Bamboo in Chinese culture

Bamboo plays a vital role in Chinese culture and its influence can be found in almost every facet of life. The plant is known in China as zhu and the Chinese character, which has been simplified from the ancient version, essentially shows two stalks of the bamboo plant topped with leaves. For thousands of years, bamboo has greatly influenced life and culture in China. Below are some examples of evidence of the early use of bamboo uncovered by archaeological research.

During Neolithic times (12,000-2,000 BC) bamboo was used in construction as well as for making chopsticks and baskets. Bamboo shoots were also part of the diet.

During the Xia-Dynasty (2,300-1,750 BC) the Dujiang Dam, the greatest water conservancy project in Chinese history, was built using bamboo and in the Shang-Dynasty (1,750-1,040 BC) there is evidence that the Chinese were using bamboo to make household articles and weapons such as bows and arrows.

In the Han-Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) bamboo or wooden strips were the standard writing material. Some 1,600 years ago, people wrote with brushes on xuan paper (known in the West as rice paper) made from young bamboo. Today, xuan paper is still popular for Chinese calligraphy and paintings.

The Song-Dynasty (960-1279 AD) scientist and polymath Shen Kuo (1031-1095) used the evidence of underground petrified bamboo found in the dry northern climate of Yan'an, Shanbei region, Shaanxi province, to support his geological theory of gradual climate change.

Su-Dongpo (1037-1101), a literary giant of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), said that people could not live without bamboo. The people of the time used bamboo as firewood and to make tiles, paper, rafts, hats, rain capes, and shoes. As today, bamboo shoots were eaten as a popular dish because of their crispness and fresh, sweet taste. Bamboo shoots also contain vitamins, sugar, fat, and protein. Su even attributed his literary inspiration to bamboo, also a popular subject for classical painters.

The properties of bamboo shoots were recorded in the book of Compendium of Materia Medica, a pharmaceutical text written during the Ming-Dynasty (1368-1644), with the following words: “It’s slightly cold, sweet, non-toxic, and it quenches thirst, benefits the liquid circulatory system, supplements Qi, and can be served as a daily dish.”

About 100 years ago, William Edgar Geil, an American missionary and explorer in China, made the following observations about the use of bamboo, which he summarised in his “Ode to Bamboo” as part of his book "A Yankee on the Yangtze":

A man can sit in a bamboo house under a bamboo roof, on a bamboo chair at a bamboo table, with a bamboo hat on his head and bamboo sandals on his feet. He can at the same time hold in one hand a bamboo bowl, in the other hand bamboo chopsticks and eat bamboo sprouts. When through with his meal, which has been cooked over a bamboo fire, the table may be washed with a bamboo cloth, and he can fan himself with a bamboo fan, take a siesta on a bamboo bed, lying on a bamboo mat with his head resting on a bamboo pillow. His child might be lying in a bamboo cradle, playing with a bamboo toy. On rising he would smoke a bamboo pipe and taking a bamboo pen, write on bamboo paper, or carry his articles in bamboo baskets suspended from a bamboo pole, with a bamboo umbrella over his head. He might then take a walk over a bamboo suspension bridge, drink water from a bamboo ladle, and scrape himself with a bamboo scraper.

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