THE PRACTICE OF miniaturizing plants is thought to have come to Japan from China sometime around the seventh century, when the two countries formally established diplomatic ties. By that point, Chinese gardeners had likely been creating potted landscapes, or penjing (“potted scenery”), for hundreds of years, bringing nature into the homes of political elites, painters and calligraphers. Penjing, as it developed over the centuries, didn’t idealize nature but rather portrayed — or, as some bonsai scholars suggest, exaggerated — its strange, expansive beauty. Until the 1970s, when the Chinese government began codifying five regional schools of penjing, each with its own approach to styling local species through cutting, wiring or pinching, there were few rules: Early guides published in the 16th and 17th centuries suggested that practitioners should attempt to imitate values like vigor and austerity represented in classical landscape painting, says Phillip E. Bloom, the 38-year-old curator of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. Often, the principles were abstract — an artisan might have aimed, Bloom says, “to somehow create heaven in the tree” — which left penjing open to poetic interpretation.
As early as the 12th century, Japanese craftspeople and monks had likewise evolved the art into a controlled, observational form that later came to be known as bonsai (“potted planting”); while the term itself had existed for centuries, it was not until the Meiji era (1868-1912) that it took on its modern meaning. By then, scholars had begun to classify elements like trunk shapes, 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 could range in size from just a few inches tall to Imperial trees that could exceed six feet. Regardless of size or species or age, each tree distilled the sublime beauty of an ancient forest. Today, the Kyoto-based bonsai curator and scholar Hitomi Kawasaki, 41, compares the ideal form of classical bonsai to the kamae posture of Noh theater, with the actor’s knees slightly bent and arms held away from the body. “If you’re in that stance, it’s the most stable point, and if you can let go, it’s almost like floating,” Kawasaki says. “With bonsai, it’s similar: There’s a point of balance, you strengthen that point and everything comes into being.” When practitioners succeed in this, their trees can outlive them by centuries, their growth slowed, but never fully halted, by confinement; if the specimens are off balance, they eventually wither. Poised between control and abandon, creation and destruction, life and death, the art is, as Kawasaki writes in a forthcoming essay, “an attempt to find a middle way out of dualism.”