Monday, March 19, 2007

Story Jar - Bamboo in China

Story Jar, a bi-weekly column published in the Patriot and Free Press, Cuba, NY

Published February 21, copyright 2007, Elaine Hardman

People say that bamboo is China. It weaves through the history and lives of the people as much as through the soil. Chinese, rich and poor, eat bamboo and so it becomes their muscle and blood. In China, food is about beauty as well as taste. Lacy, pale green, sprouts of bamboo give color, texture and flavor to dishes.

Bamboo leaves are wrapped around sticky rice, seasoned with fermented soy beans and steamed so that the rice takes the triangular shape of the folded packet. This food is sold everywhere – the back of a bicycle cart or on silver trays at a five star hotel.

In restaurants, a short bamboo log is used as a serving dish. A portion of the top is removed revealing rice, vegetables and meat, all staying warm inside the bamboo during a leisurely meal.

Bamboo grows as grass does, not as individual plants, but from a network of rhizomes. A grove of bamboo is really one large plant. In the spring, shoots come out of the ground in different diameters. A young root system will put out canes of small diameter but an established system can put out large canes. Some canes, or culms, grow nearly an inch an hour and can stretch sixty-five feet. Bamboo’s roots are its family and growth is its work. China’s families are linked the same way, extensively, endlessly.

Bamboo works constantly to extend its rhizomes. When one sees Chinese people, they are working. Workers move heavy loads in wheelbarrows, carts, baskets or on bikes and motorcycles. There are ever-vigilant taxi drivers scanning traffic to move quickly or scanning pedestrians for their next fare. Fruit vendors wash and peel between customers. Bus and truck drivers move through some city streets with nearly constant horn beeps, not in anger or frustration but as notice to slow-moving bicyclist who might be virtually covered under a load of boxes, depending on what they hear to guide them safely through the streaming traffic.

In the country, I watched a team of men put a tunnel through a mountain with shovels, picks and baskets. This is the way that Chinese workers of centuries ago dug a lake for of the Emperor’s Summer Palace and lugged the soil to create towering hills around it.

Buildings are torn down by hand and concrete is moved bucket by bucket. Bricks are carried in baskets, one at each end of a bamboo stick. Workers balance the stick on a shoulder and walk with a loping gait to match the bouncing baskets.

After a moment of rest and food, a sip of tea or water, the work begins again and goes on from early morning until night. In the cities, construction crews work under lights and through all weather. Construction workers live in the buildings being created. Sometimes, home is a mat on the floor, a clean shirt on a hook and a pair of sandals at the door.

Young bamboo culms wear a slight, fuzzy, green coat. The fuzz easily rubs off of the soft, new culm which turns from green to brown with time. The greens and browns of the culm and the lacy leaves give hills a distinctive and elegant texture. This makes me think of the clothing of the workers. Even those who have hot, dirty, messy jobs, dress nicely. Construction workers have black dress pants and clean shirts. Often, a row of suit jackets hangs near the work site. Women factory workers wear wet, flowered, cloths on their heads to keep the dust off.

Bamboo inspires art and poetry. Ceramic pieces are adorned with bamboo. In Jingdezhen, the porcelain city, white bowls have blue bamboo designs. In Yixing, the famous purple clay teapots have bamboo shaped handles or raised bamboo leaves on the side. Chinese painters use bamboo-handled brushes to paint scenes of bamboo or pagodas or the many animals of China on tiles or rice paper.

Bamboo is flexible and China takes that lesson well. Sleek, new trains glide past rice paddies where water buffalo pull wooden plows. An Internet café in Jingdezhen is hidden behind an alley full of fruit and noodle vendors.

Bamboo blooms once every seven to one-hundred-twenty years depending on the species. After flowering, bamboo dies or at least shrinks and rests for a time, a shadow of its former strength. The culture of China has bloomed and hidden going from times of binding the feet and minds of women to allowing women to grow, live and study freely.

The main lesson in bamboo is that developed roots and good soil allow the plants to grow straight, strong and beautiful. China’s roots are in the architecture, art and customs of thousands of years and its challenge is to grow an economy to move its people out of poverty and into security while retaining enough of the past to keep the beauty and mystery that makes China unique.

This trip gave me, in the words of some who study porcelain, a door open on a view of mountains.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great resource!