Bamboo is not only a versatile plant that has many uses and benefits for the human body, but also a rich source of inspiration and symbolism for classical Chinese poets. Bamboo has been a common motif in Chinese poetry since ancient times, especially among the poets of the Six Dynasties (220-589 CE) and the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Bamboo poetry, as a genre, reflects the poets' emotions, thoughts, and allegories about bamboo, as well as their aesthetic appreciation and cultural values.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the main themes and features of bamboo poetry, based on selected works by some of the most renowned classical Chinese poets. We will also provide some tips on how to read and appreciate bamboo poetry, as well as some resources for further learning.
Bamboo as a symbol of resilience, integrity, and loyalty.
One of the most common themes in bamboo poetry is bamboo as a symbol of resilience, integrity, and loyalty. Bamboo is known for its ability to bend but not break in strong winds or storms, as well as its straight and upright shape that does not change with the seasons. Bamboo also grows in clusters that support each other and resist external forces. These qualities make bamboo an ideal metaphor for the poets' moral character and political stance, especially in times of turmoil and oppression.
For example, one of the most famous bamboo poets is Ji Kang (223-262 CE), who was one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of scholars and artists who retreated from the corrupt court politics of the Wei dynasty (220-265 CE) to pursue a life of freedom and pleasure in a bamboo grove near Ji Kang's estate. Ji Kang was known for his independent thinking, unconventional behavior, and disdain for authority. He wrote many poems about bamboo to express his admiration for its virtues and his identification with its spirit. In one of his poems, he wrote:
I love bamboo's nature,
Straight yet flexible,
Hollow yet solid,
Simple yet elegant.
I wish to be like bamboo,
Unyielding yet adaptable,
Modest yet dignified,
Pure yet graceful.
However, Ji Kang's rebellious attitude eventually led to his execution by the state, which was strongly protested by his followers. His death testifies to the very real dangers that forced the bamboo poets' retirement from public life. Another example of a bamboo poet who faced persecution is Wang Wei (701-761 CE), who was one of the greatest poets of the Tang dynasty. Wang Wei was also a painter, musician, and Buddhist devotee who lived a simple and reclusive life in his mountain villa surrounded by bamboo forests. Wang Wei was loyal to the Tang emperor Xuanzong (712-756 CE), but he was implicated in a rebellion led by one of his relatives and imprisoned for a while. He wrote many poems about bamboo to convey his sorrow, loneliness, and detachment from worldly affairs. In one of his poems, he wrote:
I lean on my cane by the bamboo fence,
The moon shines through the clouds.
The wind rustles the bamboo leaves,
The sound fills my ears.
I think of my old friends in the capital,
I wonder how they are doing.
I wish I could see them again,
But I know it is impossible.
Bamboo as a source of joy, beauty, and harmony.
Another theme in bamboo poetry is bamboo as a source of joy, beauty, and harmony. Bamboo is appreciated for its aesthetic appeal, musical sound, and ecological role. Bamboo can create a pleasant scenery with its green color, graceful shape, and varied patterns. Bamboo can also produce a soothing sound when its leaves sway in the wind or its stems knock against each other. Bamboo can also provide a habitat for birds and animals, as well as food and materials for humans. These aspects make bamboo an ideal subject for poetic description and imagination.
For example, one of the most prolific bamboo poets is Bai Juyi (772-846 CE), who was also one of the most popular poets of the Tang dynasty. Bai Juyi was known for his simple and accessible style, his social criticism and compassion, and his love for nature and music. He wrote many poems about bamboo to express his joy, beauty, and harmony in his life. In one of his poems, he wrote:
I planted bamboo in front of my house,
It grew tall and lush in a few years.
I cut some stems to make a flute,
It played a clear and melodious tune.
I invited my friends to enjoy the bamboo,
We drank wine and sang songs under its shade.
We felt happy and peaceful in the bamboo,
We forgot all our troubles and worries.
Another example of a bamboo poet who celebrated joy, beauty, and harmony is Su Shi (1037-1101 CE), who was one of the greatest poets of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). Su Shi was also a calligrapher, painter, statesman, and gastronome who lived a colorful and adventurous life. He wrote many poems about bamboo to express his appreciation, creativity, and humor. In one of his poems, he wrote:
I love to eat bamboo shoots,
They are tender and delicious.
I love to paint bamboo branches,
They are elegant and graceful.
I love to write with bamboo slips,
They are smooth and durable.
I love to do everything with bamboo,
Except for making clothes.
Bamboo as a medium of communication, friendship, and culture.
A third theme in bamboo poetry is bamboo as a medium of communication, friendship, and culture. Bamboo can be used to convey messages, emotions, and ideas through various forms of art and literature. Bamboo can also be used to establish and maintain relationships with friends, family, and colleagues through various forms of social interaction and exchange. Bamboo can also be used to represent and transmit the values and traditions of Chinese culture through various forms of symbolism and allegory.
For example, one of the most influential bamboo poets is Wang Bo (650-676 CE), who was one of the Four Great Poets of the early Tang dynasty. Wang Bo was known for his innovative and expressive style, his profound and elegant thoughts, and his short and tragic life. He died at the age of 26 in a shipwreck while traveling to take up an official post. He wrote many poems about bamboo to communicate his feelings, insights, and aspirations. In one of his poems, he wrote:
I send you a letter with a bamboo slip,
It contains my heartfelt words.
I hope you will read it carefully,
And understand my sincere intentions.
I wish I could fly to your side,
And share my joys and sorrows with you.
But I know it is not easy,
So I entrust my thoughts to the bamboo.
Another example of a bamboo poet who used bamboo as a medium of communication, friendship, and culture is Guan Daosheng (1262-1319 CE), who was one of the most famous female painters and calligraphers in Chinese history. Guan Daosheng was also a poet and a devout Buddhist who was married to Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322 CE), another renowned artist and scholar of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 CE). Guan Daosheng specialized in painting bamboo with ink on paper or silk, which she often inscribed with her own poems or those of her husband or friends. She used bamboo as a way to express her artistic talent, her marital love, and her Buddhist faith. In one of her paintings, she wrote:
I paint bamboo with my heart,
It grows from my brush strokes.
I write poems on my paintings,
They flow from my mind.
I dedicate my works to my husband,
He appreciates them with his eyes.
We share our love for bamboo,
It connects us with each other.
How to read and appreciate bamboo poetry
To read and appreciate bamboo poetry, you need to pay attention to the following aspects:
• The form and structure of the poem. Bamboo poetry can be written in various forms and structures, such as quatrains (four-line stanzas), regulated verses (eight-line stanzas with strict rules on rhyme, tone, parallelism, etc.), or ci (lyric poems that follow fixed patterns of rhythm and rhyme). You need to understand the rules and conventions of each form and structure, as well as the variations and innovations that the poets employ.
• The language and style of the poem. Bamboo poetry can use various types of language and style, such as classical Chinese (the literary language based on ancient texts), vernacular Chinese (the spoken language based on everyday speech), or mixed Chinese (a combination of both). You need to understand the meanings and nuances of each type of language and style, as well as the effects and implications that they create.
• The imagery and symbolism of the poem. Bamboo poetry can use various types of imagery and symbolism, such as realistic description (depicting the appearance and characteristics of bamboo), metaphorical comparison (comparing bamboo to other things or concepts), or allegorical implication (suggesting hidden or deeper meanings behind bamboo). You need to understand the sources and references of each type of imagery and symbolism, as well as the associations and interpretations that they evoke.