Bamboo. It makes up 99% of the Giant Panda’s diet and it can be fashioned into chopsticks or simply cultivated in one’s own Zen Garden. In addition, it is the fastest growing plant on the planet, sometimes skyrocketing upwards 47 inches in one day! However, besides the aesthetically pleasing nature of bamboo, it holds great cultural significance in Japan. For example, during the Northern Song Dynasty, literati-style painting became all the rage in China. As the Chinese Buddhist priests made their way into Japanese Zen monasteries, their brush and ink style artwork followed them. It began as a countermovement to the traditional Orthodox painters of the Imperial Academy of Painting and the paintings were meant to emphasize the painters own individual experience with their natural surroundings. As the title of Masuyama Sessai`s painting suggests, literati is about having “pure conversation among green mountains.”
Bamboo began to be incorporated into literati-style paintings in several ways. Firstly, the wispy brushstroke technique of the painters mimicked the slender, flexible stem of the bamboo plant. Secondly, the aim of this style is to fuse humans and nature into one harmonious being. A tree could be painted to depict virtuous human qualities such as resilience, longevity, and honour by using hard, strong brushstrokes. Case in point, bamboo is known for its supple stems that can bend dramatically without breaking. The Japanese associate these characteristics with strength and fortitude (like that of Japan’s militaristic past) as the seemingly delicate bamboo stalks can withstand powerful winds and the cold of the snow. In this sense, the literati would fuse the strength of both nature and culture into one beautiful scenic painting.
Bamboo has also gained cultural significance in Japanese tea ceremonies. The bamboo wood is hand-sculpted into a tea whisk (chasen) which is used to mix green tea powder and hot water together in preparation for a tea ceremony. Bamboo has become the material of choice for these chasen’s as it is durable yet flexible, allowing the host to vigorously whisk the tea. In addition, bamboo has no odour or smell which could tarnish the taste or aromas of the tea.
Sen no Rikyu, the most famous Japanese tea master, was the first to use bamboo as tea ceremony flowers (chabana). Chabana’s are used as centerpieces during tea ceremonies and act as an artistic reminder of the current season. Sen no Rikyu began to incorporate bamboo vessels into the centerpieces. This vessels were simple and modest, like Sen no Rikyu, and never detracted from the ceremony itself. Appealing to the wabi ascetic for imperfections, the vessels were never perfectly sculpted and often used bamboo that had flaws such as cracks.
Presently, bamboo is still a significant part of Japanese culture and recently, other countries are beginning to demand bamboo, mainly for decorative and culinary purposes. Luckily, the rapid growth rate of the plant, along with Japan’s dedication to recycling old bamboo should ensure the sustainable use of bamboo.
~guest blogger, Hannah Mott