapanese containers. In 1911 the Ernest Francs collection cameto New York (now at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden) and in1913 a collection of dwarf trees was exported to the UnitedStates for Ambassador Larz Anderson (later given to the ArnoldArboretum in 1937).Many of the imported trees were doomed, since the literatureavailable in western languages was sparse until the postwarperiod. (The stringent Federal Horticultural Board Embargoearlier in the century had dampened the enthusiasm for plantimportation.) Short general articles appeared in the GardenersChronicle of America in 1922, in the Journal Horticole et deViticulture de Suisse in 1909 and in the Tribune Horticole in1932. A perceptive article on the Larz Anderson Collectionwritten by Elinor Guthrie appeared in the June 1937 issue ofHouse Beautiful.Information on techniques of growing were not readily avail-able to the West until the mid-1950s and later. The charge ofsome popular writers that the techniques of dwarfing "havebeen clothed in secrecy by the orientals" is unfair. The lackof competent translated works was the real brake on popularacceptance by the gardening public.But to turn to the third geographical area of interest in the 8. "The Drooping Pine" by Li Shih Hsin (Yiian Dynasty 1280-1368). Fromthe collection of Mr. S. M. Siu of Hong Kong, in "Chinese Ancient Paint-ings Collected by S. M. Siu."history of bonsai, we come to China. Bonsai are closely asso-ciated with Japan in the American mind. Many Japaneseauthors trace the word itself to growers in Azakusa Park in themid-19th century of Japan. However we call them, bonsai orpen tsai, it has become clear that the growing of small trees inpots has a long history in Japan and China. Further, it seemsthat the recent history of Japan and its close contacts with theUnited States has strongly influenced writers of popular workswhose access to information on Chinese customs has been morelimited. 9. Old tree, by an artist named Li Tang, the Southern Sung Dynasty ( l2th-13th century). From The Pageant ot Chinese Painting, Otsuhe Kogeisha,Tokyo, 1936.The best evidence of Chinese antecedents for bonsai comesfrom scrolls and screens preserved to this day. For examplefrom the Sung Period (960-1279) we have an unsigned workwith figures seated about a table and a bonsai (Pinus sp.) inthe lower left foreground [see The Pageant of Chinese Painting].Other paintings from the Sung Period include Lady at a Dress-ing Table and Children Playing with Tops on a Garden Terraceby Su Hon-chen active about 1124-1162 AD.From the Ming Period (1368-1644) there is an anonymouswork which includes a bonsai as an interior feature of ahousehold [see Masterpieces of Sung, Yiian, Ming and ChingPainting]. A work by Chon Ying depicts large artfully trainedtrees in porcelain tubs flanking a stair (awork executed inJapan), and those of another work by the same artist show atree kept small but with roots in the ground. Those in the smalltubs are certainly bonsai in the modem sense.The Ming paintings Stories of Ladies executed by Chin Yingare delightful vignettes of court life. Two of these depict bonsaiwhich modern fanciers would be proud to own. The first showsa terrace scene where a lady is busying herself at a long lacquertable in front of a large screen; on the terrace and used by theartist as a focal counterpoint is an unmistakable bonsai. An- 10. 271other scene shows a garden with mother, maids and children;on a table are three bonsai in the modern sense along with abowl of potted bulbs.Another Ming work by Tu Ling Nei-shih describes a terracescene with a bonsai as a table ornament.One of the best depictions of a bonsai of any age is thatexecuted by Li Shih Hsin of the Yiian Dynasty (1280-1368).Called the Drooping Pine it is now in the collection of Mr. S. M.Siu of Hong Kong. Mr. Siu, a distinguished collector of art, hasgiven permission to reproduce the photo of his treasure.In the Ching Period (1644-1911) the artist Erh-Chi depictsa truly modern bonsai planted in a tray with rocks.Due to the turbulence of Chinese political life in the late 19thcentury and after the death of the Empress Tzu-Hsi, evidenceof bonsai as a Chinese garden art is sparse in western sources.However, Fortunes observations combined with much laterobservers gives us confidence that bonsai continued as a partof Chinese culture into modern times. Dr. F. A. McClure, notedbotanist and teacher in China, reported on A National Art ClubExhibit of Chinese Table Plants and Paintings in 1930. Amongthose exhibited were species of Casuarina, Paeonia, Juniper andBuxus : "dwarfed in what is known in the West as the Japanesestyle." In the notice of an exhibition he refers to these "dwarfedplants and miniature landscapes" or "this peculiar form ofChinese art." Modern Chinese bonsai fanciers such as Mr. WuYee-sun of Hong Kong continue this time-honored art whosecontinued existence on the mainland is problematical.There have been many reasons advanced to account for thepopularity of small, trained, potted trees. The earliest recordsof potted trees are found in references to the ruling classes ofChina and Japan. At the courts in early cities, in temples andmonasteries, men confined in restricted space needed remindersof nature. The trees may have carried religious sentiment butlater became popular as ornamental objects. As cities becamelarger the need was even more pressing among those who couldafford the art, especially in the river and coastal cities whererapid growth and agricultural needs denuded the natural vege-tation. The merchant class emulated the hobbies of the rulingfamilies. In modem times with mega-urbanization the culti-vation of dwarf trees has been espoused by individuals fromevery social level, and, in many parts of the world.The origins of bonsai may very well be traced to the TangPeriod of China. Verification in works of art go back to theSung Period but it must be remembered it was only at that time 11. 273that artists depicted the courts, homes and gardens as a commontheme. The custom, among many others, was adopted in Japanpossibly as early as the Fujiwara Period (794-1192). The arthas been in continual practice in both China and Japan for over1,000 years and in Japan it is considered as an art on the samelevel as painting and sculpture. In the West the custom hasbecome widespread only within recent memory.It is difficult to define the appeal of these demanding treeforms. Perhaps the one common denominator which explainsthe lure of bonsai is their expressiveness of freedom. As mansees himself crowded by burgeoning populations and a rapidlynarrowing ratio of square footage per person, the bonsai be-comes symbolic, as it did in another context for the Buddhists,of a long-abandoned, far distant better time when man was anatural phenomenon in and not above nature.CHARLES R. LONGFor further reference see:Itoh, Yoshimi, Bonsai Origins, Bonsai: Vol. 3, no. 1, 3-5. Spring1969.Onuki, Chuzo, Bonsai, Tokyo, Jitsugyo No Nihon Sha, 1964.Fortune, Robert, Yedo and Peking. A Narrative of a Journey tothe Capitals of Japan and China, London, John Murray, 1863.Yee-sun, Wu, Man Lung Garden Artistic Pot Plants, Hong Kong,Wing Lung Bank Ltd., 1969.Yee-sun, Wu, Public Lecture on Artistic Pot Plants -Bonsai,University of Hong Kong, Feb. 10, 1971. (Copy available atLibrary of Arnold Arboretum and Library of the Massachu-setts Horticultural Society.)Ming Huang Peeping at Bathing Court Attendants. Anonymous. FromMasterpieces of Sung, Yiian, Ming, Ching Painting, compiled by The FineArts Academy, Tokyo, 1931.


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