Standing still on a cane of bamboo on land is already not easy, let alone doing it in the water. However, there are people who can balance and even execute various sets of performances on a bamboo pole floating in water! Single-bamboo-pole drifting, once described as a water ballet, is a traditional folk sport in North Guizhou.
What is single-bamboo-pole drifting?
Single-bamboo-pole drifting is a designated sport in Southwest China’s Guizhou province. It entails standing on a floating Moso bamboo pole on the water’s surface, and propelling it with a thin stick of bamboo. Adept drifters are able to go back, forward and around on the pole with ease.
Incidentally, bamboo drifting didn’t originate as a sport in Guizhou. It was actually a means of transportation. During the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the Bozhou district of Zunyi city was famous for its production of nanmu, a rare type of lumber and the most precious and expensive wood at the time. As such it was in great demand by the royal court more than 2,000 kilometers to the north, in the former ancient capital of Xianyang in Shaanxi province.
However, there were no viable means of transportation along the Chishui River. Guizhou locals brought about a creative and crafty solution. They were tasked with bringing one log each down the Chishui. They stood on their log as it drifted down the river, guiding it toward its next stop, the Yangtze River. From there the logs could be loaded onto boats and sailed north to the capital.
In the many decades that passed, standing on top of a great nanmu log floating along the Chishui became commonplace in Guizhou. As the Qin Dynasty drifted into the Han (206 BC-AD 220), the competitive spirit of the Guizhou locals came to the fore. Riders challenged each other to vault from log to log, compete in balancing acts, and take part in feats of strength – all while buoyantly balanced on the timber. And so, wood drifting was born.
Later still in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), as bamboo is a much cheaper material than nanmu, the materials began to change with bamboo gaining favor, and so, wood drifting became bamboo drifting. Every year, communities in Guizhou, particularly Miao, but other ethnicities as well, began flocking to the dragon boat festival. As well as watching the traditional river races, they also started competing in bamboo drifting competitions. The winners would be garnered with fame, flowers, tea and wine – while the losers would entertain the crowds with their splashy turns.
Today, the sport has even become enshrined in the National Traditional Games of Ethnic Minorities, a contest which takes place every four years involving traditional games played by all 56 Chinese ethnicities, with increasingly innovative and creative performances being staged.
Bamboo drifting maybe be an oddity to the outside world, but to the Miao people and others in the province, it has been a unique, useful and entertaining part of their culture for more than a thousand years. However, there is concern that not enough young people are interested in learning this traditional folk stunt.