into the gardens and homes of people around the world, and it’s considered highly symbolic in many different cultures. It’s incredible to think that a plant that’s relatively simple in appearance has such a profound impact worldwide.
There are many hidden meanings of bamboo throughout different cultures and their myths. For example, bamboo is often a symbol for perseverance, flexibility, and resilience. These characteristic symbols are derived largely from the nature of bamboo’s growth, strength, and usefulness.
Bamboo symbolism is common in many Asian cultures, where the bamboo plant grows abundantly and serves many purposes. Not only can it be eaten, turned into useful objects, and used in construction, but it is an important element for storytelling, too. In this article, we’ll uncover the hidden meanings of bamboo and its cultural significance in the countries where it grows natively.
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The hidden meanings of bamboo
Archeological evidence suggests that bamboo has been used by humans for thousands of years. Its earliest use was discovered in China, where bamboo was originally used to make structures, weapons, and household items. Given its ubiquitous growth and close ties to several cultures’ day-to-day lives and activities, bamboo is also an enormous part of folklore, mythology, and symbolism.
While lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) is also a highly symbolic plant, it is not a true bamboo, and therefore not the focus of this article.
Bamboo symbolism in Chinese culture
Bamboo has deep roots in Chinese culture, history, and folklore. One doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of its practical uses. For instance, bamboo has long been used as a construction material due to its strength as well as prolific growth in tropical and subtropical climates.
Additionally, its edible shoots have been a valuable source of nutrition in many parts of China throughout history. But bamboo is much more than a practical material. It’s an integral part of Chinese culture.
Bamboo plant’s meaning in Chinese folklore
There are many stories within Chinese folklore where bamboo plays an important role.
The story of The Four Gentlemen is perhaps the most popular. In this story, which is most commonly represented in Chinese brush painting, there are four plants: plum, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum. Together, they symbolize the four seasons, and individually they represent characteristics of the ideal Chinese citizen. Bamboo, for example, symbolizes strength, simplicity, flexibility, and grace.
In another tale called “He Wept till the Bamboo Sprouted” from The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars, a boy named Meng Zong lived alone with his mother, who was very ill. She longed for a soup of boiled bamboo shoots, but because it was winter he couldn’t find any. Finally, while crying in a bamboo grove, it is said that the earth opened and many shoots of bamboo appeared. He prepared the soup and gave it to his mother, who recovered soon after.
Bamboo significance in Chinese culture
In traditional Chinese culture, bamboo is held in high esteem. For example, it symbolizes strength and honor due to its naturally strong, straight culms. Bamboo is also a symbol of endurance; while bamboo culms can be slow to emerge, once they do they grow rapidly and can grow to tremendous heights. Similarly, bamboo is known to bend, not break, under heavy loads of snow.
Furthermore, bamboo’s deep roots are traditionally a symbol of resoluteness and its hollow culms and modest appearance symbolize modesty. These values are just some of the main themes of bamboo symbolism in China. There are countless other examples throughout Chinese literature and art.
Bamboo symbolism in Japanese culture
While bamboo is commonly associated with China, Japan is covered in bamboo. Despite having less land mass, the islands of Japan are native to around 250 species of bamboo! That’s because the climate of Japan is ideal for many different species of bamboo.
Historically, bamboo has been used in Japan for practical purposes from constructing homes to crafting instruments. As prevalent as bamboo plants grow in Japan, it is an important part of Japanese culture, symbolism, and folklore.
The Japanese word for bamboo is “take.” This word symbolizes resilience and strength found in Japanese culture and the ability to bend, but not break.
Bamboo in Japanese folklore
One of the most prominent instances of bamboo appearing in Japanese folklore is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In this story, a woodcutter discovers a baby inside a glowing bamboo stalk. He brings the baby home to his wife, and they decide to adopt her. From then on, each time he cuts down a bamboo culm, the man finds a nugget of gold in the hollow stalk.
The couple becomes rich, and over time, news of the wealthy family and beautiful daughter spread through the kingdom. While many suitors show interest, including the Emperor himself, they are all turned away or given impossible tasks to fulfill. It is eventually revealed that the girl is Princess Kaguya and that she came from the moon, and will soon need to return.
The Emperor desperately tries to interfere with these mystical plans, having fallen in love with Princess Kaguya, but is unsuccessful. Before returning to the moon, Princess Kaguya offers the Emperor a vial containing the Elixir of Eternal Life. The Emperor refuses, stating he could not endure eternal life without her. Instead he sends the vial to Mount Fuji to have it destroyed by fire. This tale explains why there is a constant flow of smoke from the mountain.
Significance of bamboo in Japanese culture
Throughout Japan, bamboo is used in various ceremonies due to its symbolic significance. For example, it’s used in an important Japanese ritual known as Jichinsai, which is similar to a ground-breaking ceremony. This ceremony presents an offering to the deities and requests the safe completion of the project for the workers. Four bamboo poles with leaves are incorporated into an altar, creating a safe space for the deities to visit.
Tea ceremony is another way bamboo holds significant value in Japanese culture. Bamboo is used to craft the “tea whisk,” used for mixing matcha and hot water. The special design of the whisk wouldn’t be possible without bamboo.
Bamboo is also used in festivals as a symbolic tool to help ward off evil. A particularly important festival is the Tanabata festival, where people write their hopes and wishes on paper strips and attach them to bamboo. A shrine in Japan is also enveloped by a forest of bamboo. This forest acts as an additional barrier against evil spirits.
In Japan, bamboo is considered good luck, so it’s often used to symbolize new beginnings and celebrations, such as during the New Year.
Bamboo symbolism in Vietnam
Vietnam is also profoundly connected to bamboo in its daily use and the similarities they draw between bamboo and Vietnamese culture. So much so it began appearing in Vietnamese fairy tales and folklore thousands of years ago. The word bamboo is often associated with the word “brother” in Vietnam.
Bamboo in Vietnamese folklore
The most prominent tale of bamboo in Vietnamese culture is the legend of Saint Giong. According to the legend, Giong was born during an invasion by the An army. He grew quickly, and one day requested a horse, armor, and helmet to be made for him from iron. He rode into battle but his iron whip broke, so he pulled up a bamboo tree and used it to fight off the enemy.
It is believed that the yellow stripes on various bamboo species found in Vietnam are from the horse’s fire and that ponds emerged where the horse’s giant hooves hit the ground.
Bamboo significance in Vietnamese culture
Bamboo has a long history of usage in weaponry and warfare, from crossbows to prongs to the famous Vietnamese bamboo traps utilized in the Vietnam War. It has even been used to make incredible feats of architecture, including the famous Wind and Water Café.
There is also a popular Vietnamese folk dance called Bamboo dance or Sap dance that involves dancing in and out of moving bamboo stalks. This dance is typically performed at celebrations like the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn festivals.
In Vietnam, there is a saying that goes, “Tre già măng mọc,” which translates to “When the bamboo is old, bamboo sprouts appear.” This symbolizes Vietnamese people, explaining that though the elders may pass away, the younger generation will always take their place. Their culture, their heritage, and their strength never truly die.
Bamboo is also said to embody the seven traditional Vietnamese values: patriotism, self-reliance, kindness, affection, studiousness, tolerance, hard work, optimism, and solidarity – due to its beauty and ability to resist strong wind and storms.
The meaning of bamboo plants in other areas around the world
Because you can find bamboo growing on five out of seven of the world’s continents, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are other cultures around the world that also have an appreciation for bamboo and its uses. Here are just a few:
Bamboo in the Philippines
In the Philippines, bamboo plays an important role in the human creation myth. According to the story, the first man and woman emerged from a bamboo tree. Bamboo remains an integral part of their folklore and daily lives.
In addition, bamboo is used in the Philippines in farming, construction, crafting, fishing, and music. It is also believed to help ward off evil spirits and protect against bad luck.
As in other cultures, bamboo symbolizes versatility yet resiliency. Early Filipinos considered these traits admirable. Even today, Filipino culture draws on bamboo symbolism for its ability to bend but not break, equating it to their ability to smile despite formidable struggles. They believe it mirrors the repeated crisis after crisis the country faces, yet the people manage to survive. They are resilient, just like bamboo.
Bamboo symbolism in Malaysia
Malaysia might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of bamboo, but there are 69 species of bamboo native to Malaysia. While bamboo is abundant, it is often considered an underutilized commercial resource.
However, there is a very popular Malaysian bamboo dance called The Magunatip, where two people hold two parallel bamboo stalks and then clap the two poles together rhythmically (much like the Vietnamese Bamboo dance). The dancer’s feet go in and out of the two clapping poles, removing them quickly to ensure they don’t become trapped by the poles. While this dance can be done with a single dancer, the more dancers that are added, the more lively and fun it is to watch!
In Malaysian folklore, there is also a legend of a man who dreams of a woman under a bamboo tree. When he wakes up, he breaks a stem of bamboo and finds the woman of his dreams inside. They live happily ever after.
Hawaii and bamboo symbolism
There are two species of bamboo that grow abundantly in Hawaii: Schizostachyum glaucifolium and Bambusa vulgaris. Schizostachyum glaucifolium is often nicknamed “ohe,” whereas the latter is referred to as common bamboo or Hawaiian bamboo. Neither is native to the island chain.
According to mythology, the Polynesian goddess Hina brought the bamboo to Hawaii from Tahiti. Once planted, it covered the hills of Maui.
Bamboo significance in India
In India, green bamboo is considered sacred and is celebrated for its medicinal properties. It is believed that bamboo that has been dried out has lost its sanctity. Bamboo is commonly used to treat various illnesses, from coughing to inflammation and even fever. It’s also a very popular ingredient for many dishes in Indian cuisine.
Throughout Indian culture, bamboo is considered symbolic of a large, close knit family due to the clumping growth patterns of many bamboo species. But there’s also a mythical history to this plant: the Hindu god Krishna plays his flute under a bamboo forest. The bamboo pole chosen by Krishna for the flute was unique. Among many bamboo culms standing tall, a single pole was bent over in humility. It had been rejected by everyone else because they thought it was no longer useful, but that’s exactly why Krishna chose it.
Is there bamboo symbolism in North America?
Compared to the long history that many Eastern cultures have of using bamboo practically and spiritually, the emergence of bamboo in North America is fairly new. Bamboo in North America and Western culture symbolizes sustainability and has been a part of the trend toward using more natural, sustainable materials.
The diversity and multicultural populations in North America have also brought in bamboo symbolism. However, it’s less prominent in North American culture as a whole, due to there being only three native species of bamboo: Arunidinaria appalachiana, Arunidinaria gigantea, and Arunidinaria tecta.
Bamboo plant’s meaning uncovered: what we can learn?
It’s clear that bamboo has made an impression on many cultures across the globe, who see their own values and characteristics reflected within bamboo. Here are some of the lessons that we can take away from bamboo:
Resilience and perseverance are the two most common symbols of bamboo. Its ability to withstand heat, cold temperatures, winter conditions, wind, and rain is remarkable. It’s the fastest-growing grass, and incredibly strong. Despite its strength, it’s a simple and minimalist plant. Bamboo isn’t ostentatious in any way but rather visually simple and elegant. Its strength and beauty are interconnected.
Peace, luck, and optimism
There’s also a common trend of bamboo representing peacefulness, good fortune, and optimism. Its minimal appearance evokes relaxation and tranquility, yet abundant in many areas. Its ability to bounce back after enduring adverse conditions paints a picture of optimism and positivity.
Bamboo has strong ties to celebration due to its symbolic strength, luck, and optimism. Many cultures around the world, especially Asian cultures, use bamboo in cultural dances, festivals, and religious ceremonies.
Lastly, bamboo is a part of many Eastern creation myths and frequently pops up in different cultural folk tales. This is likely because bamboo is so unique and prolific. Even when older culms die back, the plant remains fertile and strong and will persevere through new generations.