I primi bonsai furono coltivati nel VI secolo dopo Cristo dai popoli nomadi di origine mongola che dominavano la Cina: facevano crescere piante medicinali nei vasi per poterli trasportare nelle migrazioni.
La pratica di miniaturizzare gli alberi però è probabilmente più antica e risale a una pratica di oltre 2.000 anni fa, chiamata Penjing, che consisteva nel comporre paesaggi con miniature di monti, fiumi e alberi.  Il bonsai più antico mai ritrovato, infatti è stato rinvenuto in una tomba risalente a tremila anni fa.
La coltivazione dei bonsai come vera e propria arte fu sviluppata, attorno al 700, dai monaci buddisti cinesi, che applicavano ai mini- alberi i principi della loro filosofia: l’uomo doveva ridurre alla sua capacità di visione ciò che lo circonda, miniaturizzando non solo l’albero, ma anche il paesaggio su cui cresce. Altre scuole invece vedevano nei tronchi contorti e nati su una pietra la nascita della vita nonostante le avversità. Tronchi e rami potevano anche essere piegati per creare ideogrammi o numeri magici.
Secondo una leggenda, la nascita dell’arte del bonsai risale al periodo Han (206 a. C.- 220 d. C.), e a iniziarla sarebbe stato un uomo dotato del potere di miniaturizzare i paesaggi. Ma la prima testimonianza certa si trova in un dipinto rinvenuto nella tomba di un nobile della dinastia Tang, morto nel 705 d. C., dove sono raffigurati due uomini che portano un contenitore con un piccolo albero. Nel periodo successivo, intorno al 1000, si diffusero composizioni di paesaggi, con pietre e figure, chiamate pun-wan o bonkei. Il modo di coltivare gli alberi si differenziò in varie scuole, a seconda delle dimensioni, delle varietà utilizzate e delle forme in cui gli alberi venivano piegati. I bonsai arrivarono in Giappone, probabilmente con i monaci buddisti, nel periodo Heian (794-1185 d. C.).
Qui gli alberi in miniatura presero il nome di bonsai. All’inizio del 1800 sorsero le prime scuole di “arte bonsai” che codificarono stili, regole e misure. I grandi maestri provenivano da famiglie come i Kato, i Murata, i Nakamura. I primi esemplari di bonsai arrivarono in Europa alla fine del secolo scorso come curiosità esotiche, presentate alle esposizioni universali.

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