Life & Art

Time travelling to the Age of Bamboo

02 September, 2021

Flights of fancy inspired by open dictionaries during breaks from translation

By Mark Caltonhill

Zhuwei is a common place name in Taiwan. This sign belongs to the Bamboo Curtain Studio at Zhuwei in New Taipei City

Sometimes after I’ve finished working on a translation, or maybe just in a coffee-and-snack break, my attention will drift to one of the dictionaries open around me.

As my eyes wander across the page, I often find myself transported vividly back across the centuries to, perhaps, early interactions between Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and incoming Han-Chinese in the 17th century, the golden age of Chinese poetry in the 8th century, or even the earliest records of China’s writing system in the 2nd millennium BCE.

Generally, this is not inspired by my dictionary’s appendices, however, even though they have great lists of things like China’s rulers dating back to the legendary Tai Hao (太昊; 2852~2737 BCE); conversion tables for Chinese weights and measures; and romanisation systems for important historical, literary, and political figures.

More commonly it simply results from my eye drifting from the last character or word I was checking to others on the same page. Today, for example, I’ve been reading about 籤詩 (qian-shi, “fortune-telling poems” given out at temples to match the number on a bamboo slip someone has drawn after asking a deity for advice on a specific issue), which randomly leads me to the character above it: 籞 (yu, a fenced area in a pond for keeping fish).

Imagine a world which has a specific word for such aquacultural or aqua-ornamental zones. And how might I translate this single syllable into fewer than ten English ones? Especially if I were required to accord with a poem’s scansion.

The character to the right of 籤 is 籩 (bian, a bamboo dish to hold fruit or dried meat during ceremonies), which apparently is different from 簠 (fu, a bamboo vessel for holding cooked rice at sacrifices), and 簞 (dan, a bamboo vessel for holding cooked rice for general use). Not forgetting 簋 (gun, bamboo vessels for holding other grains during ceremonies), and 簣(kui), 篹 (suan), 簍 (lou), 篰 (bu), 篝 (gou), 篚 (fei), 筥 (ju) and 籃 (lan), all baskets of some shape and size, woven from bamboo strips for a variety of specific functions.

The last of these appears figuratively in the idiom 竹籃打水一場空 (to draw water with a bamboo basket), that is, to achieve nothing for one’s efforts -- or it does according to my dictionary; I cannot pretend to have ever heard it used.

Before the invention of plastics, houses must have been full of these kinds of bamboo and wicker objects. And this is before we look at the floor and on the beds: for these the dictionary lists at least half-a-dozen different bamboo mats, including 筵 (yan), 籧 (qu) and 篨 (chu); at the ground, which is brushed with various 篲 (hui) or 笤 (tiao) brooms; or go outside, where songbirds hop around 笯 (nu, birdcages) hung from 簷 (yan, eaves) and chickens scratch the earth beneath 籠 (long, bamboo coops).

For those new to Chinese script, it is no doubt immediately apparent from the few characters above that most are not pictures (“pictographs”), as is often claimed about Chinese script, but are composed of two parts: a semantic element (often known as the radical, under which they are categorised in dictionaries) and a phonetic element.

In all the above examples, the semantic element is 竹 (zhu, bamboo), albeit squashed, above a series of phonetic elements. Standing on its own, 竹 is in fact a pictograph, showing a pair of iconic bamboo leaves as beloved by Chinese painters.

Some historians claim that such an image found painted on pottery from the Banpo Site (半坡遺址) of the Neolithic Yangshao Culture (仰韶文化) just east of Xi’an in China actually represents early pictographic writing rather than merely a picture. If so, this would date it to more than 2,000 years earlier than its use in the Oracle Bone Script, China’s as yet oldest discovered systematic writing which, as mentioned above, dates from slightly more than 3,000 years ago.

Back in my dictionary, the various elements beneath the 竹 radical in all the characters above are often characters in their own right, co-opted for their phonetic values. These include 禦 (yu, to guard against), 邊 (bian, side), 單 (dan, single), 奴 (nu, slave/servant) and 龍 (long, dragon, or more accurately a Chinese mythical creature called a long, but that’s a story for another time).

Some of these were themselves pictographs (such as 單, which shows a fishing net with two weights) or contain elements that long ago were indeed pictographs, such as 示 (shi, an altar), 自 (zi, a nose) and 女 (nu, a woman, possibly kneeling). The vast majority of Chinese characters are, therefore, essentially phono-semantic compounds. As are all those for the bamboo-made objects mentioned above.

In fact, of the 7,331 characters (as well as innumerable multisyllabic words--another popular misunderstanding is that each character represents one word) in the dictionary I am using today, around 150, a full 2%, have this 竹 (zhu, bamboo) semantic element.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that some historians say, if it wasn’t for a lack of widespread archaeological remains, the Stone Age in East Asia might just as easily be called the Bamboo Age. Cultivation of various members of this grass subfamily can certainly be dated back to at least 7,000 years ago, and they were presumably harvested and processed for use even earlier.

To judge from some more of my dictionary’s entries, bamboo was used in just about every facet of daily life. Back indoors, in the boudoir there were 篦 (bi, combs), 箝 (qian, tweezers), 笄 (ji, hairpins) and 簪 (zan, clips) for holding caps to one’s hair.

In the kitchen, there were 筷 (kuai, chopsticks - the older character 箸 is still used in Hoklo-Taiwanese and pronounced dee), 䈰 (shao, a tube for holding chopsticks), 簍 (lou, yet another basket), 篩 (shai, sieves), 笊 (zhao, strainers), 箄 (bi, grids for steaming food, as well as storeyed cages for steaming dumplings) which, like the chicken coops, are also called 籠 (long).

In a scholar’s study there were 筆 (bi, pens), 簿 (bu) and 籍 (ji, books) (this character is familiar to many foreigners who have to tick a box marked 外籍 (wai-ji, foreign registration), when applying for visas, which had replaced the earlier 簡 (jian, bamboo slips), which in turn had replaced the turtle shells and bones of Oracle Bone Script. There were also bamboo 笈 (ji, bookcases) to put them on, and bamboo 算 (suan, abacuses) to work out the cost of everything.

The intimate role of bamboo in writing can further be seen in such characters as 答 (da, to reply) and 簽 (qian, to sign one’s name).

There was also the choice of a wide range of musical instruments for the scholar to become proficient in. These included 箜 (kong, stringed instruments), 篌 (hou, lutes), 簧 (huang, reed organs); 笙 (sheng, panpipes), 笛 (di, flutes), 簫 (xiao, vertical flutes) and 籥 (yue, a short flute), used while dancing. Well, perhaps this last was not used in the study, unless the scholar-poet had composed a particularly stunning couplet.

Perhaps the original pipe/flute was the 管 (guan, a basic bamboo tube). The character is still used for various tubes, and appears in 南管 (nan-guan, southern pipes), the traditional music of Fujian Province (which in 2009 UNESCO inscribed on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity), one of whose five constituent instruments is the above-mentioned 簫 (xiao, flute).

This character is just as often used figuratively, however, (and this is where language gets more interesting) meaning to administer/manage. It appears in everything from 管理員 (guan-li-yuan, janitor) to 管理性資料處理 (guan-li-xing-zi-liao-chu-li, administrative data processing). How this change to figurative use came about is not known, since, strikingly, this character has not been found in Oracle Bone Script. Perhaps people beat their underlings 管理屬下 (guan-li-shu-xia) with bamboo canes.

It is easier to imagine how the figurative use of 策 (ce, plan/scheme) came about, since the character does appear in China’s earliest systematic script, where it means whip, and 策馬 (ce-ma, to spur horses forward) was used in the title of the 1985 Taiwan film about Tang-dynasty bandits 策馬入林 (Ce ma ru lin, “Spur horses into the wood”, more accessibly translated as Run Away, directed by Golden Horse winner Wang Tong, and co-written by Tsai Ming-liang who went on to be a Golden Lion award-winning director).

Similarly, easily understood is the use of 節 (jie, the nodes that punctuate a length of bamboo) for 節日 (jie-ri, the festivals that punctuate the year).

Back in the real world, well, the pages of my dictionary: outside the home there were 筏 (fa, rafts to travel down rivers), bamboo 篙 (gao, poles used to punt boats on calmer lakes), posh people were carried around on the mountains on 篼 (dou, sedan chairs), and paused for refreshments under 篷 (peng, awnings), a character still used today in words like 帳篷 (zhang-peng, tent) and 敞篷車 (chang-peng-che, convertible car), fortunately neither of which is still made of bamboo.

Farmers wore 笠 (li, bamboo hats) and used 簸 (bo, winnows), hunters and warriors used 箭 (jian, arrows) and 箙 (fu, quivers), and bamboo 筌 (quan, traps) were used to catch fish in streams. The dictionary illustrates this last with a quote from the Daoist philosophy of Zhuangzi (莊子): “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you have gotten the fish, you can forget the trap” (筌子所以在魚, 得魚而忘筌), which I guessed meant something about your boss forgetting about you once you’ve done your job. But going back to read the original text, it seems to be a metaphor for a person who uses words to express ideas, then forgets the words, and what’s the point of conversing with someone who forgets his/her own words? Zhuangzi, eh!

Atayal aborigine Pai Chi-hsiung introduces a bamboo fish catching tool hanging on his wall in Fushan, Wulai, New Taipei City

Such traps are still used today; I even have two at home that I bought in Thailand, brought home, and converted into lamp shades. They also regularly hang in Thai temples, and miniature versions can be bought to decorate domestic shrines as they symbolise the capture of good fortune.

A great many of the above-mentioned artefacts, long ago replaced by plastic or metal alternatives, have reappeared in the retro shops on “old streets” that proliferate in small towns and villages throughout Taiwan. A regular favourite are traditional bamboo 筝 (zheng, kites), one of so many Chinese inventions.

Other items have never gone away. Ladders and scaffolding are still commonly made from bamboo, and bamboo’s central role in construction is clear from the word 築 (zhu), which the dictionary defines as meaning “to build (out of earth, rock, etc.)”, but must have surely involved bamboo too, otherwise why the 竹 radical?

A quick Google (I’m sorry, I really have to get back to my work soon) of “Why bamboo is suited to construction” suggests: “The compressive strength of bamboo is two times higher than concrete, while the tensile strength is close to steel. Bamboo fibre has a shear stress that is higher than wood. ... Bamboo also can be curved without breaking.” If all this is true, no wonder it is good to build with and perhaps we will see its readoption soon.

Even planted densely it could aid construction. I recently translated a paper about the 18th-century expansion of Han-Chinese immigrants into Aboriginal territories of southern Taiwan. One paragraph related: “In the 9th month of the 7th year of the Yongzheng reign period (i.e., 1729 ), Wang Jun (王郡) and Liu Fan (劉籓) who grew up on the Pingtung Plain planted Erythrina variegata (莿桐, a species of leguminous tree) and thorny bamboo (莿竹) along the densest section of the Barbarian Boundary (番界) in Taiwan.”

Whether this attempt to keep Aborigines out of Han-Chinese areas (or vice versa) succeeded is doubtful, but it clearly illustrates another function to which bamboo was put. I regularly see farmhouses surrounded by thick clumps of bamboo as I cycle around Taiwan’s countryside, which I had erroneously assumed was to protect them from strong winds.

A well-protected farmhouse in Taichung

The name Hsinchu (新竹, literally New Bamboo) is often said to derive from this usage, but if so, that is only half the story. This northwestern settlement, now the seventh-largest city in Taiwan with a population of almost 500,000, was formerly called 竹塹 (Tek-chham in Hoklo-Taiwanese). Meaning “bamboo trench”, this would seem to support the hypothesis, but Abe Akiyoshi (安倍明義), who did much of the early heavy lifting on research of Taiwan place names, says the name may actually be a transliteration of a local Taokas indigenous people’s village name (which Wikipedia claims meant seashore, but doesn’t provide any evidence). In his “Research on Taiwan Place Names” (台灣地名研究), Abe mentions that thorny bamboo was planted around part of Tek-chham, which suggests the name might be a convenient convergence of sound and meaning.

A similar narrative concerns Taiwan’s northeastern port of Keelung (基隆, Ji-long). This is frequently said to have been derived from a local round-shaped mountain or island that resembled the bamboo chicken coops (雞籠, ji-long in Mandarin or ke-lang in Hoklo-Taiwanese) as mentioned above. It is far more likely, however, as Abe says, to be a reference to the local Ketagalan indigenous ethnic group, from which the -taga- part was later dropped. My own theory, though like Wikipedia I can offer no evidence, is that the entire -tagalan- part might have been dropped, and the lang element is the Hoklo word for “people”.

Zhu (竹; formerly romanised as chu, thus Hsinchu and Xinzhu both refer to 新竹 City and County) does represent actual bamboo in various other local place names, however. Examples listed by Abe include Zhushan (竹山, bamboo mountain) in Nantou County; Zhuzihu (竹子湖, bamboo lake) in Yangmingshan National Park in Taipei City, although the lake was really just the shimmering effect of bamboo wafting in the wind; Zhutang (竹塘, bamboo pond) in Changhua County, which really did have a pond, although it was filled in long ago; Zhuqi (竹崎, bamboo steep-slope) on the way up to Alishan in Chiayi County; Zhugaocuo (竹篙厝, bamboo punt-pole house; i.e., long, thin homesteads) in both Taipei and Tainan cities; and Zhuwei (竹圍, bamboo enclosure), which can be found in Tainan, Miaoli, Taoyuan and New Taipei City, hence the MRT station of that name.

These last, according to Abe, are examples of the bamboo-surrounded homesteads, that Hsinchu was probably not. He does support my initial suspicion, however, that this was primarily a means of defence against the wind rather than against marauding Aborigines angry at having their lands occupied.

Superficially, my favourite bamboo-related place name Jingmei (景美, scenery beautiful) has nothing to do with the impromptu topic of today’s mind-ramble. But the current name, which is also that of an MRT station, resulted from Mandarinisation in 1950, following Japanisation during the Period of Japanese Rule (1895-1945), from the original Hoklo-Taiwanese name of 梘尾 (Keng-be, bamboo-water-pipe tail). This was thus the furthest reach of Taipei’s Liugongzun (瑠公圳) irrigation system, though why the wood-radicalled 梘 was used rather than the more common 筧 version of the same character is not clear.

When I first came to Taiwan it was not uncommon to see lengths of bamboo transporting water overhead as I cycled around the mountain roads. I haven’t seen one in decades, however, as they have been long ago replaced with cheaper and better functioning plastic pipes.

It is unlikely that the bamboo 籤 qian used for fortune-telling in temples will ever be replaced by a plastic version. Which I hope is not a too-clumsy way to circle back to where I started. My apologies if it is; but I really must get back to work.

Mark Caltonhill is a Taipei-based British translator and writer

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