Bamboo good luck symbols, charms, taboos and superstitions and fairytales from Japan and the rest of Asia

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (with boy attendant), in a Kano school Japanese painting of the Edo period. The bamboo grove featured in this painting is associated with Chinese Taoist beliefs about immortality. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The bamboo is so ubiquitous a plant and symbol in Asia (where more than a thousand species are found), that it is commonly believed that

“Bamboo is universally known as the symbol of good fortune” — Roots of Bamboo, Bamboo Fundamentals 101, Things You Should Know

Nevertheless, it is not true that the bamboo is universally thought of as an auspicious symbol — for we find that in certain parts of Nepal and India and Bengal, the bamboo plant is actually avoided because of its associations with evil spirits,ghosts or death, and where there are many taboos and bans on the growing, planting and harvesting of the bamboo plant.

In Beliefs, Superstitions and Taboos associated with Bamboos by A.N. Das  and C.P. (2005), a survey of bamboo taboo beliefs turns up the following:

  • In Bangladesh, when a villager is buried, a small piece of bamboo hung above a grave because it is believed to scare away evil spirits (Arens and Beurden, 1978) 
  • In Central Nepal’s Midhills and Kerabari, a common ban is placed on the planting of bamboo because the shadow of bamboo falling on a person was said to invite the Yamraj spirit of Death. (Carter 1991). Planting is therefore carried out at sunset.
  • In Kakani-Kathmandu, people are unwilling to plant bamboo because the trees are associated with childlessness.(Gurung 1989)
  • In Kerala, India as well as in Nepal’s Midhills, Terai and Kerabari bamboo-growing taboo is associated with infertility (nothing grows under bamboo, and it impoverishes the soil due to the masses and its underground network of root systems), not just of the land, but of humans as well. Women are not to carry out bamboo planting, but in some places, women who already have children, may carry out planting of bamboo. Bamboo planting is to be carried out by the oldest male member of the household or by males over 50 only, and not by any young adult males.
  • In Nepal, especially in Terai, hosts and spirits are commonly believed to live in bamboo clumps, and they should not be planted in front of the house.
  • Another common belief in Nepal is that bamboo groves invite vermin and pests (snakes, wild elephants, rodents) and many will not plant bamboo out of this fear.
In India, the bamboo is said to be associated with friendship. In northern Indian state of Assam, the fermented bamboo paste known as khorisa is known locally as a folk remedy for the treatment of impotence, infertility, and menstrual pains. (Source: Bamboo, Wikipedia)
In China
The above taboos are not seen in China, where bamboo is an auspicious symbol, associated with strength, Feng Shui ideas of good luck and prosperity, and longevity instead. The presence and the number of bamboo stalks of lucky bamboo (although draecenias which resemble bamboo now replace real bamboo plant) are considered to symbolize different things:
1 stalk = good fortune
2 stalks = love
3 stalks = happiness, wealth, and longevity (also represent
PAST, PRESENT, & FUTURE).
4 stalks = stable, strong, or power.
5 stalks = wealth or fortune
6 stalks = prosperity
7 stalks = good health
8 stalks = growth or wealth
9 stalks = general good fortune
10 stalks = completeness or perfection
21 stalks = blessings

Bamboo plants are also often deemed to have a protective against evil spirits.  Bamboo leaves are traditionally used to clean the house, as bamboo is believed to drive out evil spirits. Cleaning the house symbolizes sweeping out any misfortune or traces of bad luck (source: Chinese Superstitions: Home And House Maintenance).

China is known as the Kingdom of Bamboo, and in Chinese culture, as bamboo shoots have always been a traditional dish and delicacy particularly in southern China, people have, since ancient times, planted bamboos in their garden. Bamboo is a necessary element of Chinese culture (see Bamboo and Chinese culture).
T
he bamboo, along with the plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum are collectively referred to as the Four Gentlemen attributes of model male behaviour due to the usefulness and uprightness of the plant. These four plants also represent the four seasons and, in Confucian ideology, four aspects of the junzi (“prince” or “noble one”). The pine (sōng 松), the bamboo (zhú竹), and the plum blossom (méi 梅) are also admired for their perseverance under harsh conditions, and are together known as the “Three Friends of Winter” (岁寒三友 suìhán sānyǒu) in Chinese culture.  These gentlemenly attributes or virtues of the bamboo have been transmitted to Vietnam as well as to Japan, the latter country where the “Three Friends of Winter” is traditionally used as a system of ranking in Japan, for example in sushi sets or accommodations at a traditional ryokan. Pine (matsu 松) is of considered of the first rank, bamboo (také 竹) is of second rank, and plum (ume 梅) is of the third.

These belief are closer to and may have originated from southern regions, indigenous inhabitants of Southeast Asia from sub-tropical area in Asia, like Southern China and Taiwan, where the lucky bamboo plant (actually closer to the “Dracaenas” plant, is called”Fu Gwey Zhu”, Fu means Wealth, Rich, Gwey means Power, honor, Zhu is Bamboo(Source: History of Lucky Bamboo). In the region of Southeast Asia, bamboo is associated with youth, flexibility and love (Piper 1992; “Beliefs, superstitions and taboos associated with bamboo in Nepal” A.N. Das, C.P. Mitchell).

In the Philippines

The bamboo features in a Filipino creation myth called Malakas and Magandas (The Strong and Beautiful) in which the first man and woman emerged when a bamboo stalk was split in half on an island created after the battle of the elemental forces (Sky and Ocean) (see p. 32 “The Politics of Dress in Asia and the Americas” by Minas Roces and Louise Edwards).

Other Asian cultures, also contain similar myths … the Andaman Islanders, too believe humanity emerged from a bamboo stem (see The Andamanese: Myths and Legends by George Weber on the Aka-Jeru and Aka-Bo versions of the creation of Jutpu the first man).

In Malaysian legends a similar story includes a man who dreams of a beautiful woman while sleeping under a bamboo plant; he wakes up and breaks the bamboo stem, discovering the woman inside (Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula, by Walter William Skea and Charles Otto Blagden , pp 16-18, open source library)


In Japan

Bamboo groves are commonly found near Shinto shrines, and sometimes are grown as part of a sacred barrier against evil. They are commonly to be found near many Buddhist temples. The traditional Japanese bamboo fountain, the Tsukubai, is said to embody and illustrate purity and sacredness and the seed of the bamboo tree is said to be tied to the mythical phoenix often depicted in Japanese arts, which is said to eat only bamboo seeds (Source: Spiritual Significance of the Japanese Bamboo Tree).

Japanese folktales frequently feature woodcutters or childless folk finding a child with magical, superhuman or maverick qualities from a bamboo grove. The “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (Taketori Monogatari) tells of a princess from the Moon emerging from a shining bamboo section.  See excerpt from Wikipedia entry below:

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari?), also known as Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫 Kaguya Hime?, 赫映姫), is a 10th century Japanese folktale. It is considered the oldest extant Japanese narrative[1][2] and an early example of proto-science fiction.[3] Specifically, it is among the first texts of any culture to imagine that the Moon is an inhabited world and describe travel between it and the Earth.

It primarily details the life of a mysterious girl called Kaguya-hime, who was discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant. She is said to be from Tsuki-no-Miyako (月の都 “The Capital of the Moon”) and has unusual hair that shines with a light like the moon.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is said to have an equivalent version in Tibetan folklore, however there is remain some questions about whether the Japanese 9th century tale emanated from Tibetan sources, or whether the tale was brought to Tibet via Japanese military incursions in the 1920s. This is addressed at pp. 76-77 of Donald Keene’s The Pleasures of Japanese Literature.

“In 1957, Jinyu Fenghuang (金玉凤凰), a Chinese book of Tibetan tales, was published.[8] In early 1970s, Japanese literary researchers became aware that “Banzhu Guniang” (班竹姑娘), one of the tales in the book, had certain similarities with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.[9][10] Initially, many researchers thought that “Banzhu Guniang” must be related to Tale of Bamboo Cutter, although some were skeptical.

In 1980s, studies showed that the relationship is not as simple as initially thought. Okutsu[11] provides extensive review of the research, and notes that the book Jinyu Fenghuang was intended to be for children, and as such, the editor took some liberties in adapting the tales. No other compilation of Tibetan tales contains the story.[11]

A Tibet-born person wrote that he did not know the story.[12] A researcher went to Sichuan and found that, apart from those who had already read “Jinyu Fenghuang”, local researchers in Chengdu did not know the story.[13] Tibetan informants in Aba did not know the story either.[13]” – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Wikipedia)

And yet, due to much recent DNA research showing that Tibetans and Japanese share ancient ancestral genes, it is possible that the lucky fertility symbol beliefs and bamboo-cutter-birth tales reflect the presence of the earliest ancient and related migratory lineages out of Southeast Asia, likely represented by lineages bearing haplogroups C and while taboo beliefs emanated from haplogroup D-bearing tribes (See Origin and dispersal of Y chromosome haplogroup C (Zhong et al. 2010) and also The Himalayas as a Directional Barrier to Gene Flow(2007)). 

“Haplogroup C, is spread over a large region of Asia and Australia, as well as the North and South American continents. However, it represents the paths of the early human migrations, … mostly prevalent only in people originating from the coastal regions, and the few Native Americans and Australian Aborigines left alive today”.

Haplogroup DE: … The Asian lineages Haplogroups DE and D are found primarily in Tibet and the Andaman Islands, and Haplogroup D is present in India, in some isolated northeastern tribes.” — DNA Haplogroups

It is hereby suggested there are several different sources from which bamboo-related beliefs and ideas were derived, the ideas of bamboo as auspicious  earliest tales of birth of persons or characters from the bamboo grove were from lineages that are related to the C and D haplogroups (Southeast Asian as well as Andamanese emergence from bamboo; Tibetan bamboo cutter tale); the function of bamboo grove warding off evil.

However, since sacred bamboo groves around Shinto shrines hold a clear function of warding off evil which is similar to Chinese beliefs of bamboo driving off evil spirits, as well as Northeastern Indian-Nepali ideas about bamboo groves as ‘evil traps’, this corresponds to the distribution pattern of DE/D haplogroups thus suggesting the superstitions and beliefs concerning bamboo originated from the Southwestern China which also happens to be where the world’s largest natural bamboo forests are distributed.

In addition to the above, another Y-DNA marker that distinctly links the Indian Himalayan region to the Sino-Tibetan populations is the O3a5, which according to the 2007 Himalayan study, concluded that the three populations from Nepal—including Newar, Tamang, and Kathmandu —as well as Tibet, originated from the Southeast Asian populations. The study pointed out that “All four populations are represented predominantly by haplogroup O3a5-M134–derived chromosomes, whose Y-STR–based age (±SE) was estimated at 8.1±2.9 thousand years ago (KYA), more recent than its Southeast Asian counterpart” and that “the presence of haplogroup O3a5-M134 representatives in Nepal indicates that the Himalayas have been permeable to dispersals from the east.”

The idea of gentlemenly attributes of bamboo as one of the Three Friends of Winter as part of Japanese ritual display tradition clearly stem from Confucian Chinese sources and the historical Chinese empire’s sphere of influence.

In summary, the body of diverse bamboo myths and taboos and superstitious beliefs and the affinity between them reveal and, at the same time, correspond to the pattern of distribution of bamboo forests which are found across East Asia, from 50°N latitude in Sakhalin throughout Japan through to Northern Australia, and westwards to India and the Himalayas.

2 thoughts on “Bamboo good luck symbols, charms, taboos and superstitions and fairytales from Japan and the rest of Asia

  1. [...] The interesting Heritage of Japan site has a new article about the bamboo links of Japan and the rest of Asia.  Bamboo is prominent in Shinto trappings and an important part of traditional culture, and as in other areas it turns out that ancient Chinese beliefs were crucial in shaping the worldview.  (For the full article, see here.) [...]

  2. […] and Buddhist temples are often situated near bamboo groves, which are viewed as a clever means of warding off evil, while the bamboo is seen as a symbol of […]

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