The earliest known miniature trees in Japan were imported from China by scholars and Buddhist students in the 6th century. These trees were called penjing, a Chinese term meaning”tray scene,” or penzai,”tray plant”
In China, Zen Buddhists prized these dwarfed trees, which have been found in the wild and full of twists and knots. Of no practical value, they have been thought of as full of natural energy because of their uncultivated nature. Later, as the popularity of the art spread, techniques were developed to cultivate dwarfed trees to be able to meet demand that exceeded the availability of wild specimens.
In Japan, the influence of Zen aesthetics and the notion of”beauty in austerity” led to the creation of a distinctly Japanese style. Bonsai, a Japanese pronunciation of penzai, highlighted a single ideal tree as opposed to emulating a natural landscape. From the 14th century, the word for these potted trees was hachi-no-ki,”tree in a bowl,” indicating that at this moment, the trees had been planted in deep pots of Chinese style. Bonsai as a term became popular in the 17th century, when clinics shifted to use shallow Japanese-style trays to cultivate bonsai; the method favored now.
The Chinese tree-sculpting techniques expanded to include a variety of tools and practices designed to produce an illusion of age and wildness from the cultivated trees. These included special pruning methods that produce natural-seeming branch breaks and openings as opposed to artificial stumps, pruning and wiring to form branches, and a suite of bark-removal procedures that produce dead wood, in order to simulate the look of trees which have been damaged by fire, struck by lightning, or otherwise subjected to natural hardships in their lifetime. Development of these techniques continues to the modern day.