Meeting around the uses of bamboo in Vietnam

 Visio conference by Emmanuel Poisson, professor of Vietnamese history at the University of Paris and deputy director of the French Institute for Research on East Asia (IFRAE).

Bamboo, Man and Landscapes. 

Bamboo fits perfectly into the Vietnamese landscape, in the middle of the plain or in the mountains. Whether cultivated or spontaneous, there is a harmony between bamboo and man that results from long coexistence. Nguyên Trāi (1380-1442), illustrious scholar and statesman, wrote poems in the vernacular when he retired from active life. He talks about the presence of bamboo in his life: “Near the slatted palisade (of my dwelling), two tufts of dwarf bamboos…Ordinary bamboo as an oar, dwarf bamboos for a house…”. The geographer Pierre Gourou (1900-1999) describes the interaction between man and the plant: “The village is surrounded by a hedge of bamboo whose tight, thorny stems form an effective defense against thieves. The village takes care of this hedge, and heavy fines are foreseen against anyone who dares, without authorization, to cut a bamboo... At the same time as protection against external dangers, the hedge is a kind of sacred limit of the village community, the sign of his individuality and independence. When, in times of trouble, a village has taken part in the agitation or given refuge to rebels, the first punishment inflicted on it is to force it to cut its bamboo hedge. It is a serious injury to his self-esteem, an infamous mark; the village feels in a situation as embarrassed as a human being who has been undressed and left naked in the middle of a dressed crowd.».

If, today, the villages are no longer surrounded by bamboo hedges, these are used around the houses. For a house located on a hillside, those planted high up, behind, are smaller in size and their branches are cut to make them denser (multiplex bamboo ou hop). On the contrary, those which are in front and which are located below, are of a variety of tall size (bambusa stenostachya ou very cheerful, very nhà)and their foliage protects the habitat from the rays of the setting sun.

Spontaneous bamboo at the foot of a limestone massif. Chùa Thẩy. 1979. ©Ð.TH

Mẩng tre bamboo shoots.

Venerable Bùi Văn Càt's staff of old age. 1982. ©Ð.TH

For the production of bamboo shoots or spears, the gigantochloa levis (bương) or dendrocalamus giganteus (may) are cultivated but require very large gardens. In general, we prefer bamboos of more modest size whose trunks have a versatile use such as bambusa variabilis (tam vong) whose value is food, technical and ornamental. Those who have a bamboo grove at home have a multipurpose toolbox and a valuable “savings bank”: whenever they need cash, they sell a certain number of bamboo sticks. Moreover, this “savings” regenerates itself automatically. A bamboo grove, once established, requires little care for maximum yield. However, other varieties are also grown for aesthetic reasons. Bamboo ventricose (trúc dùi gà) will be chosen to make a stick of old age. Its very regular stem and uniformly swollen at each node must present the departures of the branches to come in the shape of three stars. The owner of such a stick of old age will be proud to praise its regularity. the Phyllostachis bambusoides (trúc hóa long) has the particularity of a trunk strangely knotted at the base, highly sought after for use as walking sticks, coat racks or objects of curiosity.

Bamboo terminology and technology: identify, use, name.

A whole vocabulary has been created to designate the different parts of bamboo: cành tre designates the branches, there the leaves which provide excellent fodder for livestock. Ðổt tre is the internode which appears more compacted at the base and becomes almost full with age; he is then called very cật (part of the solid bamboo like the kidneys), tre dưc (male bamboo) or very dặc (full bamboo). It is in this part that we find the strongest bamboo which will be used to manufacture objects that require great resistance such as yokes for transport. Mast, mẩu tre, designate the asperities at the location of the node, compared, at their beginning, to an eye, and which form the three stars. Than tre is the trunk of bamboo (a term we prefer to thatch although the latter is botanically more accurate, bamboo being a grass). Mẩng tre refers to the young shoots, also called spears, which grow at the base of the bamboo. After stripping them of the outer sheaths, they are boiled to remove the natural bitterness before cooking.
The branches or the top of the bamboo are flexible and it is this spring that is used in the manufacture of traps or snares.

Names of the different parts of bamboo and how to appropriate it. Drawings Oger (1909) and Ð.TH

Peasant woman returning from the market carrying her child in her basket. Lithography. School of Gia Ðịnh. 1935.

Structure and technology of using bamboo. Drawing Ð.TH

After cutting a bamboo, it must be pruned and then prepared for the various future uses. This operation is done in several successive phases, each being dictated by the structure of the plant.
A bamboo trunk has a different structure, from outside to inside. What is called your (improperly bark) is smooth, green in color and often shiny. At the location of the knot is a weak diaphragm that can be punctured or removed. It is he who allows the section of bamboo to be used as a container.
Immediately after this "bark" are dense, tight fibers that are both flexible and tough, sharp, while the inner fibers are looser and spongy in appearance.
Finally, a thin invisible film lines the entire interior and will only be visible when the rice is cooking. It is what maintains the shape of the rice cooked in this way and its appearance is similar to that of extremely thin tissue paper.

Bamboo technology is based on the direction of the fiber. For a perpendicular cut it will be necessary to use a saw or a knife. The cut in the direction of the fiber is easier, it is enough to start the cut on a few centimeters and the rest can be done with bare hands. Hence the adage “easy as splitting bamboo”. Ready-to-use sticks are thus obtained. If you want strips, separate the stick in the thickness by removing the fibers. Two or three kinds of strips are thus obtained. Of first quality are the external fibers which contain a lot of silica and whose cutting edge is as sharp as a razor if its "thread" is not removed by smoothing it. It's the lạt ct flexible, which is used in basketry because it is resistant and takes on a beautiful patina. The middle strap, which is more spongy, is used alternately with the previous one to create a decorative effect. The inner strap, lạt ruột (intestinal strap), of poor quality, will be separated into thin ligatures of great strength.
The braiding of bamboo allows multiple uses: a rack (cost) laid flat is used for drying grain. Consolidated with bamboo uprights, it becomes a partition. Rolled up and tied in a cylinder, it becomes a silo (cót thoc) for paddy storage. The hurdles can also be used to immobilize an animal.

Use of bamboo according to its qualities.

The qualities and properties of bamboo depend on the variety, where it grows and how old it was cut.
The use of bamboo as a living plant is already mentioned in a fourth century text, Caomu Zhuang (Plants of the Southern Lands) by Ji Han (263-307): “Thorny bamboo (jí zhú) grows densely and its roots are deep, a simple grove is as tight as a forest. It is also called bā zhú/bā trúc (bamboo for making hedges) and is used to make strong enclosures.". Until French colonization and in the contemporary period, many villages were surrounded by this hedge for the purpose of protection against thieves. Even today, some villages have vestiges of these hedges which are planted on raised earth around one meter in height.

Work posture of a lantern maker to split a section of Hà Nội bamboo? 1979. ©Ð.TH

Basketwork with alternating honey-coloured patinated outer straps and fibrous inner straps without patina. 2018. ©Ð.TH

Side shop. ©Firmin André Salles. BNF funds.

Cut bamboo trunks can be used for construction or scaffolding. In this case, we choose plants of at least four years of age, of a species with a solid trunk. The cut must be carried out in the dry and cold season to prevent the nourishing substances from accumulating in the fibers and attracting insects. The swings cay of are also made from bamboo trunks. During village festivals, a couple facing each other on the support simulates the movements of copulation in a rite of fertility.
Used in sections, the two ends being closed by the diaphragm, the bamboo floats. This ability has long been used by people to transport felled bamboo by bringing them together in rafts (bè nứa) in order to let them drift along rivers to their destination. The use for floating bridges was attested during the conquest of Tonkin in 1884.

Bamboo rafts used as a pontoon bridge to cross the Black River. 1884. ©Hocquard.

Water carrying. Hoa Binh. 2003. ©Vū Thề Long.

Norias and bamboo water pipes. 2011. ©Hổng Quân.

In order to make containers, the sections retain only a diaphragm at one end. To fetch water, the villagers use the species gigantochloa levis (bương) whose internodes are very distant and allow the transport of large volumes. These same sections are used for making norias necessary for the irrigation of cultivated land. If the sections fixed on the wheel require little work, the construction of these norias supposes a great knowledge of the mechanism for the routing of water. Bamboo pipes collecting the water lead it to its destination. To do this, the trunks are split by hollowing out the diaphragm but keeping a trunk arc to consolidate the ride.
The variety dendrocalamus (bitter ou Jiang) is used for cooking glutinous rice using a section with a single diaphragm. If the bamboo is freshly cut, the fire causes the sap to penetrate the rice and imbue it with a pleasant fragrance.
The transport of the imperial mail was done using sealed sections entrusted to runners on foot or couriers on horseback.

Bamboo sections for cooking glutinous rice.

Imperial mail carrier on horseback. Around the world. 1880. Woodcut.

Making dán tâp tình. ©Công Kiên.

For the manufacture of knife handles or sticks, the small yellow bamboo is preferably used. trúc dùi gà (chicken thighs) or trúc hóa long (bamboo transformed into a dragon). For a stick of old age, we choose a bamboo of the desired length, comprising a multiple of 6 by counting the internodes (birth, old age, illness, suffering, death and falling on birth).
For fishing rods, this is the trúc cẩn câu (phyllostachys nigra) which will be chosen for the flexibility of its upper, its progressive profile and its flexibility combined with its robustness.
Le nứa (neohouzeaua ou schizostachyum) whose trunk contains a lot of silica is also used, in mountainous regions, for the construction of palisades by cutting the upper part into a point. It is said that the tiger will hesitate to jump over this type of protection for fear of injury. Cut into strips, the trunk will be used in cooking for its cutting properties. Always in the Caomu Zhuang of Ji Han, we read: Shí lín zhú (stone forest bamboo) resembles "cinnamon bamboo". It is sturdy and sharp. It is cut to make knives with which you can slice elephant leather as easily as cutting taro. It grows in Jiuren (Cứru Chân) and Jiaozhi Giao Chí).

Young musician playing a transverse flute made of bamboo.

đing pag game. Percussion can be done on a block of wood. 2017. ©Pham Hương

Detail of a "Poultry Merchant" lithograph showing a chicken coop. Signed Ðạt. School of Gia Ðịnh. 1939.

The manufacture of flutes, straight or transverse, with or without hole fittings, favors varieties thing. For the manufacture of a kind of dán tâp tình zither, the nứa is used by making incisions in the bark to then lift the straps under which we will slide an easel. We thus obtain bamboo "ropes" which will be scraped or struck.
Percussion instruments are made with nứa bamboo whose trunk, containing a lot of silica, produces a metallic or crystalline sound.

The bamboo can also be used after crushing for the manufacture of dugout hammocks or to obtain a floor, after having eliminated the diaphragms.

Some uses of bamboo.

As we have seen, bamboo has many uses: used as it is after felling it is used to build houses, to make ladders, pipes, yokes, etc. Cut into tubes, it has many uses, such as the manufacture of blowpipes, water pipes, flutes, etc. Split and sawn bamboo can be used for folding screens, for penning poultry, for making torches, etc. It is also found in the religious sphere for making ex-voto where the frame evoking animals, houses or cars will be covered with paper. These ex-votos will be burned during the ceremonies. Braided, bamboo is used for all kinds of racks, for all sizes and shapes of baskets, cages for poultry, traps for fishing, etc. Braided, it can even be used to make basket boats or boat hulls.

Sound sieving using different basketry. Woodcut.

Court of a craftsman with bamboo frames intended to be covered with paper for ex-votos. 2014. ©Nguyến Tuần-Xuân Bùi.

Farmer waterproofing a bamboo boat using mixed buffalo dung and sawdust.

Emmanuel Poisson and Ðinh Trọng Hiễu published Bamboo in Vietnam – an anthropological and historical approach at Editions Hemispheres.

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