A bow to bamboo

The bamboo is one of the chief marvels of our rich, surprising planet. Graceful and elegant, beloved of artists, poets, and philosophers, it is also the most utilitarian of trees. There are over a thousand species of bamboo, at once delicate and strong, straight and round, smooth, shining, hollow, wonderfully jointed. Its wood is easy to split and to bore through, though the exterior is very hard.

Bamboo grows abundantly and with phenomenal rapidity. The tender shoots, succulent and crisp, thrust their way vigorously out of the ground and are greatly prized for their flavour, which, alas, it seems impossible to preserve. Those spared the fate of the table rise up in sections, forming a hollow trunk that pushes out thin branches and beautiful pointed leaves that have proved ideally suited to the artist's brush.

A few strokes, swift and sure, in the hand of a master can capture this fugitive beauty forever. Schools of bamboo painters, splendid artists, have devoted themselves to this one subject - it was enough, it was their universe. The record of their names is long and impressive. They flourished especially during the Sung and Yuan Dynasties, great eras for painting.

The bamboo's hollow trunk has been seen as a symbol of the heart emptied of egotism and vanity, hence receptive to inspiration and enlightenment. Because bamboo bows to wind and snow, bending but not breaking, the tree has been taken as a sign of endurance and courage. In times of disaster when their country was under Mongol or Tatar occupation, the Chinese drew strength from this analogy - one day they too would spring up again, straight and resilient.

Bamboo was called one of the Three Friends of Man, the two other being the pine and the plum. That it is sparse, refined, austere, pleases, too - here is something stripped to the essentials, and yet immensely useful. A few bamboos in a courtyard or garden are sufficient to cast adequate shade in the heat, while presenting a striking, charming effect. Gardeners loved to place it beside rocks , contrasting its slenderness with rugged, fantastic stones, or to create a thicket, full of musical rustles. Under the moon or by lamplight the narrow leaves cut sharp, piercing shadows against a white wall or a latticed window, vignettes in black and white like the scrolls drawn with ink which emulated them.

Bamboo was long associated with Confucian scholars who, in their turn, considering its correctness and restraint, thought of it as a ''gentleman.'' Long ago there were bamboo books and bamboo writing tablets on which characters were inscribed. An important ideograph (one of the 214 radicals which form the basis of the written Chinese language) was given to bamboo, and myriads of words built up from it. The scholar's brush holder, pen rest, the handle of his brushes, even paper, were made of it, and tales were woven round literary figures like the ''Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove.''

The hollow segments, sawn off, form natural beakers. Bamboo makes furniture, toys, hats, matting, blinds, bows and arrows, musical instruments (particularly flutes), kitchenware, chopsticks, paper, fans, and baskets of every size and shape, enormous to tiny, and all beautiful. When there were bamboo fairs everyone reveled in delightful objects, shining and clean, fresh and strong. If it rained, and it often did, no matter - water does not affect bamboo. There would be peddlers with scores of miniature models of insects, so real you could almost hear them chirp.

Though the great bamboo painters like Wen Tung, Su Shih, and Lady Kuan were supreme in giving the bamboo its lofty niche in art, we must not overlook the bamboo carvers, who came late into the field. In the Ming Dynasty certain scholars recognized the potential of this wood and its role in glyptic art. The small, glowing articles they carved are of the sort one longs to handle, delicious to the touch. They were expert too in fashioning high and low relief, either of characters or of scenes, on bamboo vessels.

The 18th-century narcissus on this page is a beautifully wrought example of how delicate and exact such work could be. Very small, very perfect, it rises from a finely made stand. Two mushrooms grow at the base, below the long and graceful leaves, the lovely little flower, and all formed from this versatile, genial material.

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