When you think of bamboo, you might conjure up an image of a beautiful Giant Panda munching on a piece of lush, green bamboo in the tropical forests in China. Bamboo has been associated with China for centuries, and those hoping to grow bamboo often search specifically for Chinese bamboo.
Like the deep, strong roots of the plant itself, bamboo has deep roots in Chinese culture, legends, religion, and tradition. While some bamboo types are not endemic to China, a significant portion of the global bamboo population grows natively in China. Yet, surprisingly, one of the most commonly recognized types of bamboo, lucky bamboo, is neither native to China nor a type of bamboo!
In this article, we’ll look at the role bamboo has played in Chinese history and dive into some of the most beloved legends in which bamboo features. We’ll also look at the different species of Chinese bamboo and which common bamboo species are (and are not) native to China.
About Chinese bamboo
China is affectionately known as the Bamboo Kingdom, and rightfully so. Around 40% of bamboo species worldwide are grown in China. The country supplies one-fifth of the global supply of bamboo, with the highest bamboo cultivation in the provinces of Sichuan and Fujian.
But besides growing bamboo for economic purposes, China has a long history with this tall, fast-growing plant. We know that as far back as the 11th century BC, Chinese bamboo has been used for housing, food, transportation, weaponry, instruments, and books. It was even used as paper and writing material.
Moreover, the earliest firecrackers were made by stuffing gunpowder into the hollow culms of bamboo. The Chinese flute (dízi) is also made from bamboo, as well as several traditional percussion instruments.
Culture and legends of Chinese bamboo
Given its significant role in daily life, it shouldn’t be too surprising that bamboo has deep roots in Chinese culture and legends, too. In fact, there are many instances where bamboo pops up in legends, folklore, and religion. Here are a few of them:
The Four Gentlemen
Bamboo, plum blossoms, chrysanthemums, and orchids form a group called The Four Gentlemen. Each plant represents a characteristic of an ideal person in Chinese culture: bamboo represents grace, strength, humility, flexibility, and simplicity. It is also said to be a symbol of virtue due to its minimal, clean appearance.
The Four Gentlemen also represent the four seasons: orchids in spring, bamboo in summer, chrysanthemums in fall, and plum blossoms in winter.
But wait, there’s more. In China, bamboo is part of the Three Friends of Winter, along with pine and plum blossom. Together, these three plants are known as the Three Friends of Winter because of their remarkable resistance to the cold winter months.
Another Chinese bamboo legend is about mottled bamboo or spotted bamboo. According to the legend, over 2,000 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Shun, there were nine evil dragons. These dragons were wreaking havoc on the Jiuyishan Mountain of Hunan province to such an extent that Emperor Shun set out to kill them.
When the Emperor didn’t return, his two wives traveled to Hunan in search of their husband, where they learned of his tragic passing while fighting the dragons. Devastated, they cried, and the tears that soaked the soil stained the bamboo. To this day, the red mottles on the bamboo are believed to be the blood from their tears. Not only that, but the fingerprint-like markings are believed to have resulted from them wiping their tears on the bamboo.
Another famous Chinese story about bamboo revolves around Meng Zong, a scholar in ancient China who was deeply devoted to his mother and family. His mother fell sick one winter and requested to eat bamboo shoots. Since it was winter, there weren’t any young shoots available. Meng Zong went out to search for the bamboo anyway, and when he couldn’t find any young shoots to cook, he wept for his mother.
To his amazement, where he sat and cried had sprouted enough bamboo for his mother to eat. He took the bamboo home to cook and feed her. His mother’s health gradually improved, and people said that Meng Zong’s devotion to his family moved the heavens and caused the bamboo to sprout.
The Chinese Bamboo Tree
This is one of the most famous legends about Chinese bamboo. Once upon a time, a farmer planted a tiny seed that he hoped would turn into a Chinese bamboo tree. He planted the tree, and the farmer religiously watered and fertilized the seeds. A year goes by, and the farmer goes out to his field. He looks where the seeds were planted and finds nothing. He again dedicates himself to watering and fertilizing the ground where the seeds are.
Another year goes by, and still nothing happens. He does this again and again. For five years, he does this diligently, watering and fertilizing the seemingly barren ground. In the fifth year, the plant finally shoots from the ground and grows and grows. By the end of a month, it’s 60 feet tall! Another two weeks, and it’s 90 feet tall!
Turns out, before the bamboo tree grew, it was already growing roots under the soil where no one could see it, allowing it to grow to magnificent heights. This particular story has become popularized even in Western culture as a metaphor for never giving up, even if you don’t see immediate progress.
Do all types of bamboo originate in China?
This may be surprising since surely all bamboo is Chinese bamboo, right? Actually, this isn’t the case. Bamboo grows natively in 5 out of 7 continents. While a significant amount of the world’s bamboo population grows natively in China, some originate in other countries and even continents.
In fact, there are different types of bamboo native to Asia, Central and South America, Africa, Australia, and even North America.
Today, bamboo is cultivated worldwide and is even grown in areas like Canada and the UK, where bamboo does not grow natively. Its hardiness, strength, and perseverance make it resilient enough to grow nearly anywhere with proper care.
How many species of Chinese bamboo are there?
According to scholars, there are approximately 75 genera and 1250 species of bamboo worldwide. Approximately 500 species within 40 genera of bamboo are recorded in China. It grows natively mainly in Southwest China, in the monsoon-prone areas. About 250 species in 29 genera grow naturally in Yunnan, the Chinese Himalayan region.
Which types of bamboo are native to China?
With over 500 species of true Chinese bamboo, there are nearly endless options for growing Chinese bamboo in your garden. Here are some of the more popular genera of bamboo that are native to China:
- Bambusa (tropical)
- Shibataea (temperate)
Is lucky bamboo Chinese?
Even though lucky bamboo has become popularized by Chinese lore and its importance in Feng Shui, it originates in Africa, not China.
Not only that, but it isn’t even true bamboo: it is Dracaena sanderiana. Nevertheless, lucky bamboo is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, which is often why this houseplant is nicknamed Chinese bamboo.
Lucky bamboo and Feng Shui
Combined with all five elements, lucky bamboo will bring good luck and fortune to your home. Wood and water are symbolized by the plant itself, earth by the decorative stones, metal by the glass vase or ceramic pot, and fire by a red ribbon attached to the lucky bamboo plant.
Moreover, the number of stalks of lucky bamboo grown together, as well as how they’re intertwined, have unique meanings. For example, two stalks symbolize love and marriage, nine for good fortune and happiness, and 7 for health.
FAQs about Chinese Bamboo
Is the story about the Chinese Bamboo Tree real?
While the beginning of the Chinese bamboo tree story insists that it is a true story, no one can know for sure. With everything we know about bamboo, some elements of the story may raise a few eyebrows among bamboo growers. For example, bamboo grows quite fast, and many species will germinate from seed within 30 days. Some species of bamboo reach full maturity in as quickly as 90 days.
However, those who have tried to eliminate bamboo know that bamboo can live beneath the surface for quite some time before returning.
Is Chinese bamboo real bamboo?
It depends on what bamboo you are looking at! Lucky bamboo is not true bamboo, rather it’s a Dracaena. Otherwise, there are hundreds of types of true bamboo native to China that are often nicknamed Chinese bamboo.
Is Chinese bamboo grass?
Yes! As with other bamboos, Chinese bamboo belongs to the Poaceae family, which encompasses grasses. However, sometimes people call Chinese bamboo “trees” as some species will grow to tremendous heights under the right conditions.