The Ubiquity of Bamboo


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If you’ve visited a city in China, you’ll understand why I say that bamboo is the chief artifact of Chinese utilitarianism. It’s everywhere.

Scaffolding is the most conspicuous example, but during a 15-minute walk around Shanghai you’ll see many other forms: brooms with bristles and shafts of bamboo, pole saws, hanging rods, fences, food, platforms, ladders, pipes, flutes, floors, blinds, steamers, placemats, floor mats, gardens, and weapons of domestic violence. All bamboo.

It’s scattered in the street and on the sidewalks, and it is falling from trucks and bicycles daily. Bamboo scaffolding stacked up to 5 or 6 stories tall is all held together, alarmingly, by pieces of hand-tied wire (see photo). Check out the photo of a bicycle frame crafted from natural bamboo. I can’t recall any single natural object of similar distinction in American culture.

The bamboo plant, a grass actually, has cultural significance for China too. The Chinese value plants for their medicinal, aesthetic, and culinary properties far more than Americans, and bamboo holds a special place even amongst those. It is a food in its shoots form and furniture in its natural form. It’s tough and it grows erect—symbolic of a strong spine.

Bamboo is featured in ancient stories and poems and is a famed subject of art and calligraphy. If you’ve ever grown bamboo varieties with runners in the humid south, you’ll know it exhibits a sense of place and a commitment to its own proliferation that defies constraint. As a symbol, bamboo could paradoxically be the perfect foil for Chinese state governance (resisting attempts at control) or the perfect metaphor for its expansion.

It’s a playful word too: BAMBOO. It reminds one of other playful words like bamboozle or kazoo or woozy.

Best of all, it has a free-associative link to Pandas—and if everyone in the world is in agreement on one thing, it’s that pandas are endearing and should be protected from the diabolical affairs of the world.

I don’t speak Chinese, but I listen to it all day, and from my vantage point, the “B” sound holds some sway (or perhaps the Chinese just say “no”(bu) to me a lot). You could teach a prepositions lesson just by walking down the street here. Today we walk: under, over, around, across, through, onto, against, beside, below and beyond…. the bamboo. You see what I mean. It’s ubiquitous.

One Comment Add yours

  1. halfcupful says:

    So glad I’ll get to read about your experiences in China! I started my blog (halfcupful) last year mostly to remind myself to find reasons to be happy. Haven’t posted in a while, but I’ll enjoy following you!-Rebecca (Becki) Way Bagala


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