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Every time someone plants a tree in a shallow pot and begins the delicate process of training its branches to enhance its natural form, bonsai begins again. No one knows who first trained a tree in a pot or when he or she did it. We do know that on the walls of 4,000-year-old tombs in Egypt are wonderfully preserved paintings of potted plants; and that 3,000 years ago, physicians in ancient India kept potted trees as at-hand sources of herbs and extracts. And 1,800 years ago, the Chinese codified styles of dwarf trees throughout every region and province of China, thus giving structure and qualification to what had been mere haphazard plantings. The Chinese word for artistic potted plant is p’en tsai, meaning “pot planting.” Some evidence suggests the art was well developed before 2000 B.C.
But it is the Japanese who have elevated the art of miniaturizing trees in pots to the highest level. Bonsai, the Japanese translation of the Chinese p’en tsai, didn’t appear in Japan until about 1300 A.D., but the art has flourished there and the Japanese remain the undisputed masters of the art. Bonsai masters carefully study a tree to find the essence of the tree’s form and, through time-honored techniques, simplify that form to enhance its best features and reduce its unappealing characteristics. Bonsai artists almost never add anything to a tree. To do so would violate its simplicity and humility and mask its natural beauty.
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