There’s no doubt about the fact that bamboo has an important status in China. The early Chinese ancestors already discovered that bamboo, which grew in abundance, could be used to make different kinds of utensils and handicrafts. In this article, we’re going to take you on a journey through the landscape of bamboo culture in China.
Medium of Communication
During the late Shang Dynasty (around 1250 BC), bamboo strips were used as a medium for communication. That’s more than 3000 years ago! They functioned as a medium for stories, poems, official documents, medical records and more.
The earliest works of ancient China, including famous book ‘The Art of War‘ by Sun Tzu was in fact also unearthed in form of bamboo slips!
At first knives were used to carve characters in bamboo, which was later replaced by ink.
The use of bamboo strips lasted many centuries, but after the introduction of paper during the Han Dynasty (first two centuries AD), bamboo strips slowly decreased in popularity. In the 4th century, the use of bamboo strips was virtually abandoned. However, in the 9th century bamboo made a comeback as it became popular to make paper from bamboo!
Bamboo Ink Paintings
The significance of bamboo is also expressed through paintings. It’s for instance often draw using a black ink brush accompanied by flowers as well as animals such fishes, insects and birds. These paintings are known as ‘Hua Niao Hua’ or ‘花鸟画’ (Birds & Flower paintings). Such paintings are also often combined by poems in the style of Chinese calligraphy.
The first Hua Niao paintings appeared during the Six Dynasty period (222–589AD). It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty, before this category of paintings started to flourish. It was also in this period, during which bamboo became an important theme.
Each artists will have their own style of painting bamboo, similar to handwriting. The sections of the branches and leaves are painted with a single stroke.
Bamboo plants and trees are often times painted together with magpie birds and plum blossoms, which signify ever lasting love and eternal happiness.
Bamboo Musical Instruments
When it comes to musical instruments made of bamboo, there are just too many to mention. They can generally be divided into flute and string instruments. The most famous flute instrument is the Xiao flute. It’s blown vertically and is fairly long compared to other flutes.
Well known string instruments include the pipa and the ‘zither’ (or ‘zhu’ / 筑 ). The pipa is like a pear shaped guitar with 4 strings. The traditional zither has 5 strings played in a seated-position like playing the piano. Modern ones have 13 strings.
Below some videos and soundtracks, so that you can actually see/hear these instruments in action. Below a wonderful classical piece played with the Chinese Zither and Flute.
Here’s a wonderful pipa performance by Wu Man:
Here’s a video Lily Liu, playing Guzheng:
The edible part of the bamboo plant are the young & tender sprouts that have just emerged from the ground. These are also called bamboo shoots. Bamboo shoots have become one of the most popular ingredients in the cuisine of China as well as other asian countries. We highly recommend to watch the below video to see how these shoots are harvested and cooked into different dishes:
Besides the bamboo shoots, the wood from bamboo are often used to make cooking utensils. Perhaps the best example is the bamboo steamer, which is used to cook many kinds of Cantonese dimsum. See the video below how such steamers are made by hand:
Furniture & Utensils
Furnite, hats, shoes, kitchen utensils, umbrellas, they’ve all been made before using bamboo. Watch the video below to see how a tea table is made fully from bamboo wood.
This really shows how amazingly versatile bamboo is and how well it fits in any kind of interior at home.
You can see that bamboo plays an important part in many aspects of Chinese history and culture. In this article we’ve discussed how bamboo plays an important role in food and documentation as well as art and entertainment. Yet, we’ve not even touched upon how bamboo was used to make weapons (e.g. bows) or architecture (bamboo homes and palaces).
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