A panda munches on a bamboo sprig. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN
For thousands of years bamboo has been an important practical and cultural product in China. People have used it for food, crafts, and weaponry, and to make bridges, residences, and household items.
China has used bamboo for thousands of years. Ten thousand years ago hominids (erect bipedal primate mammals comprising recent humans together with extinct ancestral and related forms) living along the Yangzi (Chang) River used bamboo. During the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) people used bamboo to make arrowheads. During the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) people carved words on bamboo strips and used them to send messages. During the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) people made pens of bamboo, and during the Jurchen Jin dynasty (265–316 CE) people made paper—one of the four great inventions of ancient China—from bamboo. During the Song dynasty (960–1279) bamboo was used as a weapon.
Chinese people have long used bamboo in daily life. Su Shi, a scholar during the Song dynasty, wrote: “Bamboo shoot for food, bamboo tile for house making, bamboo hat for rain sheltering, bamboo wood for fuel, bamboo skin for clothing, bamboo paper for writing and bamboo shoes for foot wearing, that is the life—we can not do without bamboo” (Zhaohua 2001).
In general bamboo has had four uses during China’s long history: as a versatile and durable natural resource of value in all aspects of daily life, as decoration, in weaponry, and as a cultural symbol.
As early as the Spring and Autumn period, the production of bamboo occupied an important position in agriculture, fishing, industry, and domestic life. The Han dynasty (206 BCE –220 CE) made about 60 kinds of everyday items out of bamboo; the Jin dynasty made about 100; the Tang (618–907 CE) and Song dynasties, more than 200; and the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), about 250 items. The most familiar were rulers, curtains, fans, rafts, and cases, which are still common today.
Bamboo also was used in the Du Jiangyuan hydraulic engineering works two thousand years ago, and people in Sichuan Province dug a salt well 160 meters deep using bamboo rope during the Han dynasty.
Bamboo was a dependable building material, especial in southern China. In Yunnan Province several minorities, such as the Dai and Zhuang, used bamboo pavilions as their main residences, and before the popularization of steel and concrete, bridges were built of bamboo.
Chinese also have long valued bamboo for the taste and nutritional value of its shoots. “There is no banquet without bamboo” was an often-heard saying during the Tang dynasty. In 1006 BCE the Emperor Zhou Cheng entertained his subordinates with a “bamboo shoot banquet.”
Basket weaving was at the core of ancient bamboo culture. Basketry began during the early Neolithic period (8000–5500 BCE), and the Warring States period was the turning point of the craft as it gradually developed into a decorative art. During the Tang and Song dynasties exquisite bamboo lanterns and other woven products were used in everyday life. In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, with the growing number of bamboo basketry artists, the types of household items bearing intricate bamboo decoration only increased.
Bamboo carving is another traditional craft. A Han dynasty bamboo spoon with a dragon pattern, found in the Mawangdui Tomb in the city of Changsha, was the earliest practical example of bamboo carving. During the Ming dynasty bamboo carving developed into an art.
One of the earliest uses of bamboo was in crafting arrows and lances. An ancient legend about “Hou Yi shooting the sun” featured a bamboo bow and arrow. During the Han dynasty, bamboo pieces carved with characters and patterns to represent military leadership were used as a commanders’ tallies. (A fu, the Chinese word for tally, was a form of credential or authority, or could also function as a passport). When the general was leading an army to fight, the king would give the general one half of the bamboo symbol and keep the other half. If he needed to send orders to the general, the king would let his representative take his half of the bamboo symbol and show it to the general to verify the authenticity of the orders. Bamboo played an important role in the military as bamboo guns were produced during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). People filled the long culm (stem) with the predecessor of modern gunpowder. During the end of Han dynasty (208–280 BCE), rattan armor was the most important protecting method in Chinese southwestern national minorities.
In ancient Chinese culture bamboo was the symbol of good fortune and longevity, valued for its tenacious properties and its transcendent beauty; an appreciation for bamboo was considered the mark of a gentleman. Indeed, many bamboo qualities were said to symbolize those of noble human beings—its strength and solidity, for instance, representing a person’s faithfulness and firmness; its hollowness a symbol of a modest personality. Thus, bamboo became a common subject of painting and poetry. The earliest collection of Chinese poetry, Shijing (Book of Songs) (1046–771 BCE), included five poems about bamboo. Traditional Chinese alphabetical characters also reflected the importance of bamboo in the culture. Until the Qing dynasty 960 characters bore the bamboo radical. (Word radicals are the building blocks of most written Chinese words, or pictograms. Each radical conveys a certain message, either of an object or an abstract idea, which, when combined, link the core ideas to the more complex meaning of the word.)
Inspired by their traditional use of bamboo Chinese people summarized many valuable experiences and wrote related books, such as Chinese Bestiary, which was published in the fourth century BCE and described the distribution, characteristics, and economic values of ancient bamboo resources, and the first bamboo monograph, called “bamboo spectrum,” which in the sixth century CE described seventy bamboo species. Most of the descriptions were in accordance with modern research.
Bamboo indeed is the essence of Chinese history. As the British scholar Joseph Lee said, “East Asian civilization is bamboo civilization” (Zehui 2002).
Yiyang Agriculture Academy. (1999). Basics of bamboo industry. Changsha, China: Hunan Science and Technology Press.
Zhu Zhaohua. (2001). Sustainable development of the bamboo and rattan sectors in tropical China. Beijing: China Forestry Publishing House.
Jiang Zehui. (2002). Bamboo and rattan in the world. Shenyang, China: Liaoning Science and Technology Publishing House.
Source: Fu, Jinhe. (2009). Bamboo. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 137–140. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Bamboo, from the Book of the Bamboo, by Chieh Tzu Yuan Hua Chuan. Source: Chieh Tzu Yuan Hua Chuan, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, (1679–1701).
School furniture made from bamboo.
A lantern cover constructed of woven bamboo.
Bamboo (Zhú ?)|Zhú ? (Bamboo)