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Bamboo and the Chinese Spirit
2004/10/26
The bamboo plant, fargesia spathacea, is the staple food of the giant panda and a cultural icon in Chinese history. In sharp contrast to other plants, the bamboo only blossoms every 60 to 80 years, and perishes soon after. It takes one to three decades for its seeds to grow. In the past 3 million years bamboos have undergone more than 50,000 extensive blooms. Pandas survived by migrating, but this is no longer an option owing to the sharp decrease of bamboo forests. The last two bloomings of bamboo caused 250 giant pandas to starve to death.

Icon of Thousands of Years

The former residence of Tang poet Du Fu amid luxuriant bamboo groves

In ancient China bamboo was a feature of various aspects of daily life. It was used for food, clothing, housing and transportation. China's first books were crafted from bamboo strips strung on string, and almost all ancient musical instruments were made of bamboo. Bamboo also had assigned roles within feudal ethics.

Chinese ancients designated the plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum as "four gentlemen," and pine, bamboo and plum as the "three friends in winter." Renowned Tang poet Bai Juyi (772-846) summed up the merits of bamboo according to its characteristics: its deep root denotes resoluteness, its tall, straight stem represents honorability, its hollow interior modesty and its clean and spartan exterior exemplifies chastity. He thus concluded that bamboo lives up to the title "gentleman."

Besides being a symbol of virtue, bamboo was believed to be endowed with soul and emotion.

Qing Emperor Qian Long (1736-1795) sitting amid bamboo and plum blossom

The mottled bamboo is the "bamboo of imperial concubines." This epithet has its origins in a story about Emperor Shun, who died of overwork during an inspection tour of the south. He was buried in what is now Hunan Province, and as his wives Ehuang and Nuying mourned him by the Xiangjiang River, their tears fell on and stained bamboo growing on its bank. A Tang poet wrote: "The trace of tears on bamboo gives expression to bitter yearning."

Another breed of bamboo, Mengzong, honors a dutiful son. Meng Zong was a student during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). His father died when he was an infant, and his mother was later stricken with a serious illness that did not respond to conventional medicine. The doctor suggested that soup made from bamboo shoots might help, but they were impossible to find in winter. Desperation and grief reduced Meng to tears. His sincerity moved the heavens, and several bamboo shoots broke through the soil. After taking the soup his mother recovered, and word of Meng's filial piety soon became known across the state.

Filial piety is a cardinal principle of traditional Chinese morality. According to Confucius, it is the essence of all benevolence. In some dynasties, "rule of piety" was set a state policy. In the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220) the Law of Fealty and Honesty was promulgated, stipulating that piety was a key criterion in evaluating officials, as it was widely believed that the dutiful have loving hearts, and the honest are incorruptible.


Alter Ego of Literati

Ancient Chinese literati held bamboo in profound esteem. This explains why there are so many writings and paintings dedicated to it throughout history.

Phoenix trees, bamboos and hut: the ideal combination for an ancient literati residence as depicted in a work by Song painter Xia Gui (1194-1224)

On moving to a new residence, Eastern Jin (317-420) calligrapher Wang Huizhi had bamboo planted in the courtyard before furnishing any of the rooms, saying: "How can I endure a day without this gentleman?" Song author Su Shi (1037-1101) expressed his talent not only in his poems but also in paintings of bamboo. A student of celebrated bamboo painter Wen Tong, Su held that the consummate portrait of bamboo is one derived from close observation of the plant and minute comprehension of the ethos it incarnates. He was quoted as saying: "I can live without meat, but not without bamboo." His remarks, "While painting bamboo one should have a finished image of it in mind," gave rise to the popular idiom xiongyouchengzhu, the concept of having a well-thought-out plan.

Of all the painters in history, Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765) of the Qing Dynasty is believed to have been the best at drawing bamboo. One of the Yangzhou Eight Eccentrics, Zheng was lauded both for his artistic accomplishment and moral character. Born into a poor but intellectual family, Zheng lost his mother at three, and learned the art of painting from his father. He passed imperial examinations at county, provincial and national levels in his youth, but was not granted an official post until reaching age 49. While serving as magistrate of Weixian County in Shandong Province, Zheng decried corrupt officials and the cruel rich, and showed deep concern for the masses. Such feeling can be discerned from his works during that period. For instance, one of his bamboo paintings bears the inscription: "Lying in my room in the office building, I hear the rustle of bamboo, and wonder if it is the sobbing of the people. For us local officials, everything we do, no mater how trivial it might be, focuses on the people."

Zheng's righteousness was resented by the influential and wea

Giant pandas live on bamboo

lthy. During a severe famine he decided personally to dispense the government grain reserve to the starving people, and was subsequently removed from his charge. Rather than being angry, Zheng wrote the poem: "Orchids sequester in remote mountains and precipices, bamboos sway to make cool shade. I should give up this official post as soon as possible, so that I can lie down among them with a light heart." Zheng later returned to his hometown of Yangzhou, and made a living by selling paintings.

Zheng Banqiao reveled in painting bamboo all his life. As a teenager, he put white paper on a lattice window, and observed the shadows of bamboo. His paintings focused on the vitality of the plant, portraying it as spare and aloof yet sturdy and proud. An inscription on one of his bamboo paintings reads: "Firmly cleave to the mountain, take root in a fractured bluff; grow stronger after tribulations, and withstand gales from all directions."

It was not only men that revered bamboo. Tang (618-907) female poet Xue Tao remained single all her life, taking bamboo as a loyal companion. Her lines "lush and hardy to show rare moral courage, hollow inside to maintain humility" are still quoted today. After Xue's death, bamboo was planted in her garden to commemorate her. This area later evolved into the River-Watching Tower Park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

Today as people become more aware of the interaction between mankind and nature, the establishment of bamboo preserves should bring growing areas of bamboo forest. This will be of great benefit to the giant panda, and can also be viewed as a restoration of traditional Chinese values.

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