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I'd rather have a diet without meat than a home without bamboo. That is how a famous Chinese writer once described his nation's relationship with one of the world's most useful plants. From musical flutes to edible shoots, bamboo is everywhere in Chinese life.
But an NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, there have been some big changes in how it's used. Here's his report from a region known as China's sea of bamboo.
ANTHONY KUHN: The bamboo forests of Anji County in eastern Zhejiang Province contain some of the most majestic plants of their species. From their segmented trunks, called combs, to their leafy tops, the plants tower to heights of 50 feet or more, pretty impressive for what's really a giant grass. Cicadas chatter in the summer heat, cooled only by the green shade of the bamboo and a little stream running through the forest.
For millennia bamboo has been used to make houses, books, hats, carts and every imaginable tool. People made full use of all of its parts, demonstrating a closeness between man and nature in traditional china.
At a nearby park, local bamboo farmer Lee Yuong-Chong(ph) says a lot has changed since when he grew up in a house made of bamboo.
LEE YUONG: (Through translator) In the past (unintelligible), pails, scythes and other tools were all made of bamboo. Now bamboo is put to other uses. We don't use many bamboo tools anymore. But as farmers in the mountains we still rely on bamboo for our livelihood.
KUHN: Bamboo has become too expensive to be used the way it used to. Prices have jumped in recent years as Western consumers have discovered that it makes a durable and attractive flooring. While a tree cut for lumber can take 60 years to replace, bamboo needs less than six years.
Yian Ri Rung(ph) has been working with bamboo for most of his life. Now he runs a company that exports bamboo products to Japan.
YIAN RI RUNG: (Through translator) From roots to shoots, every part of the bamboo can be used. Nothing is wasted.
KUHN: The trunks are made into flooring. The mid sections are woven into mats. Even the saw dust can be made into paper. He displays a showroom full of his wares, most of which he exports to Japan. Mats, cups and of course that quintessentially Chinese bamboo tool, the chopstick.
In Yian's factory, the manufacturing process begins as a worker chops the bamboo with a knife and splits it with his hands. The smooth green skin opens to reveal an interior the color of vanilla ice cream.
(SOUNDBITE OF BAMBOO FACTORY WORKINGS)
KUHN: Another worker uses a machine that separates the wood into individual chopsticks. The chopsticks are dried and packed into bags for export. Yian's factory turns out some seven million pairs a month.
There's another use for bamboo downstairs in the company's cafeteria. This is one of the few places where bamboo shoots are on the menu all year round. Brazed in soy sauce, or in this case stir-fried with pickled mustard greens.
Jo Chuan Pyen(ph), an expert at the county's bamboo museum garden, says bamboo is an important Chinese cultural icon.
JO CHUAN PYEN: (Through translator) In Chinese culture, bamboo symbolizes noble character and integrity, virtues prized by Chinese literati. In winter it stays green, resisting wind and snow. This represents uprightness and incorruptibility.
KUHN: 18th Century scholar Jiang Ban Chow(ph) was famous for his brush and ink bamboo paintings. He once wrote, I hear the rustle of bamboo and wonder if it is the sobbing of the common people. Disgusted by official corruption, he quit his job as a local magistrate and returned to his painting.
You can also hear some of the plant's simple beauty in the many musical instruments made with bamboo. China even has an all bamboo band.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE MUSIC)
KUHN: Even as it blossoms as an export commodity, bamboo in China seems to be losing ground to metal, concrete and plastic in everyday life. But judging from other countries' experiences, it seems likely that as their purchasing power grows, China's consumers will rediscover bamboo's natural beauty.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Anji County, Zhejiang Province.
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