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Bamboo in China: new prospects for an ancient resource

Wenyue Hsiung

Wenyue Hsiung is Professor at Nanjing forestry University, Nanjing, China.

For centuries, bamboo has been put to a bewildering variety of uses by the people of China. But even more is expected from bamboo in the future as China's forest managers and researchers work with growers and users to improve yields and develop new processing technologies.

· In Chinese culture bamboos symbolize gentleness, modesty and serenity. Indeed, bamboos have played a vital role in the development of Chinese culture and civilization and are still important today in Chinese rural economics and for industrial uses.

In fact, although the use of bamboo in China goes back almost 5 000 years, an increase in presentday demand and improved processing techniques point toward potentially rapid growth of the bamboo-based industry in China. Research will greatly contribute to the success of the venture.

China is rich in bamboo re sources. Of the more than 1200 bamboo species and varieties within about 70 genera in the world, China has more than 400 species and varieties belonging to 34 genera. The total area of China's bamboo resources, exclusive of small undergrowth or alpine thickets, is about 3.4 million ha, nearly 3 percent of the country's total forest area and one-quarter of the world bamboo area.

Bamboos are closely associated with Chinese civilization. Their use can be traced back as far as the New Stone Age, as is indicated by the bamboo mats and baskets unearthed from the ruins of Hemodu and Shishan in Zhejiang Province, which were estimated to be some 4 800-5 300 years old. Bamboo articles were recorded in the oldest Chinese characters inscribed on bone and tortoiseshell unearthed from the ruins of the Yin Dynasty (1600-1100 BC) in Anyang, Henan. During the Zhou Dynasty (1100-300 BC) small culms were used as fishing-rods, larger culms were split into slips on which historical events were recorded, musical instruments were made of bamboo and bamboo shoots were cooked and eaten with fish and meat. In the Jin Dynasty (313-420), more than 200 agricultural implements and everyday items were made from bamboo. About 1100 years ago young culms were used for pulping and papermaking. Improved bamboo paper has been graded as the best for Chinese painting and handwriting. In ancient wars bamboo bows and arrows were effective weapons, and the first firearms and missiles were made from culms after the invention of gunpowder in China.

TRADITIONAL BAMBOO PRODUCTS (left) bamboo mats and baskets been used for centuries / FAO

BAMBOO FOR CONSTRUCTION IN BANGLADESH (above) a valuable resource in many countries / DE SABATINO


Geographically, bamboos occur throughout China, from the southern tip of Hainan Island to Beijing and from Langxiaan in Tibet to east Taiwan, covering the tropical, subtropical and part of the temperate regions. They are distributed from sea-level up to 3 800 m high in the mountains of Tibet and Sichuan. However, most bamboos are thermophilous and are mainly confined to river basins and hilly land with fertile soil and a humid climate in the tropical and subtropical regions. Ecologically, bamboos with leptomorph rhizomes occur mostly in the Huang He (Yellow River) and Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) valleys and those with pachymorph rhizomes in south China. Between them lies a transitional zone of both rhizomal types.

Since 1950 China's bamboo area has increased rapidly (see Table). In particular, the area of Phyllostachys pubescens, the most important commercial species, has been enlarged by about 82 percent and now covers 2.42 million ha: 71.2 percent of China's total bamboo area.

Scientists and foresters are being encouraged to work on bamboo problems with financial support from the Government.

In Chinese culture bamboos symbolize gentleness, modesty and serenity.

Production and management

The total standing stock of bamboo in China is about 71.22 million tonnes and the annual yield about 7 million tonnes, approximately 2 tonnes per hectare, to which Phyllostachys pubescens contributes 56.5 and 5 million tonnes respectively. Other important bamboo species are P. bambusoides, P. glauca, P. nidularia, P. viridis, P. propinqua, P. aurea, P. makinoi, P. nude, P. aureosulcata, P. nigra var. henonis, P. flexuosa, P. congesta, P. praecox, P. vivax, Arundinaria amabilis, Pleioblastus amarus, Bambusa textilis, B. perveriabilis, B. rigida, B. oldhami, Dendrocalamus latiflorus, Sinocalamus affinis, and Lingnania chungii. These either occur naturally or are planted on a lesser scale in their appropriate regions and managed either for culm yield, for shoot production or for dual purposes.

Many bamboos are cultivated in villages for rural consumption. Such bamboo groves vary from a few clumps of bamboo to plantations of a hectare or more. The management of bamboo stands has long been practiced in China and bamboo farmers have accumulated a wealth of silvicultural experience. It is estimated that an additional 2 million tonnes of culms are produced annually from village bamboo groves.

In recent decades the government has encouraged farmers to exercise intensive management of bamboo stands, including the control of felling, weeding, soil conditioning, fertilization and the elimination of pests. Annual yields of culms as high as 10-15 tonnes per hectare have been recorded in Shimen, Shuangyi and Moganshan (Zhejiang), Taoyuan (Hunan), Chishui (Guizhou) and Changning (Sichuan) for Phyllostachys pubescens, in Loning (Henan) for P. glauca, in Bo'ai (Henan) for P. bambusoides, in Huaiji (Guangdong) for Arundinaria amabilis and in Guangning (Guangdong) for Bambusa textilis and Lingnania chungii. Similarly, shoot production of P. pubescens, P. praecox, P. vivax, Dendrocalamus latiflorus and Bambusa beecheyana has reached 20-30 tonnes annually per hectare in Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong. About 10 percent of bamboo stands are now under intensive management.


The Chinese people have used bamboos widely because of their easy propagation, vigorous regeneration, fast growth, high production, quick maturity, short rotation and graceful form. The particular qualities of bamboo culms - straightness, lightness, strength, hardness, high fibre content and easy workability - are ideal for different technological purposes.

For example, bamboo has traditionally been used in all parts of house construction, except for chimneys and fireplaces. Bamboo houses and constructions are still commonly seen in rural areas, particularly in the southern provinces. Beams, frames, floors, walls, partitions, ceilings, doors and windows can be made from culms in round or in split form. Long culms are laced together for scaffolding for high buildings and bamboo mats serve as protection during construction.

Bamboo is also commonly used for a great number of general construction purposes. Bamboo bridges can be built either by tying together large culms for small streams or by suspending bamboo cables twisted from culm splits. Bamboo rafts are still an important means of transportation in areas with shallow rivers. Ladders, furniture, musical instruments, sports equipment, spears, bows, arrows, fishing-rods, tool-handles, fishing-net frames, boating poles, etc. can also be made of round culms according to their particular size and quality.


Development of China's bamboo resources



Phyllostachys pubescens


Standing stock


Standing stock

(10000 ha)

(10000 tonnes)

(10000 ha)

(10000 tonnes)








4 563.30


3 563.30



5 501.12


4 382.22





5 314.11





5 655.10

Many agricultural implements are made of bamboo, including irrigation wheels, water-pipes, hoe-handles, hand-rakes, aeration mats, sieves, screens, windows, fans, thrashing sticks, carrying rods, grain containers, granaries and supports for vines, beans, gourds, bananas and aquatic crops.

Many works of art and various everyday commodities are made from bamboo culms, splits and strips. They include flowerpots, furniture, lamp-stands, lampshades, sun blinds, painted curtains, fans, brooms, chopsticks, fruit containers, sleeping and cushion mats, bookshelves, umbrella handles, laundry poles, baskets, ladies' bags, etc. In southern Yunan, villagers use the larger culms of Dendrocalamus sinicus to make buckets for water.

Apart from traditional uses, however, bamboo is also an important material in modern industry. Culm splits are used to reinforce concrete as a substitute for steel in some constructions. Bamboo pulping and papermaking have long been practiced and are still common in the Chinese countryside. Four tonnes of fresh culms are generally needed to produce one tonne of unbleached pulp. Modern paper mills do not use bamboo much as a raw material because of its impurity and cooking costs. However, because of the increasing demand for paper, several modern bamboo paper mills will need to be established within a few years.

During the Second World War, "plybamboo" was produced in China for aeroplane material. As a result of technological improvements various types of bamboo boards are now being manufactured. Bamboo mats are prepared by weaving culm strips. Bamboo veneers are peeled by machine from large culms about 3-4 m long that have been pretreated in boiling water. Bamboo sheets are also produced by breaking and widening the large culms after hot-water treatment. They are easily conditioned and are glued together into boards of determined size, number of layers and thickness in the same way as plywood. Plybamboo boards can be used for furniture, floors, walls, doors, ceilings, boxes, cement frames, windmill-blades and ornamental purposes. In addition, particle boards can be manufactured from bamboo chips. Trays, pans, containers and spindles can be moulded by gluing fine culm strips with sawdust. Processed bamboo products and ornamental items are increasingly in demand for export and for domestic consumption.

Multiple uses of bamboo

Bamboo shoots are considered a nutritional vegetable. They come either from intensive plantations or from natural stands and are sold fresh, dry, pickled or canned mostly for domestic consumption.

The rhizomes of monopodial bamboos are used to make walking-sticks, pipes, whips and hand-crafts. Long rhizome necks of Pseudostachyam polymorphum are characteristic for their high elasticity and durability in water and are traditionally used to make fishing-net frames. Culm stumps make good material for carving and can also be used to produce active charcoal. Bamboo roots are used for making cords and brushes once their hard cortex has been removed.

Bamboo farmers have accumulated a wealth of silvicultural experience.

TENDING A BAMBOO PLANTATION IN HUBEI PROVINCE China's bamboo has rapidly increased / F. BOTTS

Long bamboo branches of Phyllostachys pubescens and small bamboos are commonly used for binding brooms and whips and for hedges. Bamboo leaves make good forage for cattle. The larger ones can be used to thatch tent roofs, for hat-making and wrapping food. Young culms and leaves of Sinarundinaria bamboos serve as the main food source for the giant panda in the mountains of west China where pandas live in the wild. Culm sheaths of large bamboos of a considerable size, toughness and flexibility are used for wrapping goods, making hats, coarse sandal weaving, cord twisting, filling and pulping. The juice of Phyllostachys bamboos obtained from one end of a culm section by heating the other is an effective cure for fever. Tabasheer is a siliceous material secreted from the culm of some species and is commonly used as a cooling tonic, an aphrodisiac and for other healing purposes.

Together with plums, orchids and chrysanthemums bamboos are common in many gardens. Their colourful culms with their peculiar nodes and graceful foliage are always a beautiful feature of parks, scenic spots, historical sites and villages in south China. Species commonly used for ornamental purposes are tortoise-shell bamboo (P. pubescens var. heterocycla); manlace bamboo (P. aurea); golden bamboo (P. viridis f. youngii); goldjade bamboo (P. aureosulcata f. spectabilis); purple bamboo (P. nigra); tear bamboo (P. bambusoides f. tanakee); Buddha's-belly bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa); abacus-bead bamboo (Qiongzhuea tumidinoda); square bamboo (Chimonobambusa quadrangularis), etc. Small bamboos such as Bambusa multiplex var. nana can be used for living hedge.

Bamboos are valuable plants for wind-breaks and soil conservation because of their heavy evergreen foliage and extensive root system. They are often planted along river banks, lake shores and hilly slopes to prevent soil erosion. In rural areas farmers always plant small bamboo groves around their homesteads.


In the past bamboos were considered a perpetual resource because of their vigorous vegetative propagation and regeneration. However, uncontrolled exploitation results in a reduced yield and a deterioration in quality. Since it has been forecast that bamboo will become increasingly important for rural economic and industrial development attention has been paid in recent decades to bamboo production and utilization. Scientists and foresters are being encouraged to work on bamboo problems with financial support from the government.


Much confusion exists about the taxonomy of bamboo plants in China and the rest of the world Chinese botanists and foresters have made a great effort to investigate, collect, identify and classify bamboo plants in China and have clarified some of the taxonomic confusion Many new bamboos have been discovered and described and several new genera established A volume on bamboos in China is in preparation. Meanwhile, a number of bamboo gardens have been established in Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Nanning, Chengdu and Anji to serve as gene pools for further studies on genetics, breeding and taxonomy

Investigations, observations and experiments have been carried out dealing with growth patterns, morphological characteristics, physiological mechanisms, anatomical features, ecological habits and the genetic make-up of important bamboos such as Phyllostachys pubescens, P. glauca, P. vivax, Arundinaria amabilis, Sinocalamus affinis, etc. Since the 1970s Nanjing Forestry University and other institutions have conducted research on nutrient content, anatomical characteristics, intercalary meristem, culm structure and the combustion value of major bamboos. A number of permanent plots have been established over bamboo areas for phonological observation and experiments of material-energy flow in bamboo ecosystems in relation to their ecological structure and silvicultural management.

Apart traditional uses, bamboo is also an important material in modern industry.

Processing techniques and machines have been studied and designed to meet the increasing demand for bamboo products.

The flowering behaviour of Phyllostachys pubescens, Bambusa textilis, B. pervariabilis, P. sinospinosa, Dendrocalamus latiflorus and D. minor has been systematically observed and recorded to facilitate breeding bamboos in Guangdong Institute of Forestry. Several desirable hybrids have been created: Bambusa pervariabilis X Dendrocalamus latiflorus (B. textilis) 1; B. textilis X D. latiflorus 4; B. pervariabilis X D. latiflorus 25; and D. minor X D. latiflorus 5, all of which have better properties than their parents regarding culm straightness, growth vigour, culm strength and shoot taste. The chromosome number of their vegetative cells has also been observed and checked. In addition to 72 and 48 chromosomes commonly seen in many bamboo species, 64 also exist in Bambusa textilis and B. pervariabilis.


In the early 1950s Guangdong and Guangxi Institutes of Forestry conducted systematic research on the vegetative propagation of Bambusa textitis, B. pervariabilis and Lignania chungii, important commercial bamboos in southern China. Culm nodes and large branches with dormant buds were selected for cuttings that produced a large number of young propagules for planting. Such work contributed greatly to the development of bamboo production in Guangdong and Guangxi.

Most research has been done on the culm yield of Phyllostachys pubescens by Nanjing Forestry University, the Chinese Academy of Forestry and other institutions. Stand density, protection, weeding, soil conditioning, fertilization and pest control are the major subjects of such programmes. The results obtained, together with traditional experiences, constitute an integrated system of silvicultural techniques in bamboo management. Accordingly, bamboo stands are classified into high-, medium- and low-yield groups on the basis of their productivity and site conditions. For different classes the appropriate silvicultural techniques are designated.

Traditionally, plantations of Phyllostachys pubescens are managed under an alternate on-and-off year system. This however has its weaknesses as far as annual production is concerned. Consequently, physiological and silvicultural approaches have been conducted to convert on-and-off year stands into even ones.

Since the 1970s some successful research has been done on the introduction of bamboos to areas outside their natural ranges. As a result, some southern bamboos have been well acclimatized in the north. Phyllostachys pubescens grows safely in Wendeng and Laoshan, Shandong. Arundinaria amabilis, a native bamboo of Guangdong and Guangxi, becomes hardened in the Yangtze valley. P. glauca, P. vivax and P. nigra grow healthily outside their northern range. Bambusa textilis, B. pervariabilis, B. multiplex and Sinocalamus affinis have also artificially extended their northern distribution limit.

Insect and disease control

Many insects, such as Ceracris kiangsu, Otidognathus davidis, A trachea vulgaris, Pegomyia kiangsuensis, Pantana sinica, Chionaspis bambusae, Arcona funeralis, Algedonia coclasalis, caused serious damage to living bamboos in the 1960s. However, after a series of studies on their life history, occurrence and development, effective measures have succeeded in bringing the problem under control.

Diseases such as Stereostratum corticioides, Balansia take, Shirarua bambusicala and Ustilago shiraiana often occur in bamboo stands, but seldom cause any serious damage. The most destructive is Ceraptosphaeria phyllostachydis or culm dieback disease, first discovered in stands of P. pubescens along the coast area of Zhejiang in the early 1960s. This disease was widespread in northwest Zhejiang and along its borders and caused serious disaster in Chinese bamboo production. Studies by the Subtropical Forestry Institute on the disease's pathogenic origin, development and prevention eventually brought it under control.

Studies on the treatment of bamboo products against mould and borers are under way in some institutes. Nanjing Forestry University has achieved remarkable results in preserving P. pubescens products with liquefied acetyl under atmospheric pressure.


Since the 1940s studies on the physical, mechanical and chemical properties of more than 70 bamboo species have been conducted. The results obtained show that bamboo moisture content in dry air is 15-18 percent; fibre saturation point 30-35 percent; volume-weight 0.60: 0.77; radial shrinkage 4-5 percent; tangential shrinkage 3-4 percent; longitudinal shrinkage 0.3 0.5 percent; and combustion value 4 5504 680 cal/g. Their tensile strength is twice that of timber wood and their compression is about 10 percent higher. Their fibre content ranges from 40 to 60 percent with 1500 2 000 microns in length and 12-17 microns in width. Accordingly, bamboos can be classified for appropriate uses in various categories, such as mechanical, layer splitting, pulping and paper-making and shoot producing.

Processing techniques and machines have been studied and designed to meet the increasing demand for bamboo products, particularly bamboo plywood, particle boards and hardboards. Improvement is still being made. Secondary processing techniques such as bending, moulding, costing, polishing and dyeing, which are important for furniture, artistic articles and other fine products, are also included in research programmes.

Increasing pulp yield and reducing treatment costs are key problems that need to be solved in making paper from bamboo. A sustained supply of culms as raw material presents another problem for modern paper mills. Current research programmes are studying these factors.

A number of universities, institutes and business units have undertaken important research projects related to bamboo production and Utilization. The Bamboo Research Institute, the first of its kind in China, was established in conjunction with the Bamboo Laboratory of Nanjing Forestry University. A national organization of bamboo workers known as the Chinese Bamboo Association (CBA) was established in 1984. Its aim is to promote scientific activities and the cooperation of bamboo workers both in China and abroad. In addition, three scientific periodicals are published. Bamboo Research and Bamboo Information are edited by the Chinese Bamboo Association and the Bamboo Research Institute, and the Journal of Bamboo Research by Zhejiang Institute of Forestry.


China is a country with great potential for bamboo production and utilization. Although some achievements have been made and traditional products have won a good reputation, greater efforts are still needed to increase bamboo plantations, promote the unit yield of bamboo stands and fully utilize bamboo resources. Research on different aspects of the bamboo industry is still in the initial stages. Further studies are urgently needed on bamboo taxonomy, genetics, ecology, silvicultural management, protection against pests, processing techniques and multi-use. More research work and international scientific cooperation should be encouraged for the development of bamboo production and utilization both in China and the rest of the world.


HSIUNG, W.Y. & ZHOU F.C. 1974 Silviculture of bamboos. Beijing, Chinese Forestry Press.

HSIUNG, W.Y. 1983 The distribution, production and research of bamboos in the world. Bamboo Res., 2 (1): 6-16.

HSIUNG, W.Y. & REN, Y.Y. 1983 Bamboos in development of Chinese civilization. Bamboo Res., 2 (1): 88-100.

ZHOU, F.C. 1983 The history present situation and prospect of bamboo production and research in China. Bamboo Res., 2 (1): 18-22.


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