Bamboo — the most Chinese Plants

Bustling Beijing
10 min readDec 23, 2020

Future with tradition

Few things are as Chinese as bamboo. Few things seem more mystical to Westerners than a bamboo forest. And few plants are as useful as bamboo.

Bamboo Forest in China

Which plant do you know that can be used as building material, furniture and in the kitchen?

Bamboo is nothing special. It’s grass! One of the most common plants on this planet. And yet, like many things that don’t immediately meet the eye, we ignore them.

This robust garden plant is vital for the most Chinese of all animals. The panda. But it is also highly beneficial for humans, as it contains large amounts of vitamins.


The use of bamboo dates back around 7000 years, as archaeological finds indicate. Already then, people in Southeast Asia cultivated, harvested and used this grass for a variety of purposes.

Representations on clay vessels give a clear hint that bamboo was already widely used. The character zhu for bamboo is found on clay shards way back in the time of the Neolithic Yang Shao culture.

In the Shang dynasty nearly 4000 years ago, it found widespread use as food, building material, for the production of clothing and in the field of art for the construction of musical instruments and — how could it be otherwise — also for the construction of weapons.


As braiding material, it can also be traced back thousands of years. The method of filling braided bamboo baskets with stones and soil and using them as a base for dams and irrigation systems was already widespread in eastern China at the time when the Ancient Egyptians built their own culture along a mighty river.

Its use as a water pipe is likely almost as old.

Archaeologists are sure that ancient Chinese invented a kind of bamboo drill early on, in which the hollow pipe could be driven through the hardest material.

A technique that we know today from oil production, but which only came to the West in the 19th century is based on a similar use. Findings show that early Han dynasty engineers drilled a well in what is now Sichuan province some 2,000 years ago by using bamboo pipes to drill a 1,600-metre-deep hole. Could easily have been the deepest hole to date and for almost 2000 years to come.


For a long time, bamboo was used as the preferred writing surface. Unlike paper, silk or parchment, its shape demanded a certain way of writing on it.

“Zhu Jian (竹简)”

Books made of bamboo? Easy. First, the giant grass was cut into strips and these were then combined into some kind of scroll. This type of books is called “Zhu Jian (竹简)”

The result was a fairly durable and easy-to-transport book. However, it was often written from top to bottom because one needs a continuous surface to write more than a few characters. The earliest specimens discovered so far date back to the time of the Warring Kingdoms in the 5th century BC.

At the same time, a technique was developed to produce bamboo paper. The bamboo was gutted, and the marrow was stamped until you got a fibrous mash.

This was then used to make paper. Three tons of bamboo yielded approximately one ton of mash. Even today, bamboo paper is appreciated by many calligraphers and artists for its special qualities.

Powder pipes

Around the 10th century A.D. there are examples of the use of bamboo tubes as or at least in the production of firearms.

There is an amusing story from the time of the Yuan dynasty a few years later whose truthfulness is difficult to verify. It is repeatedly portrayed as an attempt of a first manned spaceflight.

A man is said to have tried to enter space by tying several bamboo tubes filled with black powder to a chair and then set them on fire. He flew high up in the air and was never seen again.

China’s current space ventures seem far more promising.


Still today one could see construction sites where flexible bamboo scaffolds rise to dizzying heights. What at first seems filigree and fragile, turns out to be extremely resistant once stormy weather arrives.

In the Han dynasty some imperial buildings were partly built from bamboo. And even today, the Dai (傣族), a minority from southwest China, build two-storey houses made of bamboo.

The building material is suitable even for large buildings and offers its excellent properties as protection against earthquakes and typhoons.


Bamboo fiber fabrics are a popular material for clothing, bedclothes and mats. Their use dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty. Then, for the first time, at least as far as one can tell, cloth was woven from bamboo fibers. First -how could it be otherwise — especially for the ruler.

Furniture and cutlery were also made from bamboo early on. Objects of everyday use are also full of this material. Almost everything in a household can be made of bamboo. From chopsticks to decorative objects, room dividers and any form of seating, brooms, tools of all kinds and containers.


Many traditional instruments are made of bamboo, such as the Sheng, Dizi and Xiao.

Bamboo Instruments

In the Tang Dynasty, musicians were called ZhuRen (竹人), which means bamboo people. Because almost all the instruments were made of bamboo, at least some part of them.

Even in medicine, this plant is used. Among other things, an extract of bamboo seems to help very well against nausea.


Bamboo is found in Asian and Western parks. It is resistant and can be reset to the ground like grass without any problems. It simply grows again. Neither cold winters nor hot summers can do him much harm. And it is frugal. Almost any soil is enough.

Forage plant

As food, bamboo serves not only the stereotypical panda, which feeds on nothing else and devours insane amounts of this grass every day. Bamboo is one of many vegetables on the menu of the human population of China.

The panda is also in danger of extinction since it is adapted to one single plant of which it needs enormous amounts. And the animal finds only ideal living conditions when the bamboo grows in dense forests.

With increasing urbanization, the once large bamboo forests disappear and thus also the habitat of the lovely panda. The panda might be an ideal metaphor for the fact that diversification is recommended wherever, whenever.


The elegance and supposed purity of bamboo have been praised, and through its use in handicrafts, artists of many eras created masterpieces.

The art of bamboo carving has been spreading since the Ming Dynasty, although objects of this folk art are known from before. All kinds of motifs are being carved in the surface of bamboo furniture, on containers or decorative objects in a kind of relief.

This art is often used to ornament architectural elements such as archways, pavilions, etc.

Symbolic meaning

If you are looking for a shady spot to enjoy the view or drink tea while reading a book, bamboo is an optimal shade dispenser due to its sometimes-enormous height and rich foliage.

Bamboo has been popular with writers and painters since ancient times. Its flexibility and grace as well as its resilience are highly symbolic and inspired many metaphors.

poet Bai Juyi (白居易)

The famous poet Bai Juyi (白居易)wrote around 800 A.D. in the Tang Dynasty: Bamboo symbolizes determination through its deep roots, honesty because of its straight growth, because of its hollow structure, it stands for modesty and its smooth appearance is a symbol of chastity.

Even today, bamboo is used as a metaphor when it comes to finding encouraging and motivating words for someone in a difficult situation.

An old legend tells of a particularly loyal son named Mengzong(孟宗). He wanted to prepare some healthy bamboo shoots for his sick mother. But because of the harsh winter, he found none. So, he cried bitterly. Immediately, bamboo shoots grew from the tears that fell to the ground. Chinese see it as an example if filial piety. Mengzong’s story found its way into a collection of legends that were supposed to call for honoring one´s parents, an important part of Chinese ethics.

Geographical distribution

One-fifth of the world’s bamboo production comes from China.

Now, not all of China is covered in bamboo. On the contrary. In larger quantities you find it almost exclusively in the south of the country. Yet, bamboo is not an exclusively tropical plant. But the humid and warm climate south of the Yangtze river seems to be better suited for it.

In total, there are about 400 bamboo species in China, although two or three main species make up the bulk of bamboo in East Asia.

The most unusual varieties of this plant are perhaps a bamboo that grows as a kind of climbing plant and can form stems up to thirty meters long. It only grows on the tropical island of Hainan.

The dotted bamboo with its yellow-brown spots is connected to a romantic story. A mythical ruler is said to have died (allegedly over 4,000 years ago) and his two concubines cried so much that their tears were imprinted in the bamboo of the area and can still be seen today.

Agricultural crop

Due to its rapid growth and its wide range of applications, bamboo is an incredibly important crop in China.

Mao bamboo (毛竹), one of the widest spread varieties, grows up to 20 meters high in just a few months and delivers an enormously high yield. After already 4–6 years the harvest can begin. Classical forests, on the other hand, take decades, if not longer, to achieve a significant yield.

One hectare produces about 30 tons a year.

Bamboo thus offers the farmer twice the yield, while it only needs half the time to grow.

Over the years, the government has tried to grow bamboo in the more northern regions. Through many attempts, bamboo was finally cultivated up to 40-degree latitude, which is certainly not a small feat for a subtropical plant. Beijing, known for its cold winters, still has about 20 different bamboo species in its parks and the surrounding area.

Several institutes specifically for the cultivation and breeding of new, more robust and therefore versatile varieties are working on creating more modern types of bamboo with even higher yields.

A plant to save the planet

Latest plans are aiming at a global direction. Scientists want to use bamboo for the protection of our endangered climate, and they hope it can help to keep nature livable.

First, bamboo is great at preventing erosion. The fact that it also thrives on bad soils helps even more.

Moreover, it can become a valuable source of income in agriculturally disadvantaged regions of China, while also supporting China’s fight against the destruction of its already small amount of arable land.

Climate protection

One of its most attractive qualities is the ability to bind large amounts of carbon dioxide and thus relieve the atmosphere.

Global warming is an important issue. Unlike certain Western industrialized nations, China still works on all fronts to reach the goal of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Sometimes it might look unattainable for this emerging giant. However, one must remember for the sake of honesty that the West´s complaints about the Chinese emerging economy is somewhat unjustified. We are in an amazingly comfortable position. We outsourced all production, that is harmful to the environment, to countries far away. It’s easy but dishonest to point the finger at them.

China, however, is not letting itself be fooled here and is taking the path already taken towards a green future. Bamboo can help.

On the one hand, it binds large amounts of carbon dioxide — unfortunately not methane, which is much more harmful.

On the other hand, bamboo can be used for various beneficial purposes. It serves as a substitute in the furniture industry for a wide variety of woods and can even replace or support steel, concrete and other building materials in some areas.

Overall, bamboo is a raw material that grows fast, protects the environment and is much more robust than any tree.

Scientists suspect that a single hectare of bamboo can store around 300 tons of carbon dioxide. By processing it and thus turning it into long-lasting objects, its carbon storage capacity extends to around 60 years. That makes it almost twice as efficient as the fastest growing trees produced in bulk so far.

Today’s bamboo products do not stay in the small area of once popular garden furniture. Modern production methods make it possible to produce everything from floor coverings to manhole covers and carriages of the highest quality. As a bonus those products will be much more sustainable and thus environmentally friendly.

This will make bamboo one of the most sought-after materials in the not too distant future.



Bustling Beijing

Long-term German Expat in China. PHD in History. Deep understanding of Chinese Culture. Commentate current Affairs and question the western Stereotype of China.