On the Evolution of Bamboo

From Past Simplicity to Modern Multifunctionality

2020 / October

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

Bamboo has always been an important element in East Asian cultures. Emerald green bamboo, sprightly and fresh, is like an elegant gentleman of virtue and integrity. Its beauty is not showy or eye-catching, but one whose appeal grows over time.

Even if we no longer have the leisure of the Tang-­Dynasty poet Wang Wei, who wrote in his “The Bamboo Lodge”: “Sitting alone amid bamboo groves, I play the lyre, recite poems and sing,” we have at least tried the taste of bamboo shoots. For Taiwanese, these lines of Song-Dynasty poet Su Shi ring true: “Without meat, one becomes thin; without bamboo, one becomes vulgar.” And when we misbehaved as children, our parents would threaten us with “stir-fried shredded pork with bamboo shoots” (a beating) if we didn’t do as we were told.

A gift from heaven

Besides our impressions of bamboo from the dinner table, it was also a part of our daily lives, as a building material, in furniture, and even as children’s toys.

This was the case right up until traditional mater­ials were steadily replaced by more durable plastic and stainless steel. That is why today when people are asked about their impressions of bamboo, the only things that come to mind are the bamboo-grove paths at tourist spots like Xitou in Nantou County and Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan.

However, in recent years there has been a fad for bamboo in Europe, which produces none of its own, and everything from bamboo furniture to installation art has found favor. In addition, with temperatures rising due to climate change, people have discovered that bamboo is not only light and resilient, as well as resistant to both earthquakes and weather, but also has the advantage of growing rapidly. It can grow by up to 30 centimeters per day, becoming a useable building material in just three or four years, which is far faster than the minimum of 30 years it takes for trees to produce wood of a viable size. Moreover, bamboo has greater carbon sequestration cap­abil­ity than trees, making it a green building material with great potential that fits right in with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

With all these special qualities, bamboo has been called “a plant sent down from heaven” by Euro­peans. Taiwan is a major producer of bamboo. If people here aren’t able to make better use of it, wouldn’t this be a waste of a natural gift?

Rebuilding bamboo crafts

On a summer’s day, with the sun shining intensely overhead, we take the High-Speed Rail to Tainan, where we plan to head off to a major bamboo production area.

After a 20-minute drive, we arrive in Longqi District. The bamboo industry here can be traced back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The hilly topo­graphy and sandy loam make this place especially suitable for the growth of bamboo. In the early days Longqi and neighboring Guanmiao thrived as a result of the bamboo industry, which mainly produced household goods for the people of Tainan City.

Chang Yung-wang, owner of Baizhuyuan (“Hun­dred Bamboos Garden”) and president of the Tainan Bamboo Association, is a member of the fifth ­generation of a family of outstanding bamboo craftspeople. Chang, who laughingly says, “Bamboo has been our nightmare since we were little,” has calluses and countless scars on his palms, and his finger joints are especially prominent.

Chang has witnessed the rise and fall of the bamboo industry. He was there when it flourished from the 1960s to the 1980s, when many families made a living from bamboo weaving and the industry earned a great deal of foreign exchange for Taiwan, helping the economy to take off. This lasted until petro­chemical products invaded the market.

Although the industry was moribund for many years, in the last decade, with the rise of environmental consciousness, bamboo has again attracted attention as an organic product, and the industry has gradually rebounded from its low point. A few years ago representatives of Louis Vuitton showed up to talk with Chang about finding a material suitable for bamboo handles for their boutique handbags. Although their discussions came to naught, this event sparked a sense of mission in Chang to revitalize bamboo crafts.

Although today’s bamboo crafts industry must ultimately face the problem of Taiwan’s high labor costs, Taiwanese workmanship is of premium quality, far superior to that seen in mass-produced goods from China and Southeast Asia. There was even a European designer who, after completing his design on paper, specially came to Chang to ask him to make a prototype of his product.

Chang says that bamboo weaving is a craft that requires endless practice and skill accumulated over time. Only if one has a strong foundation in the basics of this craft can one continually adapt and innovate and deal with novel challenges.

Chang and his group of apprentices are determined to revive bamboo crafts, and are moving in the direction of high-end customized services. In the skilled hands of a craftsman, light and flexible bamboo strips, with their pliable yet tough nature, are interlaced, rising from flat to three-dimensional. In new forms, bamboo is once again enriching people’s daily lives, and the knowledge and skills accumulated in the past are again being passed down to future generations.

Bamboo construction

Taiwan has long ranked near the top of the world in carbon emissions, with emissions from industry, construction, and transportation taking the lead. But even as people continue to pursue economic development without regard for destruction of the environment, there are people like husband-and-wife architects ­Peter Kan and Lee Lu-chih who are swimming against the stream.

Today, steel is cheaper than mineral water, but Peter Kan argues that “that is only because the environmental and social costs have not been factored in.” As an architect, Kan well understands the high carbon emissions and huge energy inputs associated with cement manufacture and steelmaking. With this in mind, in his works he consciously reduces the proportion of concrete used, instead turning to natural materials that sequester carbon and have a small energy footprint.

Kan first went into business in Yilan County, where the lumber industry is well developed, so wood natur­ally became his preferred option. But after coming to Yunlin more than ten years ago, he and his wife dis­covered the existence of Taiwan bamboo, which inspired them to “replace wood with bamboo.”

However, because the traditional bamboo industry had long since all but disappeared, they had to start from scratch if they wanted to use bamboo in modern buildings. They not only visited production areas in search of suitable raw material, but also explored the characteristics of bamboo and ideal ways to use it. They also combined it with modern materials, including steel cables and threaded rods, and devised standard­ized joint designs that provide both strength for building purposes and con­veni­ence of assembly.

Kan has produced many impressive works in recent years, including for the Yunlin Agriculture Expo Park, the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum, and the Mother Earth Waldorf School in Taichung. These works all reflect his prefer­ence for buildings that are light, graceful and open, and fit into nature, as well as displaying his charming imagination.

The bamboo-structured Bambu Indah hotel in far-off Bali combines closeness to nature and integra­tion with local culture in a way that has made it a popular scenic spot for tourists from around the world. Here in Taiwan, bamboo construction, which has been developed by over­coming countless difficulties, is a cultural asset that we should treasure.

Technology creates opportunities

Studies indicate that there are some 183,000 hectares of bamboo forest in Taiwan, containing, at a rough estimate, some 1.5 billion bamboo plants. When the government recently announced a policy to promote the use of domestically produced forestry products, this prompted people to take notice of bamboo’s potential value.

Following the devastating Jiji Earthquake of September 21, 1999, as part of efforts to revitalize industries in central Taiwan the Council of Agri­culture began working with the Industrial Tech­nology Research Institute to promote the development of the domestic bamboo industry. Rather than emulating the mass production of the past, they decided to focus on high-tech premium products for everyday use, adopting a strategy of “using the entire bamboo plant” and setting up a technical consultation platform to assist private businesses.

“Over the years, we have developed more than 300 products, with production value in the billions of NT dollars,” says Huang Ying-pin, senior researcher in the Biomass Materials Systems Technology Department at the ITRI, as he shows us a variety of products made from bamboo.

Bamboo pyrolyzed at high temperatures can be turned into biochar, which can absorb odors, ­improve water quality, and even emit far-infrared radiation. The smoke and water vapor produced in the charring process can be collected and transformed into bamboo vinegar, which can be used as an insect or mosquito repellent. It can also be used in the bath, and can even be processed into cleaning products or cosmetics.

In the private sector, there are firms like the Liano Biotech Company, which returned from abroad a few years ago to set up a factory in Taiwan. Their main product is furniture manufactured from boards processed from Taiwan bamboo, and they are targeting the promising international market for green building materials. There are also various cultural and creative products made using bamboo on the market, including toothbrushes and eyeglasses, as companies utilize the material’s unique characteristics and adaptability to advance into niche markets.

Bamboo has gone from its past simplicity to fashion­ability today. But its characteristics of versatility and approachability have never altered. Though times may change, bamboo remains a friendly companion for humans, and will be for a long time to come.                  

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