Bamboo in culture and legend
Bamboo has important cultural significance in many Asian societies. It has played an instrumental role in the development of so much—in building, in cooking, in medicine, in clothing, the list goes on. Accordingly, it has become symbolic for many cultures. In India, for example, bamboo is a symbol of friendship. And in China, bamboo is considered to be a symbol of longevity, as a result of its long lifespan.
There are even creation myths involving bamboo. Several Asian cultures believe that humanity emerged from a bamboo stem. The Japanese have a folktale called the “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” which tells the story of a princess who, after living on the moon, emerges from a glowing piece of bamboo. Another bamboo-inspired tale is the Philippine creation story; in it, the first man and woman both emerge from split bamboo stems. Malaysia has a similar tale: In theirs, there is a man who, while sleeping under a bamboo plant, dreams of a beautiful woman; when he wakes up, he breaks the bamboo stem and discovers her inside.
Outside of legend, bamboo is intertwined with worship and ritual in other ways. For instance, Shinto shrines in Japan are often surrounded by bamboo forests as part of a sacred barrier against evil. Similarly, Buddhist temples often have bamboo groves.
In Vietnam, bamboo has very important cultural significance. It acts as a symbol for the Vietnamese spirit. It represents hard work, straightforwardness, optimism, unity, courteousness, and adaptableness. There is even a bamboo-inspired proverb in Vietnam: “When the bamboo is old, the bamboo sprouts appear,” it says. Its message is one of immortality: The Vietnamese nation will never die. Though its people might, there will always be a younger generation to take their place, to keep Vietnam alive. In this spirit, many traditional Vietnamese villages have bamboo hedges surrounding them.
The Vietnamese also have a famous love story that involves bamboo. The tale is known as “The Hundred-knot Bamboo Tree.” It is about a poor, young farmer who falls in love with his landlord’s beautiful daughter. The landowner promises the young man marriage to his daughter if he works hard for another three years, but then goes back on his word, promising his daughter to another man. The young farmer protests, and the landowner responds by cutting him another deal: If he can bring him a bamboo stalk with one hundred knots, he can have her hand in marriage. The farmer runs into a bit of luck. During his search, Buddha appears and gives him the magic to combine multiple bamboo stalks. This allows him to accomplish his task, and ultimately marry the landlord’s daughter.
So, as you can see, bamboo is, in many cultures, held in quite high esteem. And whether or not you believe the legends, there is one thing that remains as true in the myths as it does in reality: Bamboo is a wonderful and useful plant—whether it’s being used to build houses or as a means to marry the love of one’s life.