In addition to all of its modern day eco-friendly uses, bamboo has a long history in cultures around the world, particularly in Asia. In India bamboo is a considered a symbol of friendship, while in China the fact that bamboo is so long-lived has lead to it becoming a symbol of uprightness. Further, because bamboo flowers so rarely, the occasions on which it does blossom have been associated by many cultures with oncoming famine.
In Chinese culture bamboo is called one of the “four gentlemen.” (It goes by this name along with chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum blossom.) Collectively these four gentlemen represent the four seasons. The cultural integration of bamboo is not limited to Asia. In West Africa the Bozo ethnic group has its name derived from the phrase “bo-so” which translates as “bamboo house.” In the Caribbean, the bamboo is the national plant of the island of St. Lucia.
Although there are many instances of cultural influence of bamboo throughout the world, perhaps its strongest and most historically relevant occurrences are, not surprisingly, in Chinese culture. As mentioned above, it is considered one of the “four gentlemen” in Chinese culture and is highly regarded since it embodies virtues that are valued in Chinese culture: uprightness, tenacity, and hollow heart. People associate these qualities of bamboo with integrity, elegance, and plainness. In addition to its symbol has a gentleman, bamboo is critically important in Buddhism, and plays a prominent role, having been introduced to China in approximately 100 AD. Perhaps one of the reasons bamboo became so important to Buddhism in China is that Buddhism prevents its adherents from eating meat or eggs (since this would be cruelty to animals), and bamboo shoots are both tender and nutritious. This helped fill a void in the diet of early Buddhists. In fact, one of the earliest known cook books was by a Buddhist monk which gave descriptions and recipes for a variety of ways to prepare and consume bamboo shoots of all sorts. Bamboo was commonly planted in gardens in China and was a staple for a large number of people in addition to the Buddhists.
Of course, Bamboo also plays an important role in Japan. In the Shinto religion, shrines were protected against evil by a bamboo forest surrounding the shrine. Planting bamboo forests in Buddhist temples was also a common practice in this era in Asia.
In mythology in many cultures various creation myths feature bamboo. In the mythology of the Philippines, the first man and woman (named “strong” and “beautiful,” respectively) each sprang for the two halves of a split bamboo stalk. In the Andaman islands, humanity is said to have come forth from a bamboo stem. In Malaysia, a man wakes up underneath a bamboo plant having dreamt of a beautiful woman, and when he breaks the bamboo stalk above him, he finds the beautiful woman inside. In Japan, there is folklore stories a princess of the Moon is found inside a section of bamboo. There are many more mythological and folklore stories of creation and otherwise which feature bamboo. In Hawaii, bamboo is the form of the body of the creator.
In addition to featuring in creation myths, bamboo is extensively used as a weapon both in actual historical events, and in mythological accounts of famous warriors. The hero Saint Giong of Vietnamese culture used a cane as his primary weapon.
Modern Day Bamboo
Bamboo is not just limited to an important role in history and mythology. Today there are many organizations which continue to champion bamboo has an ecologically friendly alternative in many modern products. One important organization is . Everyone should take note and be sure to celebrate world bamboo day on September 18 in their local communities.