Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Bamboo in China

Lian Tairan

LIAN TAIRAN is a forestry engineer in China's Ministry of Forestry. This article appeared originally in China Reconstructs, the international Chinese magazine published in Beijing.

A fifth of the world's bamboo grows in China - 300 varieties in a total area of 20000 square kilometres. One can hardly travel anywhere in the country without seeing bamboo being used in some fashion.

Bamboo is used most extensively south of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River). Almost every house has something made of bamboo - beds, chairs, cases, baskets, brooms, chopsticks, even hats. It is used in building houses and fences, for hanging bridges over mountain streams and for river rafts. Green and graceful bamboo adds beauty to villages, scenic spots and historical sites. Sturdy groves strengthen the dikes along the rivers.

Succulent bamboo shoots find their way into delicious banquet dishes or are dried for later use. The leaves are made into a medicine that reduces fever, and a fluid secreted from its joints can alleviate nausea.

No one knows how long China has used bamboo. About 6000 years ago the Chinese character zhu for bamboo was carved on pottery of the neolithic Yangshao culture. In Zhejiang province 4000 years ago there were bamboo baskets. Before the invention of paper, Chinese characters where written on bamboo slips; the earliest discovered so far dates from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). In the 2000 - year-old Dujiangyan water conservation project, which is still operating in Sichuan province, bamboo crates filled with stones were used to block water in the building of dikes and dams. Pipes made of bamboo fed water to farm land. During the fifth century AD, the inner parts of the bamboo were beaten into pulp and used for making paper. In the tenth century bamboo pipes were used for an igniting mechanism for muskets.

Bamboo varieties

Most bamboo grows in Southeast Asia which is warm and moist and often swept by monsoons. South and southeast China - the area below the Chang Jiang - lie within this zone. Luxuriant groves of many different varieties cover great stretches of land.

Two major species flourish in China, one in the tropical and subtropical zones, where it crowds in clumps from underground root-stocks, and one in the more temperate zones, where it grows from the joints of a long, horizontally creeping root-stock and forms scattered shoots.

In the Jin dynasty (265-420), Dai Kaizhi mentioned some 70 varieties in his Bamboo Register. Among the 300 varieties in China today are many rare or unusual bamboos such as the towering Mao bamboo, the straight "water bamboo," the graceful "phoenix-tail" bamboo and the slender purple bamboo. A vine-like bamboo that often stretches for 30 metres grows on Hainan Island.

The spotted bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides f. tanakae) has yellow brown spots on its stems and branches. It is said that King Shun (who is supposed to have lived sometime before the 21st century BC) died on an inspection tour of Cangwu in what is today's Guangxi Zhuangzu Autonomous Region in the south. His two concubines heard the news as they arrived at Dongting Lake in Hunan province. Their tears of grief fell on bamboos growing on Jushan (Ju hill) by the lake - and the stems have remained spotted to this day. The species is rare and the site is now a nature preserve.

A fifth of the world's bamboo grows in China where new uses for it are continually being found

Planning growth

Bamboo is important economically because it grows rapidly, matures early and gives a high yield. Mao bamboo grows 20 metres high in three months and is ready for cutting in four to six years. The yield per hectare may reach 30 tonnes a year. Its growing period is only half to two-thirds that of ordinary timber, while its yield is double.

In 1949 the Government, forest re search institutes and bamboo growers began to expand the areas planted to bamboo. In the late 1950s, research institutes started trying to grow southern varieties in north China. They first chose sunny mountain slopes in the Huang He (Yellow River) valley where plenty of water was available. Finally they succeeded in acclimatizing the Mao bamboo from the Chang Jiang area to the north. It has even been successfully grown in Liaoning province in the cold northeast. Today, bamboo is found as far north as 40° latitude. Beijing alone has 20 varieties.

A special scientific research organization under the Forestry Department now works on bamboo cultivation. It publicizes advanced growing methods and the prevention of diseases and pests. It maintains a number of bamboo nurseries and gardens such as the one at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, a grove in the Hangzhou botanical garden, and a garden at Henan Agricultural College.

In Anji county, Zhejiang province, one of the major bamboo-growing areas, the Chinese Academy of Forestry Sciences has set up a 15-hectare bamboo garden containing 100 rare varieties for study, research and teaching. In the early 1970s the Guangdong Province Forest Research Institute developed a new hybrid bamboo-chengmaging - by crossing the tough and tensile Bambusa pervariabilis with the quick-growing highyield Sinocalamus latiflorus and the soft and flexible Bambusa textilis. The new strain, high in yield and quality, with firm and flexible properties, is used in building houses and making rope. It matures in half the time of ordinary varieties.

The uses of bamboo continue to increase. Formerly used only as firewood, it now goes into hundreds of products from plywood and plastics to furniture and other durable articles. In the rural areas it has long been used in building houses. In the minority nationality areas of the south, such homes often reflect the cultural characteristics of their builders.

To extend the use of bamboo, construction departments are studying its mechanical properties. Modern building construction often uses it for scaffolding. Aquatic springboards are made of it. Reinforced concrete using bamboo instead of steel rods is an interesting new development.

The buffaloes of China


A new look at China's "living tractor" - the past, present and future role of the buffalo in Chinese agriculture with colour photographs and superb line drawings.

Available in English only.


Previous Page Top of Page Next Page