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The Uses and Cultural Relevance of Bamboo in Asia and South East Asia

Bamboo is a giant tropical grass with hollow wood stems. In the west when we consider the uses of bamboo, we think 80’s garden furniture and bamboo shoots eaten with our favourite Chinese Takeaway food. In the East, bamboo is so much more.

Bamboo is a highly sustainable plant that grows at an alarming rate. It is one of the fastest growing plants on earth and has been recorded to grow as fast as 100cm (1 meter or 39 inches) in a 24-hour period. Because of the speed at which it grows it can be used and become available again very quickly.

Bamboo is a versatile plant and has over 1400 species which have adapted to grow in all climates, thus suiting the diversity of Asia.

Bamboo is a hugely useful commodity in Asia and has a number of different uses.

• Culinary – Bamboo feeds man and beast in all of Asia from India to Indonesia.

• It has been well documented that the plant feeds endangered species such as the Giant Panda in China, and this is also true of other wild animals such as the Golden Bamboo Lemur, that ingests shoots of giant bamboo complete with the cyanide it contains.

• Bamboo can also feed domesticated and cultivated animals; and humans in many different guises depending on where it is prepared.

Bamboo sap can be fermented and made into a potent alcoholic drink

• Construction – Not only does bamboo provide the building materials for houses and structures such as bridges (one made from bamboo in China dates back to 960AD) but it is also used to this day as strong reliable scaffolding, in cities as modern as Hong Kong.

• Medicine – Bamboo provides a mystical cure for respiratory disease in Ayurvedic cures, and as a healing balm in Chinese medicine.

• Textiles – Bamboo is becoming more and more popular as a textile. It is strong, soft and durable and relatively easy to manufacture. This coupled with its sustainability ensures that bamboo is becoming more popular as a clothing option of choice in the west.

• Musical Instruments – The bamboo flute is made all over the world in its various forms, for cultures that relied upon, and to some extent still do, rely on creating their own entertainment. From Polynesia to the Philippines bamboo instruments are carved and used to this day.

Other articles made from, and uses of bamboo include decorations, chopsticks, furniture, weapons, writing utensils, bicycles and even in water desalination, to remove salt from seawater.

In China bamboo is a sign of longevity, in India it is a sign of friendship. Many stories, myths and legends surround bamboo. One being that because of the rarity of bamboo flowering, this occurrence portends imminent famine in China. In Japan a bamboo forest will guard a shrine against evil and it has particular significance in Vietnam where is symbolises home and soul.

So, not only is bamboo versatile and useful, but it is also a symbol of Asia, and important to the numerous different cultures that live there.

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