Bamboo’s long life makes it a Chinese symbol of uprightness and an Indian symbol of friendship. The rarity of its blossoming has led to the flowers’ being regarded as a sign of impending famine. This may be due to rats feeding upon the profusion of flowers, then multiplying and destroying a large part of the local food supply. The most recent flowering began in May 2006 (see Mautam). Bamboo is said to bloom in this manner only about every 50 years (see 28–60 year examples in FAO: ‘gregarious’ species table).
In Chinese culture, the bamboo, plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum (often known as méi lán zhú jú 梅兰竹菊) are collectively referred to as the Four Gentlemen. These four plants also represent the four seasons and, in Confucian ideology, four aspects of the junzi (“prince” or “noble one”). The pine (sōng 松), the bamboo (zhú 竹), and the plum blossom (méi 梅) are also admired for their perseverance under harsh conditions, and are together known as the “Three Friends of Winter” (岁寒三友 suìhán sānyǒu) in Chinese culture. The “Three Friends of Winter” is traditionally used as a system of ranking in Japan, for example in sushi sets or accommodations at a traditional ryokan. Pine (matsu 松) is of the first rank, bamboo (take 竹) is of second rank, and plum (ume 梅) is of the third.
The Bozo ethnic group of West Africa take their name from the Bambara phrase bo-so, which means “bamboo house”. Bamboo is also the national plant of St. Lucia.
Attributions of character
Photo of carved Chinese bamboo wall vase. 1918. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.
Bamboo, one of the “Four Gentlemen” (bamboo, orchid, plum blossom and chrysanthemum), plays such an important role in traditional Chinese culture that it is even regarded as a behavior model of the gentleman. As bamboo has features such as uprightness, tenacity, and modesty, people endow bamboo with integrity, elegance, and plainness, though it is not physically strong. Countless poems praising bamboo written by ancient Chinese poets are actually metaphorically about people who exhibited these characteristics. According to laws, an ancient poet, Bai Juyi (772–846), thought that to be a gentleman, a man does not need to be physically strong, but he must be mentally strong, upright, and perseverant. Just as a bamboo is hollow-hearted, he should open his heart to accept anything of benefit and never have arrogance or prejudice.
Bamboo is not only a symbol of a gentleman, but also plays an important role in Buddhism, which was introduced into China in the first century. As canons of Buddhism forbids cruelty to animals, flesh and egg were not allowed in the diet. The tender bamboo shoot (sǔn筍 in Chinese) thus became a nutritious alternative. Preparation methods developed over thousands of years have come to be incorporated into Asian cuisines, especially for monks. A Buddhist monk, Zan Ning, wrote a manual of the bamboo shoot called “Sǔn Pǔ筍譜” offering descriptions and recipes for many kinds of bamboo shoots. Bamboo shoot has always been a traditional dish on the Chinese dinner table, especially in southern China. In ancient times, those who could afford a big house with a yard would plant bamboo in their garden.
In Japan, a bamboo forest sometimes surrounds a Shinto shrine as part of a sacred barrier against evil. Many Buddhist temples also have bamboo groves.
A cylindrical bamboo brush holder or holder of poems on scrolls, created by Zhang Xihuang in the 17th century, late Ming or early Qing Dynasty – in the calligraphy of Zhang’s style, the poem Returning to My Farm in the Field by the fourth-century poet Tao Yuanming is incised on the holder.
Bamboo-style barred window in Lin An Tai Historical House, Taipei
Bamboo plays an important part of the culture of Vietnam. Bamboo symbolizes the spirit of Vovinam (a Vietnamese martial arts): cương nhu phối triển (coordination between hard and soft (martial arts)). Bamboo also symbolizes the Vietnamese hometown and Vietnamese soul: the gentlemanlike, straightforwardness, hard working, optimism, unity, and adaptability. A Vietnamese proverb says, “Tre già, măng mọc” (When the bamboo is old, the bamboo sprouts appear), the meaning being Vietnam will never be annihilated; if the previous generation dies, the children take their place. Therefore, the Vietnam nation and Vietnamese value will be maintained and developed eternally. Traditional Vietnamese villages are surrounded by thick bamboo hedges (lũy tre).
Several Asian cultures, including that of the Andaman Islands, believe humanity emerged from a bamboo stem.
In Philippine mythology, one of the more famous creation accounts tells of the first man, Malakás (“Strong”), and the first woman, Maganda (“Beautiful”), each emerged from one half of a split bamboo stem on an island formed after the battle between Sky and Ocean. In Malaysia, a similar story includes a man who dreams of a beautiful woman while sleeping under a bamboo plant; he wakes up and breaks the bamboo stem, discovering the woman inside. The Japanese folktale “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (Taketori Monogatari) tells of a princess from the Moon emerging from a shining bamboo section. Hawaiian bamboo (‘ohe) is a kinolau or body form of the Polynesian creator god Kāne.
A bamboo cane is also the weapon of Vietnamese legendary hero, Thánh Gióng, who had grown up immediately and magically since the age of three because of his wish to liberate his land from Ân invaders. An ancient Vietnamese legend (The Hundred-knot Bamboo Tree) tells of a poor, young farmer who fell in love with his landlord’s beautiful daughter. The farmer asked the landlord for his daughter’s hand in marriage, but the proud landlord would not allow her to be bound in marriage to a poor farmer. The landlord decided to foil the marriage with an impossible deal; the farmer must bring him a “bamboo tree of 100 nodes”. But Gautama Buddha (Bụt) appeared to the farmer and told him that such a tree could be made from 100 nodes from several different trees. Bụt gave to him four magic words to attach the many nodes of bamboo: Khắc nhập, khắc xuất, which means “joined together immediately, fell apart immediately”. The triumphant farmer returned to the landlord and demanded his daughter. Curious to see such a long bamboo, the landlord was magically joined to the bamboo when he touched it, as the young farmer said the first two magic words. The story ends with the happy marriage of the farmer and the landlord’s daughter after the landlord agreed to the marriage and asked to be separated from the bamboo.
In a Chinese legend, the Emperor Yao gave two of his daughters to the future Emperor Shun as a test for his potential to rule. Shun passed the test of being able to run his household with the two emperor’s daughters as wives, and thus Yao made Shun his successor, bypassing his unworthy son. After Shun’s death, the tears of his two bereaved wives fell upon the bamboos growing there explains the origin of spotted bamboo. The two women later became goddesses Xiangshuishen after drowning themselves in the Xiang River.