Small is the old big

Bonsai tree-growing has been going in Taiwan since the late Qing dynasty and has become more popular over the years

By Meredith Dodge  /  STAFF REPORTER

Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 13

Why settle for the real thing when you can get the miniature version? Herein lies the appeal of puppies, tiny electronic items and bonsai trees.

The art of bonsai traces its origins back to Tang dynasty China, where penjing (盆景), literally "tray landscape," developed from an imperial delight to a popular art form. According to legend, the idea of miniature trees goes back even further to a Han emperor who had a miniature version of his empire, complete with mini trees, created in his courtyard so that he could gaze over his "domain" from his window.

Miniature trees found their way to Japan, where they became "bonsai" ("tray-planted"), during the large-scale Chinese culture importation of the Heian period (794 AD to 1191). Long reserved for the elite, bonsai didn't gain mass popularity until the 14th century.

As early as the 16th century, traders and missionaries brought bonsai from Japan and China back to Europe. By the late 1800s, two Japanese nurseries had set up shop in New York. Soldiers returning from Japan after World War II with bonsai trees fueled the growing popularity, and many Western nurseries began to grow bonsai. Today, prize-winning bonsai are cultivated from Thailand to Puerto Rico, England and the US.

In Taiwan, bonsai culture began in the late Qing dynasty. Taiwan's oldest living bonsai is a 240-year-old banyan that resides in Tainan's Kaiyuan Monastery (開元寺). Yet it wasn't until the 1980s that bonsai cultivation in Taiwan reached maturity. In 1984, a 13-part series titled The Art of Chinese Bonsai in Taiwan was broadcast on public television. The series was a huge hit and it set off a nationwide bonsai craze. Up to 150,000 people started growing bonsai and bonsai associations popped up in cities and counties from Taipei to Yunlin to Kaohsiung. Today, the numbers have dropped a bit.

"If you count bonsai growers registered with an association, there are between 10,000 and 20,000. For unregistered growers, the number is more like 100,000," said Yen Zi-jing (顏子景), who owns Bonsai World in Beitou (北投).

Bonsai growers in Taiwan are luckier than most: they have the climate on their side. The subtropical temperatures allow the trees to grow faster for longer. According to Yen, that means a fully developed tree can be produced in Taiwan in half the time it takes in Japan, where the climate is temperate.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's mountains mimic temperate and even frigid climates, providing for a broad range of tree species. These factors combine to make Taiwan's bonsai second only to Japan, said Yen.

Depending on its target size, a bonsai begins as a cutting or a seedling. Over the course of about five years it is pruned periodically to develop tapered trunks and branches. Young seedlings will naturally keep an even thickness for several meters. With bonsai, the trunk is chopped off at progressively higher points, causing it to grow thinner and thinner towards the top, creating the gnarled, tapered look of an old tree. The same is done to the branches.

The most basic principle of bonsai is that every part of the miniature tree -- roots, trunk, branches and leaves -- should be in proportion.

Not all species of tree are suitable for bonsai cultivation. The tree has to have naturally small leaves or be able to

develop them, and the space between leaves must be minimal. This can also be done with careful pruning -- the less space between leaves, the smaller they will grow.

Trees that are popular in Taiwan include tamarind, Chinese parasol trees, common jasmine orange, Formosa firethorn, maple, Chinese hackberry and even guava, but the most widely grown is the banyan.

"Taiwan's banyan bonsai are the best in the world," Yen said. "But as for exports, the cypress is our top tree." Evergreens are especially valued in the bonsai tradition due to their sturdiness. Cypress, which grows with a bent trunk in nature, is consi-dered the most beautiful tree to grow as a bonsai.

"One of the important issues for bonsai creation is how to catch the specific characteristic and spirit of each species. Cypress is grown at high altitudes ... Affected by the violent geography and climate, it always develops a flexible trunk and branches ... Tender but tough, cypress fully reveals the value of life and accommodation in adverse circumstances," writes Yunlin (雲林) bonsai cultivator Zheng Cheng-gong (鄭誠恭) on his Web site.

According to Yen most of the value of a bonsai depends on its age and how well it imitates nature. Yet to the trained eye, a beautiful bonsai is one that goes beyond simple realism to convey a deeper, indescribable aesthetic.

Yen, who offers classes in the art of bonsai, emphasized the importance of learning how to appreciate that aesthetic before spending a large sum on a banyan tree. The trees in his nursery -- mostly large bonsai that are 40 to 50 years old -- cost from NT$150,000 to NT$3,000,000. For those with a tighter budget and a less discerning eye, a smaller, younger bonsai from the Jianguo Weekend Flower Market (建國花市) costing from NT$500 to NT$10,000 will do fine.

Bonsai World is at 235, Chengde Rd, Sec. 5, Beitou, Taipei.

The Web site is

The phone number is (02) 2828 8022.