One of my first jobs ever was chopping bamboo (called zhúzi 竹子), or some form of it. I was probably thirteen or fourteen, and I had just started working part-time at a general store on an island in Maine. After painting the outside of the store its traditional gray, my boss instructed my brother and I to get to work cutting down all the bamboo “stuff” (he used a more colorful term) that was growing by the side of the store.
We took hatchets and spent the day sweating in the sun, hacking away at the stuff. I’m not even sure if it was really bamboo or not — I assume it was a northern cousin of some sort — but by the end of the day, my deepening hatred (it was hard work) had developed into a sort of grudging respect. Bamboo, it turned out, was tough.
Of course, they’ve known that in China for millennia, where bamboo has been respected for a whole lot of reasons. What can bamboo do? The options are limitless:
- It’s a food. Chinese people have been eating bamboo shoots and other bamboo products more or less forever. Bamboo plays a big part in a lot of Chinese dishes, including the traditional zongzi that are an integral part of the Dragon Boat Festival.
- It’s a utensil. Chopsticks and other eating utensils are sometimes made out of bamboo. Some dishes are even cooked in cooked in bamboo stalks.
- It’s a medicine. In TCM, bamboo can be used to treat infections and is also a good all-purpose healer because it’s full of important nutrients.
- It’s a paper. Strands of bamboo have been used to make a kind of paper in China for centuries, and before paper, strips of bamboo were strung together with thread or wire and used as books.
- It’s art. Traditional Chinese paintings are full of depictions of bamboo. Painting pictures of bamboo is considered an art in and of itself, and it can be an almost meditative process.
- It’s a shirt. In 2001, Peking University (北京大学 Běijīng Dàxué) scientists developed a new process for turning bamboo into clothing that has made it an increasingly popular choice, especially among those looking for organic garments.
- It’s a building material. Bamboo has been used to build almost everything, from ships and carts to houses and temples. Today, it’s still used in building even if it doesn’t end up in the finished project: often the scaffolding erected by builders as they put up a new building is made wholly or partially of bamboo.
- It’s a weapon. Bamboo staffs have been a kung fu training weapon nearly as far back as the tradition of kung fu itself.
- It’s a musical instrument. Because the trunk is hollow, bamboo can be easily made into pipes, flutes, and other wind-based instruments. And, of course, a thin strand of bamboo could probably make a decent drum stick.
- It’s decor. My boss that summer would never have stood for it, but bamboo is used in many Chinese offices as a decoration as are, of course, paintings and even photographs of it.
So what can bamboo do? If you’re in China, it can do pretty much anything!