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Bamboo Dreaming

ALL Chinese people think of themselves as the offspring of the dragon, but is there anyone who has thought of themselves as the offspring of bamboo?

 

In fact, in many ancient legends, the dragon was always associated with bamboo.

  

In the ancient book, I Ching, when explaining a certain divinatory symbol the dragon is associated with young bamboo. Among some ethnic groups in Southwest China’s Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, bamboo is taken along with the dragon as a protective immortal and ancestor. Ge Hong (283-363), a Daoism scholar of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), also told a story about bamboo transforming into a dragon in his book.

  

But bamboo’s high status in Chinese culture is not only due to these ancient legends, but based also on its unique characteristics.

  

The poet Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) describes bamboo in the story called "Planting bamboo": bamboo is firm, straight, empty inside, divided into segments. So the poet related these features to people’s moral characteristics such as grittiness, uprightness, modesty and openness because they are homophonous in Chinese.

  

Gradually people, especially scholars, began to compare bamboo to men of moral integrity who are called junzi in Chinese. In Chinese culture,ˉjunzi can be said to be the highest title for any person.

  

Hermits’ paradise

Bamboo has been highly favoured by Chinese scholars. It has been strongly related to traditional hermit culture. In most stories about hermits, they have a special fondness for bamboo. Maybe this is because only the bamboo forest can create a peaceful and isolated environment.

  

So most hermits in Chinese history lived among bamboo. The most famous example is Zhu Lin Qi Xian (the seven wise men in the bamboo forest) of the Wei and Jin dynasties over 1,600 years ago. To avoid the chaos of the time, the seven artists, such as Ruan Ji and Ji Kang, lived among the bamboo.

  

Wang Wei, the famous poet of the Tang Dynasty who is known as the Buddha Poet, described his favourite mode of life as "sitting among the bamboo, playing an instrument and singing, without being disturbed by others, with only the moon for company".

  

Gradually, bamboo came to be thought as the most elegant plant. The famous scholar Su Dongpo of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) wrote a small poem about bamboo which is both humorous and easy to understand. "I can eat without meat, but I can’t live without bamboo. No meat makes people slim, no bamboo makes people meretricious. Slim people can put on weight again, but meretriciousness cannot be rooted out."

  

Artists’ favourite

Bamboo can be said to be a symbol of Chinese culture. You can see it on many occasions. Along with the pine and the plum, it is one of the "three friends in the winter". Because on cold days, when most plants wither, the three plants still stand in the wind. Such a spirit is highly recommended by Chinese.

  

So even today people still like to plant some bamboo in a corner of the garden. Matched with several strange-looking stones, it can make a nice picture.

  

Bamboo is considered to enjoy a high status among all plants, although the peony is the national flower. There are artists who have specialized in painting bamboo throughout their whole lives.

  

Song Min, an artist of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was one expert at painting bamboo. His painting was brought into the palace of the emperor, who very much appreciated it. After that, his painting was called the "senior official bamboo".

  

To non-experts, bamboo looks simple to paint, but to artists, it requires a whole lifetime of study. To gain a good understanding of bamboo, most artists planted bamboo at home. Some even traveled to Yunnan, known as the home of bamboo.

  

They concluded that because of different ages, light, wind, rain or sunshine, bamboo varies considerably.

  

Most Chinese painting does not pursue similarity of shape, but tries to express the singularity of its object. Bamboo painting tries to adopt this same spirit.

  

Painters only use Chinese ink to paint bamboo. With different shades and lines, artists express the firmness, elegance and honesty of the plant.

  

Bamboo’s isolation from the world also made it into a symbol of the miserable fate of women.

  

One legend not to be missed here is that of the mottled bamboo. Shun, the legendary monarch of ancient China, died because of overwork. He was buried in Cangwu in the south.

  

His two wives E Huang and Nv Ying hastened to his funeral. When they arrived at the Xiangjiang River, they were so sorrowful they wept copiously. Their tears dropped onto the bamboos which left spots on it. Thus, there are mottled bamboos in Southwest China.

In the Dream of Red Mansions, the leading figure is Lin Daiyu, an intelligent and beautiful girl who dies aged under 20 because of being separated from her lover. Lin has a deep attachment to bamboo. She sobs in the bamboo forest over her lonely life. In the end, she dies in her house, surrounded by luxuriant thickets of bamboo.


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