On the Evolution of Bamboo

From Past Simplicity to Modern Multifunctionality
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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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竹的生活進化論

從樸素懷舊到摩登多變

文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧林旻萱

竹子,一直是東方文化的重要符碼。通體翠綠的竹子,清勁有節,含蓄內斂,猶若翩翩君子,它不爭豔,不搶眼,是讓人二見鍾情的物種,愛竹子的人都這麼說,「竹子,越看越有韻味。」


即便咱們沒有古人「獨坐幽篁裡,彈琴復長嘯」的閑情,也嚐過竹筍的滋味,蘇東坡「無肉令人瘦,無竹令人俗」這番話,自有道理,甚至小時頑皮,爸媽也會嚴加恫嚇,再不聽話,就請吃一頓「竹筍炒肉絲」。

來自天堂的恩物

除了餐桌上的印象,竹子也是我們生活的一部分。鄉野隨處可見的竹子,過去被取來製作「竹籠仔厝」,日常坐臥的竹凳、竹椅、竹床,生活中的竹竿、竹掃帚、竹斗笠,農家婦女以竹葉包粽子,孩子玩竹蜻蜓、竹槍……。

直到更耐用的塑膠、不鏽鋼崛起,漸漸取代了傳統素材。如今說到對竹子的印象,也許只剩溪頭、京都嵐山等觀光景點的竹林小徑,或者是《臥虎藏龍》,武林高手在竹林裡過招、比劃的場景,雖然空靈飄逸,與生活卻不太相關。

倒是近年,不產竹子的歐洲卻吹起竹子熱,舉凡竹製的家具家飾、裝置藝術,大受歡迎,再加上氣候變異,溫度節節攀高,人們才發覺,竹子不僅輕盈堅韌、耐震抗候,還有生長速度快的優勢,一天生長可達30公分,三、四年即可成材,遠勝至少得30年才能使用的木料,論固碳能力,竹子優於樹木,既呼應聯合國「永續發展目標」(SDGs),也是具有發展潛力的綠建材。

因此,擁有多項優點的竹子,被歐洲人稱作是「天堂來的植物」,而台灣作為竹子的主要產地,若不曉得善加利用,豈非暴殄天物?

重振台灣竹藝之名

烈日當頭的夏日,我們乘著高鐵前往台南,預備前往竹子的重要產區。才從月台步行到大廳,就看到近期當紅的複合式餐廳「深緣及水」,店內的矮牆、隔板,包覆著綿密錯綜的竹材,在復古中帶有幾分優雅,似乎暗示著再來的采竹之鄉的旅程。

約20分鐘車程,一行人抵達龍崎。這兒的竹業發展甚早,可追溯到明清,因著獨特的丘陵地形與砂質土壤,適宜竹子生長,加上鄰近府城,讓早年龍崎、關廟便以竹產業因應興盛,主要供應台南府城所需的民生物資。

百竹園的主人、台南竹會理事長張永旺,已是竹藝世家的第五代傳人,笑說「從小竹子就是我們的噩夢」的他,不僅掌上的老繭、疤痕無數,指尖的關節也格外明顯。

當我們跟著張永旺穿梭在八甲大的園區,上百種竹子婆娑颯響,張永旺細數每種竹子的特性與觀察的結果,顯得一往情深。

見證過產業的興衰起落,張永旺對1960~1980年代竹產業鼎盛的榮景仍記憶猶新,竹編養活了許多家庭,也外銷賺取外匯,帶動台灣經濟起飛,直到石化產品的大舉入侵,舉例來說,在過去人拿竹子蓋房子、做家具,搭棚架和蚵架,甚至拿來造紙;現在不僅被塑膠家具取代,像是蚵架,為了增加浮力,也開始加入使用保麗龍,加上工資上漲等因素,再度衰退。

雖然沉寂多年,但近十年來,因環保意識的提升,竹材因著有機的優點重新被重視,產業才又有從谷底緩緩回升。幾年前LV登門拜訪,向張永旺洽談尋找合適作為精品包的竹提把原料,雖然合作未果,倒是點燃他復振竹藝的使命感。

雖然如今台灣的竹藝,終究得面對人工成本高的難題,但台灣的工藝精湛,仍遠勝中國與東南亞量產的產品,因此,甚至有歐洲設計師在完成設計圖以後,特別商請代客打樣。

張永旺說,竹編是一門需要反覆練習、不斷累積技術的工藝,基礎學得紮實,才能不斷變化,乃至創新,挑戰各式各樣的變化。

他率領著一群有志復興竹藝的子弟兵,朝高端客製化的訂作服務邁進,除了同樣發跡於那一帶的「深緣及水」,還有在小琉球的民宿「尊順祿」,以及長榮大學行政大樓等代表作。輕巧的竹篾經過藝師的巧手,以其柔韌的質地,交錯成網,從平面然後立體,以有別以往的形式,再度豐富了人們的日常,知識與技術也能傳承不熄。

以竹代木的「竹構築」

台灣的排碳量在全球排名始終居高不下,工業、建築、交通的排碳更屬「名列前茅」。當人們汲汲營營追求經濟發展,無視於生態破壞殆盡的同時,也有像甘銘源、李綠枝這對建築師夫妻檔,反其道而行。他們離開水泥叢林的台北家鄉,選擇回到親近自然的環境,想實踐天人合一的生活方式。

面對鋼材的價格,甚至比礦泉水還低的今日,「那是因為沒有把環境成本、社會成本算進去。」甘銘源這樣認為。作為建築師,因著了解燒製水泥、煉鋼過程中的排碳耗能,讓他有意識地在自己的作品降低混凝土的使用比例,轉向開發固碳、低耗能的天然材料。

過去,先在木業發達的宜蘭開業,木材自然成了他的首選素材,十多年前來到雲林落腳,也發現到了台灣竹的存在。竹子生長速度快,俗語說「存三去四不留七」,四年最好伐除,七年竹材就已太老不堪用,竹子甚至還能取代需以遙遠航運送來的進口木材,也因此開啟了他們「以竹代木」的想像。

由於傳統產業斷鏈已久,想將竹材重新使用在現代建築,只能從源頭開始。他們踏入產地重新尋覓合適的原料,也用科學的方法探索竹材的特性與理想的使用方式,並結合鋼纜、螺桿等現代材料,開發出標準化的接頭設計,可兼顧建築的強度與施工上的便利性。

甘銘源提到,竹材因纖維的澱粉質含量高,故傳統竹屋常發生蟲蛀的問題,但他觀察到,竹子長出竹筍後的三個月,因養分都供給了竹筍,澱粉質含量降到最低,便是砍伐的最佳時機,他們與竹山的加工廠合作,將剛砍下來的竹子用天然的方式殺菁、乾燥,讓含水率降到10%以下,乾燥後的竹材呈現出深淺不一的黃褐色,不僅韻味足,也是耐久堅固的良材。

近年,甘銘源在雲林農博、故宮南院、台中華德福大地實驗學校等案,都是令人印象深刻的作品,這些作品,符合他對建築輕盈、開放、融於自然的偏好與旖旎想像。倘若,遠在峇里島的竹構旅店Bambu Indah,都能以其親近大地、連結風土的特點,而成為全世界遊客爭相慕名前往的景點,近在台灣,萬分困難才誕生的竹構建築,亦是值得我們珍視的文化資產。

科技創造竹業商機

根據研究統計,國內的竹林面積約18萬3,000公頃,粗估有15億支,當政府近來喊出國產材政策,也觸動了人們開始關注竹材潛在的利用價值。

在台灣竹產業重鎮的竹山,除了藝師的創作,專做日本人生意,指名非得要以台灣桂竹做成的竹劍,更是當地人引以為豪的「台灣之光」。然而,由於成本考量,目前僅前半段在台灣生產,後半段均已外移至中國大陸或東南亞。

自九二一大地震重創中部,危機繼而帶來轉機,農委會便結合工研院,以復甦在地產業為由,致力推動國內竹產業發展,也為了提高國內的竹產業競爭力,以期根留台灣,確立下不採大宗量產,而改以高技術含量的民生精品的路線,不僅主張「全竹利用」,也成立技術諮詢平台協助民間廠商。

「這些年來,我們已經開發出三百多種產品,產值達數十億元。」工業技術研究院資深研究員黃盈賓,向我們展示以竹子做成的各式產品。

經過高溫燒製的竹稈,成為生物炭,可除臭、淨化水質,還有遠紅外線的功能;在炭化過程,所產生的煙霧與水氣,經蒐集後則是竹醋液,可用來驅蟲防蚊,還可以泡澡,甚至拿來製作清潔用品或化妝品。

民間也有業者如元宇生技,近年才從海外回流設廠,主力產品便是以台灣竹加工成板材,再製作成家具,瞄準的就是未來看好的國際綠建材市場;坊間近來也有以竹子做成的牙刷、眼鏡為主的文創雜貨,正以其獨特性、客製化的特點,搶攻小眾市場。

竹子,從過去的素樸到現今的時尚,它多工與容易親切的特點不曾改變,即便時代更迭,物換星移,依舊能再與人們相伴,長長久久。 

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