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Bamboo Culture in Asia
Bamboo and Stone by Guan Daosheng
The origin of the word ‘bamboo’ is clouded in uncertainty. All we know for certain is that the word first appeared in English in the Sixteenth Century and was brought from Asia by the Portuguese, maybe from Sumatra and maybe from Southern India.
All over the world bamboo is resonant with cultural significance. It is often found in creation myths. In this article, however, I’m going to confine myself to looking at bamboo in the milieu of Asian culture.
Bamboo is resilient and strong, it bends and doesn’t break. This makes bamboo an important symbol for strength and durability.
A famous Vietnamese saying goes, “When the bamboo is old, the bamboo sprouts appear.” It is clear that bamboo refers here to Vietnam which can never be destroyed because as one generation weakens and ages a new generation appears to take its place. For this reason traditional Vietnamese villages are surrounded by thick bamboo as a constant reminder of the permanence of the Vietnamese nation.
This notion of bamboo as a barrier or outer layer is also evident in Japan where bamboo is often found around Shinto shrines. Bamboo is believed to be able to keep out evil.
For the Chinese and the Japanese bamboo is of central importance in traditional culture.
The bamboo, the plum blossom, the orchid and the chrysanthemum are known collectively as the ‘Four Noble Ones’. They represent the four seasons and the four attributes of the noble person in Confucian philosophy. By studying the bamboo the Chinese would school themselves in the Confucian virtues necessary to being a strong, upright and wise person.
Bamboo also belongs to the grouping known as ‘The Three Friends of Winter’. The three friends are bamboo, pine and plum because they do not wither in the cold winter months. Bamboo here is a symbol of resilience.
The Lord Krishna with a bamboo flute
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