Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bent Fact: The Character of Bamboo

Fu Ping's English autobiography is titled "Bend, Not Break," which came from a life lesson she learned from her Shanghai Papa.

The Original Story
In pages 10-11 of Bent, Not Break, the author describes the story as
"There are three friends of winter: the pine tree, the plum blossom, and bamboo," Shanghai Papa once told me, "Pine trees are strong. They remain happy and green throughout the year. In the unbearable heat of summer and the severe cold of winter, they stand unperturbed." He plucked a branch and offered it to me. I inhaled the sharp odor. 
"The crimson petals of the plum blossom gleam brilliantly against the white snow," he continued, pointing to a tree covered magenta flowers. "The ability to bloom in the midst of misfortune suggests dignity and forbearance under harsh circumstances." 
Shanghai Papa then walked over to a grove of bamboo. "This is the third friend of winter. Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind by never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back from even the most difficult times."
Fu Ping also told the same version in many of her media interviews. There have been no inconsistency here.

The Debunking
The "three friends of winter" is indeed a very well known Chinese symbolism, so much so that even the English Wikipedia has an entry for it. While the celebrated characteristics for the pine tree and the plum blossom in the above version are correct, that for the bamboo is wrong. It is actually the opposite of what it is supposed to mean.

In Chinese language, there is a well known idiom "rather break than bend" (宁折不弯) which is a synonym to a more radical version of "rather die than yield" (宁死不屈). As one of the friends of winter, bamboo is celebrated for exactly this characteristic. Due to its unique structure of having hollow internode regions connected by solid nodes, bamboo is both lightweight and strong. The stems of bamboo are always straight, never bent. Tiny bamboo shoots are known to push away huge rocks in its path rather than "bending" around it.

It's true that bamboo wavers in wind quite easily and almost never breaks. That is a temporary measure different from bending, which is permanent as in some trees, to adapt to circumstances.

In Chinese literature, there are many poems and essays praising bamboo for being strong and not bending. In contrast, there are also many that criticize grass for wavering in prevailing wind. "Bend, not break" is never presented in positive light.

On the other hand, however, "bend-but-don't-break" is a viable defensive strategy in American football, which should be familiar to a large group of the Western audience.

There is no way to know what Shanghai Papa had actually taught Fu Ping when she was little and whether he intended to give a lesson of his own understanding instead of the traditional version. However, to present "bend, not break" as a characteristic of "friends of winter" is misleading.

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