These trees were known as penjing, a Chinese term meaning”tray scene,” or penzai,”tray plant.”
In China, Zen Buddhists prized these dwarfed trees, which were found in the wild and full of twists and knots. Of no practical value, they have been thought of as full of natural energy due to their uncultivated nature. Later, as the prevalence of the art spread, techniques were developed to cultivate dwarfed trees in order to fulfill demand that exceeded the availability of wild specimens. They were popular among scholars and the wealthy, who used potted trees to accent their elaborate gardens.
In Japan, the influence of Zen aesthetics and the idea of”beauty in austerity” led to the creation of a distinctly Japanese style. Bonsai, a Japanese pronunciation of penzai, emphasized a single ideal tree as opposed to emulating a natural landscape. In the 14th century, the term for these potted trees was hachi-no-ki,”tree in a bowl,” indicating that at this time, the trees had been planted in deep strands of Chinese style. Bonsai as a term became popular in the 17th century, when practices shifted to use shallow Japanese-style trays to cultivate bonsai; the method preferred now.
The Chinese tree-sculpting techniques expanded to include a variety of tools and practices designed to produce an illusion of age and wildness in the cultivated trees. These included special pruning techniques that produce natural-seeming branch breaks and openings rather than artificial stumps, wiring and pruning to shape branches, and a suite of bark-removal methods that create dead wood, to be able to simulate the appearance of trees that have been damaged by fire, struck by lightning, or otherwise exposed to natural hardships in their lifetime. Development of these techniques continues into the modern day.