Bonsai: The Art of Creating Trees in Miniature

Like pampered pets and trophy wives, BONSAI can be high maintenance, expensive to acquire, difficult to control and frequently in need of mollycoddling. You never know how they will turn out. Are they good feng shui? Not according to Lillian Too, although she does concede they can be pretty to look at and in one’s old age, provide a certain amount of pleasure for tired eyes. We go in search of the origins of this ancient practice finding a revival amongst modern-day enthusiasts and brings us this charming account of these miniature trees.

Renowned as a fine art that has been honed to perfection by the Japanese, the art of Bonsai actually originated in China. It was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks and via diplomatic missions during the seafaring days of the 7th century.

Earliest depictions of the Bonsai is the famous mural at the Qianling mausoleum showing a courtier presenting a bonsai pot at the tomb of the Tang Dynasty Crown Prince Zhanghuai, and that was during the 8th Century. Due to their obvious difficulties in cultivation and time-consuming process, bonsai evolved into much-treasured status symbols of the old aristocracy. In ancient China, bonsai were appreciated by the wealthy and adorned the gardens of the educated literati and leisure classes.

The aesthetics of bonsai include not just the shape of the tree but also the composition it forms with stone, rockery, pot and even stool upon which it sits. Often, drooping or convoluted branches make it impossible for it to be displayed on a desk facing the owner.

Hard as it is to believe, it has been acknowledged that centuries-old Bonsai trees grown in ancient times still exist today. The most acclaimed are Bonsai Tokyo’s Imperial Palace collection. Indeed, a five-needle pine is listed as one of Japan’s National Living Treasures; this tree according to authentic documents is claimed to have been personally cared for by the Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Shogun of the Tokugawa Dynasty who ruled Japan from 1623 to 1651! This plant is estimated at around 500 years old! Quite a feat of almost immortality by a still living tree!

In June 2013, Sotheby’s Hong Kong held an Exhibition which showcased sixteen bonsai trees from the late 18th Century to the year 2000. Prices ranged from RM8,000 to RM333,000. These bonsai were not easy to obtain garden varieties but considered now priceless living scupltures. There was great demand for these treasures at that Show.

Bonsai are primarily displayed indoors, often on personal work desks for owners to contemplate and appreciate. These are real trees so they need to be taken out to smell the winds and savour the sunlight at regular intervals; every 6 hours or so each day, because they will wilt when deprived of natural sunlight! Kept indoors for longer than 2 days and these trees manifest sure signs of impending death, such as leaves turning yellow and stems looking weaker.

Bonsai as an art form integrates seamlessly with the Chinese literati lifestyle for at least 1,400 years. Bonsai can captivate the imagination as even non-green fingers can instantly appreciate the exquisite beauty of a truly beautiful bonsai tree. Some meditate in front of the bonsai to contemplate the spiritual relationship between man and nature.

Like pedigree orchids, there are a variety of self-explanatory styles. Accepted ones include Formal/Informal Upright, Slant, Cascade, Root Over Rock, Growing On Rock, Multi-Trunk, Windswept, Collapsed Trunk and Forest or groups of trees that imitate a natural landscape.
The Bonsai features strongly in many Japanese folk stories. Old Gardeners were said to commit suicide when their bonsai creations failed to please their masters. There is also the touching tale of an impoverished Samurai who sacrificed his last three bonsai as firewood to provide warmth for a travelling monk on a cold winter’s night. The monk turned out to be a prince in disguiseb and the Samurai was rewarded with three huge tracts of land named after the three tree species the Samurai burned – the plum, the pine and the cherry blossom. This tale has since been immortalised in plays and textile patterns.

To the Chinese, Bonsai is the ancient Chinese art of penjing, or “tray landscaping”. Such bonsai contain sculptural features, with each tree reflecting the aesthetic vision of an artist working in consonance with Nature. Rather than domination of one over the other, the beauty of bonsai lies in the harmonious fusion of man’s creativity and Nature’s will.

Bonsai as an art form integrates seamlessly with the Chinese literati lifestyle for at least 1,400 years. Bonsai can captivate the imagination as even non-green fingers can instantly appreciate the exquisite beauty of a truly beautiful bonsai tree. Some meditate in front of the bonsai to contemplate the spiritual relationship between man and nature.

While there are common concepts of aesthetics between bonsai and Chinese literary art, the difference lies in the long growing process, as the mind of the owner may change over time and the growth of the tree cannot be entirely controlled.

Bonsai can be cultivated from perennial woody-stemmed trees or shrubs that have branches. Once a tree demonstrates bonsai potential according to accepted shapes and proportions, its growth is controlled and it is also restricted by the size of the pot.


The main allure is the creation of perfect miniature versions of what the trees would look like as adult trees. They do not need to dwarf trees for as long as they are perfect replicas of their adult appearance, bonsai become very valuable. Getting such a bonsai requires skillful techniques that control the growth of the trees, and methods include reducing the root system, clever potting and re-potting, regular defoliation, grafting and pruning to achieve the desired results of perfectly formed miniature trees that look exactly like their full grown counterparts.

It takes between two and ten years to create a beautiful mature bonsai, although even the best of care cannot guarantee ideal results. Enthusiasts accept that despite the time, expense and cost involved in their creation, bonsai are strictly for visual delight. These trees may look like their adult counterparts, but their fruits are not edible and their root systems cannot be used for medicinal purposes. But yes, they do send out exquisite flowers and fruits!

Bonsai connoisseurs recommend bonsai to be displayed at eye level, and to display them in the best light, they should be stood against a plain background, devoid of distraction and preferably in isolation. Bonsai are very zen and blend well into spaces that adopt the less is more philosophy of the minimalist genre of architecture and interior decor. They can be amazingly decorative then, and in this light, bonsai can blend very seamlessly into a modern decorated 21st Century glass and chrome interior.

Is BONSAI Good Feng Shui?

I ask Lillian Too, who believes Bonsai can be good for older people who are retired or enjoying their golden years. But they are not so great for young, aggressive go-getters. This is because the bonsai symbolizes the stunting of growth energy. The result can be a distorted out of shape tree that can cause energy around the space to become similarly distorted.

“Bonsai is pretty to look at, and everyone knows it requires impressive skill, effort and expense to produce stunning mini trees growing in shallow trays. The shape and silhouette are nice, but bonsai is very much about stunted, deformed, unnatural trees!

“Personally, I think businessmen in the early years of growth and expansion should refrain from displaying bonsai in their homes, offices or gardens, lest their businesses get affected. A businessman, shareholder or venture capitalist naturally want their investments to grow as big as possible, not as small as possible! Bonsai is about chopping off roots, cutting branches and removing leaves to stunt their growth, not good for business!

It can be argued of course that if you can coerce a strong 10-metre tree to grow and thrive inside a small tray, you can surely triumph over your rivals! If your bonsai can flourish inside a restricted space, your business can indeed also, to spread exponentially in the real world!

Similarly, oldies-but-goodies can grow bonsai since bonsai are durable, long-lasting and incredibly resilient, as they have attained their shapes without breaking. Bonsai live for centuries, which can symbolize longevity. Surely then, those getting on in age can display the long living and thriving bonsai as a symbol of longevity?