Bamboo with Tigers and Sparrows

Bamboo is often paired with tigers or sparrows in Japanese art and textiles. Both themes originated in China. (Tigers are not native to Japan.) Since bamboo forests hid tigers from hunters, this could represent the weak protecting the strong.

In China the word for sparrow is a homonym for an old word meaning "noble rank." Bamboo was a symbol of a selfless, upright gentle man. This pairing in art thus became a rebus meaning "nobles seeking upright comportment." Although Japanese literati (who were usually well educated in Chinese) understood this symbolism, it was an unlikely reference for most Japanese folk artists who attempted to recreate this common scene of their environment that had also been the subject of ancient Chinese paintings imported into Japan.

Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Krauss and Ann Marie Moeller