Shoots of Spring (Paywalled)

Tender young bamboo was a vegetable much loved by literati

“Better to have no meat to eat than live where there are no bamboos/ A lack of meat makes one thin, while a lack of bamboo renders one vulgar,” the poet and gourmand Su Shi opined in the 11th century, invoking a traditional comparison between the tough, unyielding bamboo and the Confucian junzi (君子, gentleman).

Even the most virtuous sages, though, may crave some animal protein in their diet once in a while. This moral dilemma was resolved five centuries later by Li Yu, another writer and foodie who recorded a dish called “bamboo shoots with meat” in his book Leisure Writings (《闲情偶记》). But rather than the full-grown varieties, Li recommended using “immature” bamboos due to their soft texture and smooth taste.

Bamboo shoots, known as zhusun (竹笋) or simply sun (笋) in Chinese, have been eaten for at least 3,000 years in China. The ancient Book of Songs (《诗经》) stated that bamboo shoots were excellent vegetables to serve at farewell dinners. Tang dynasty (618 – 907) poet Bai Juyi wrote that if he could eat bamboo shoots daily, “I wouldn’t miss meat for long.” In Li Yu’s opinion, “Even lamb and pork are incomparable to this top-grade vegetable.”

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Shoots of Spring (Paywalled) is a story from our issue, “Contagion.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.



Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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