The word bonsai comes from the Japanese terms bon ‘tray’ and sai ‘planting’. Although the word is Japanese, the art actually has Chinese roots. The history of this method of cultivation can be traced back nearly 3,000 years ago. Since then, plants have been cultivated in China to imitate natural landscapes. This art form is known as penjing or penzai. For example, Shanshui penjing is landscaping which involves creating miniature landscapes with rocks that are selected or shaped, with water, and then small plants to complete the illusion.
It’s thought that with Buddhism expanding from China into Japan, that new plants were introduced, and therefore new art forms with those plants.
By the Edo or Tokugawa period which lasted from 1603-1867, potting up small trees as bonsais and gardening were incredibly popular, especially for the wealthy. Then as the 20th Century came around, the practices of bonsai were loved and appreciated across the world, as they are today.
They made their way into the western world through printed art, like through block prints and illustrations from those travelling the countries.