Bonsai probably originated in China, where it was first called pun-sai (tray plant) [source: Lesniewicz]. Chinese tomb paintings from the Tang dynasty show trees in shallow pots, and we can intuit that the art of bonsai-like plant sculpting is at least that old. Some speculate that its roots in China may go back as far as 206 B.C. and still survive today.
From China, bonsai migrated to Japan, possibly through trade or as an exchange of cultural gifts, where by the 13th century it was an established art form. The Japanese refined and perfected bonsai, developing many of the aesthetic principals that are observed today. They also introduced specimens of their unique art to the West in the early part of the 20th century.
At the Paris World's Exhibition of 1878, and later at the London Exhibition of 1909, bonsai became a sensation, and specimens were actively sought for private collections [source: Jahn]. Some of the original specimens were even purchased at auction for very high prices.
After the Second World War, bonsai became more accessible to the average enthusiast, and as supplies have become less expensive and more plentiful, the hobby has become more popular, expanding to include plant species and design choices unimagined a few decades ago. Next, we'll look at the many styles of bonsai and how they express the diversity of nature.