Bamboo Leaf (Brendan)

Page 10 of "The general history of China ..."

Jean-Baptiste Du Halde's "A general history of China ..." provides several examples of the practical uses of bamboo devised by the Chinese. These include using bamboo for medicinal purposes and to construct strudy tools.

Snuff Bottle Side 1

The face of this snuff bottle features the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Composed of bamboo, it explores the relationship between nature and daily life in Chinese culture during the Qing Dynasty. 

Bamboo, or bambuseae, has been a reliable renewable resource around the world for centuries. Though believed to have originated in China, native species of the hollow grass can be found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica [1]. Towards the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century, bamboos from India and China began to appear in European gardens [2]. Its sheer sturdiness and abundance has made it a superior material for manufacturing items such as tools, shelter, weapons, and furniture. In addition, it is the fastest-growing plant in the world; some species have been observed to grow up to ninety-one centimeters per day, making bamboo an easily renewable and economically sustainable resource [3].

Over the years, humans have utilized bamboo in myriad ways. The significance of bamboo to early modern East Asian culture, for example, is depicted in the writings of Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, a French Jesuit historian. His 1736 work, The General History of China …, which draws from the reports of seventeen Jesuit missionaries, provides several examples of the many ingenious manipulations of bamboo. For instance, “the Tartars use a kind of pen made of Bamboo, and almost shaped like those in Europe; … when they would use a Pen either for writing, or drawing Flowers, Trees, or Mountains after the Chinese manner, they are first obliged to pass some Alum-water over the paper to hinder the Ink from penetrating thro’ it” [4]. Creating legible writing with these peculiar pens required partaking in a meticulous process extremely foreign to European eyes. However, what they produced were strokes that characterized Chinese art and written language Westerners would have found difficult to duplicate accurately. Thus, bamboo permitted and aided the formation of a distinct cultural identity through its contributions to Chinese visual tradition. Even after the plant had died, what the plant help create would still remain.

In addition, the Chinese exhibited a mastery of using bamboo to heal a plethora of maladies. For example, according to Du Halde, a man with a large abscess in his back was given “Neui to che fuen,” which instead of healing him caused him to have a high fever and vomit excessively. However, after taking six pounds of ginseng diluted with water distilled from freshly gathered bamboo, and ingesting a large quantity of the bamboo itself, the man was cured of his ailments [5]. Furthermore, bamboo was emloyed as an instrument to help treat asthma and congestion. To rid the head of phlegm, one would merely need to mix water and the “Seed of Tea,” slowly drip it down through the nostrils, and take piece of bamboo between the teeth [6]. These accounts demonstrate that bamboo is not only physically flexible, but also flexible in the regards to the number of ways it could be used medicinally. Not only is the plant hardy and pliable, its makeup was perceived to be intrinsically beneficial, and could be used as an ingredient in recipes such as Chinese zongzi (粽子). 

Du Halde’s writings occur just before bamboo’s introduction to Europe, and his fascination with the plant makes it easy to see why it was so desirable. Its appearance in European gardens not only had aesthetic or practical purposes, however, but also symbolized European power and imperialism. Because of its deep roots in Eastern cultural identities and traditions, steps have been taken in the 20th and 21st centuries to preserve bamboo’s safety and prevent its exploitation. Today, bamboo is jealously guarded as national sovereign property; as explained by the Convention on Biological Diversity, foreigners to nations where bamboo is naturally found may only collect it with prior informed consent from national governments through competent authorities [7].

Perceptions of bamboo are further exemplified in Chinese art of the early modern era. For example, a Qianlong period snuff bottle featuring the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove around its surface prominently features the sturdy grass and explores its relationship with man when removed from the context of “civilization.” Chinese snuff bottles were portable, airtight containers often composed of porcelain, stone, glass, or metal, intended to hold tobacco for personal use. The Qing Dynasty has been considered the Golden Age of snuff bottles; they were produced and distributed prolifically under the emperorship of Qianlong around 1736 [8]. This particular bottle, carved out of bamboo, is a mere 7.3 centimeters in height, a convenient, portable size. A scene featuring the Seven Sages wraps around the bottle’s surface in one continuous tableau. One sage gazes off the porch of what appears to be a house that rises out of a flowing river. To the right, two more sages converse with each other by the bank of that river while a small child attempts to get attention by tugging at one’s sleeve. Another grouping of four sages and one small child appears in an open area, clear of rocks or bodies of water. The men are engaged in jovial conversation; all have smiling faces and three sit comfortably on the ground in a circle enjoying fruit. Every sage is identical in physique and dress; they each don a bald head, long beard, and simple, heavy robe. A forest of tall bamboo stalks creates a wall and backs the entire scene. They are all topped by an opaque awning of tightly knit leaves.

The elucidation of bamboo’s function in this image is aided by an understanding of the Seven Sages’ story. 竹林七贤(Zhúlín Qī Xián) were a group of 3rd Century Chinese scholars and poets who together fled civilization to live in a secluded bamboo grove in order to escape their suppressive government and enjoy lives of individual freedom and expression [9]. The bottle’s depiction of the sages’ bliss in their wooded paradise is aided by its presentation of bamboo. The forest of tightly spaced bamboo forms an impassable barrier that protects the sages’ liberated philosophy and art from the oppression of the outside world. This fortification is reinforced by the heavy umbrella of bamboo leaves that hangs over the top of the scene. The stalks, leaves, and the surface of the image itself together create an impenetrable safe space in which the sages are allowed to flourish without the domineering eye of the government. This sense of protection directly correlates with the object’s primary function as a snuff bottle; just as the products of the sages’ great mind are to be cherished and protected, so are the products contained in the bottle itself: tobacco. This is further amplified by the fact that the bottle is composed of the grass itself. This bottle’s representation of bamboo communicates sentiments of reliability and security. The ideas and wellbeing of the sages are only made possible through the trusted safety that the bamboo grove provides. Thus, for the Chinese, nature is a space of sacred purity, unadulterated by the corruption of an imperfect humanity. 


[1] "Origin of Bamboo." Bamboo Grove. January 1, 2008. Accessed November 11, 2014.

[2] Stapleton, Chris. "Origins of Bamboos Cultivated in Western Gardens." Bamboo Identification - Origins. Accessed November 11, 2014.

[3] "Fastest Growing Plant." Guiness World Records. Accessed November 11, 2014.

[4] Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste. The General History of China: Containing a Geographical, Historical, Chronological, Political and Physical Description of the Empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea and Thibet : Including an Exact and Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, Ceremonies, Religion, Arts and Sciences. 3rd ed. Vol. 4. London: Printed for J. Watts, 1741. 205. 

[5] Du Halde, 10

[6] Du Halde, 28

[7] Stapleton, Chris. "Origins of Bamboos Cultivated in Western Gardens." Bamboo Identification - Origins. Accessed November 11, 2014.

[8] Hoffman, Eric J. "Chinese Snuff Bottles: Masterpieces in Miniature." Hoffman Jade. Accessed December 3, 2014.

[9] "Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove." Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. Accessed December 03, 2014.

Bamboo Leaf (Brendan)