Bamboonery - Part 2

Posted on Monday, June 13, 2011, under ,

Su Shi, often referred to as Su Dongpo (1037-1101), one of the major poets of the Song era, painted bamboo and wrote his poems in praise of the plant. Said Su Shi: 'I can go without meat in my meal, yet I can't live in a place without bamboo. No meat makes people slim, no bamboo makes people meretricious. Slim people can put on weight again, but meretriciousness cannot be rooted out.’ 

Bamboo has a profound meaning in Confucian, and therefore Chinese, iconography. Bamboo for the Chinese is much more than a plant. In fact, Confucianism teaches that human characteristics correspond with a bamboo. The plant’s straight stem is the symbol of moral strength, pliant yet unbreakable by the adverse winds. Its knot represents harmonious integration with others. The branches represent flexibility. The hollow inside of the bamboo stalk symbolizes the purged clarity of mind, or the absence of chaos, that is a prerequisite for a constructive thinking. The leaves symbolize subtlety and the poetic mind. Perhaps the earliest poem about bamboo, written during the Tang Dynasty by a government official Bai Juyi (772-846), encapsulates this spirit:

Planting Bamboos
trans. Arthur Waley

Unrewarded, my will to serve the State;
At my closed door autumn grasses grow.
What could I do to ease a rustic heart?
I planted bamboo, more than a hundred shoots.
When I see their beauty, as they grow by the stream-side,
I feel again as though I lived in the hills,
And many a time on public holidays
Round their railing I walk till night comes.
Do not say that their roots are still weak,
Do not say that their shade is still small;
Already I feel that both in garden and house
Day by day a fresher air moves.
But most I love, lying near the window-side,
to hear in their branches the sound of the autumn-wind.

Bamboo painting, on the other hand, requires the mastery and control of the brush strokes in order to balance the composition. The blank of the paper signifies yin while the brush strokes signify yang. Zheng Banqiao, a poet and a bamboo master in the Qing dynasty, wrote: ‘Love to tear the white paper window, with the bamboo shadows entering the meditation bed’, touching on the poetic idea of painting the bamboo shadows reflected upon the rice paper, usually seen on Chinese windows. In 1701 the ink bamboo painter Wen Tong wrote in The Book of Bamboo: The first principle of bamboo composition is, the four parts of the plant should be considered in the following order: stem, knot, branches and leaves. If the basic rule is not followed, time and effort will be wasted and the picture will never be completed.’ It was apparently said of Wen Tong that there were whole bamboos in his heart.

Here is a detail of Su Shi’s own ink-on-paper painting depicting bamboo, chrysanthemum and Tai-hu rocks ( Bamboo in itself is a complete subject because it carries lasting ethical values and it commands a truly talented painter to create varying tones that never repeat — the careful placement of dark/light tones, the execution of perfectly cylindrical internodes etc..

Su Dongpo not only painted bamboo but wrote numerous bamboo poems. I will introduce them beginning with a rather unique example, unique in that it shows how one bamboo metaphor, among many others, resulted in a political intrigue, and eventually in Su Shi’s demotion and exile. The following poem is critical of the government’s stiff reforms of the salt monopoly that made salt increasingly hard to find:

An old man of seventy, sickle at his waist,
Feels guilty the spring mountain bamboo
and bracken are sweet.
It's not that the music of Shao has made
him lose his sense of taste.
It's just that he's eaten his food for three
months without salt.


Notice the old man’s vicarious guilt, its transfer down the hierarchical ladder — from the bureaucrats as the real perpetrators, to the common folk as the actual victims. How Confucian was this? It somehow reminds me of the upending of the Communist ideals centuries later.

For his popular political poems Su Shi underwent numerous arrests, demotions, and spent twelve years of his life in exile. He was the main culprit of The Wutai Poem Case, a famous literary inquisition during the Song Dynasty rule. Here is Su Shi’s poem on the subject which shows that even in exile his satire hadn’t lost its sting.

On the Birth of His Son
trans. Arthur Waley

Families, when a child is born,
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

This sarcastic tone seems to be removed miles away from the Confucian formula and the ‘will to serve the state’.

Well, on a lighter note, here is a true anecdote that not only shows Su Shi in a domestic, relaxed atmosphere, but might even whet your appetites:

Huang Zhou was an agricultural heartland and as the price of pork in the area was cheap, it was a regular feature in the diet of Su Shi… One day, he was cooking pork with bamboo shoots when a friend dropped by. Switching the fire to gentle heat, he left the kitchen to play chess with the visitor. So engrossed was he with the game that he forgot the cooking. It was only at the end of the game he suddenly recalled the pork and bamboo stew and rushed to the kitchen. Expecting to find the pork burnt to crisp, he was surprised by the aroma when the lid of the pot was lifted. The edible pork had a rich red colour, tender crispy but not flaky with a glutinous texture without the greasy taste. The bamboo had soaked up excess fat. Together the pork and bamboo tasted terrific. Henceforth, it became a regular dish for himself and his guests who couldn't get enough of it. Marvelling at his creation, Su Shi composed an ode:

Huang Zhou produces excellent pork,
the price is cheap as dirt.
The rich despise it,
the poor can't cook it well.
Long on fire,
Short on water,
It will be delicious in its own time.
A bowl a day,
will satisfy a man enough to forget all cares. 

(from Dale A. Johnson: ‘Bamboo Dreams’, found on

                                             Dongpo’s Pork was thus inadvertently created.

Apart from odes and political poems, Su Dongpo wrote numerous ‘tune poems’, or ‘Ci’, poetry originally written to fixed tunes, with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes. ‘Ci’ originated in the Tang Dynasty and was fully developed in the Song Dynasty. Here are extracts from two of Su Dongpo’s ‘Ci’, where bamboo plays a prominent role (trans. Yun Wang).

To the Tune of Ding Feng Bo [Calming the Wind and Waves]

Hear not sounds that pierce the woods beating the leaves

Why not chant a little     sing     and take it slow
Bamboo stick     straw sandals     lighter than riding a horse
Who is afraid?
A capeful of fog and rain all my life

To the Tune of He Xin Lang [To the Bridegroom]

A baby swallow flies into the splendid house

Quiet and no one around
The day retreats to shades of the wu-tong tree
I rise from a bath into the cool evening
My hands play with a round fan of white silk
The fan and the hand seem both jade
When I tire I recline
sleep alone my fresh sleep
Who pushes the painted door beyond the curtains?
Interrupting a dream of singing on terraces of jade
It is only the wind
knocking on bamboos
The unabbreviated poems here:

The stone portrait of Su Shi, the original of which is kept in the Six-Banyan Pagoda in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Spot the inevitable bamboo stick.

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