A bamboo wife is a long and hollow bolster that is roughly comparable to the human body in size. True to its name, it’s almost always made out of thinly cut bamboo strands—if not, it’s usually another material that’s easy to weave, like rattan. There are several bamboo wife variants, ranging in length and circumference, as children and adults have different needs in these aspects. There are also types of bamboo wives that are shaped differently to allow changes in sleeping position or other uses. For example: A properly designed bamboo wife can serve its main purpose, but if needed can also be a stable support structure for feet that need to be propped up.
More common in parts of East and Southeast Asia, this type of hand-woven bolster is known by many names—though typically these names are just local translations of the words “bamboo wife”. In Japan it’s chikufujin, while in China it’s zhúfūrén (竹夫人); in Korea it’s jukbuin (죽부인). In the Philippines, it’s known as kawil—the local word for a fish hook or a chain link—perhaps because the bolster can be kept hanging from a wall hook.
English speakers also use the term Dutch wife, although it’s not as commonly accepted, as Dutch wife can refer to more than one kind of pillow or bolster. The origin of the alternative term is thought to be either from the time of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, or an appropriation of the old usage of “Dutch” to mean that something was irregular. The latter is exemplified in other terms that survive to this day—such as Dutch courage, which is confidence gained from drinking alcohol—and its origin, in turn, stems from the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.
How Is the Bamboo Wife Used?
At first glance, a bamboo wife may look like a basket or an ornamental piece, rather than a bedtime companion. However, its shape should inspire an intuitive response. Though the bamboo wife is inflexible, its dimensions are close to the more familiar body pillow or bolster, and as such it is used similarly. Typically it is embraced, allowing the user to fall sleep on their side while the open wooden structure helps regulate body temperature and eases usual aches and pains from side sleeping without a bolster. In East Asia and Southeast Asia, summers are hot and humid, which makes sleeping with fabric pillows or bedding uncomfortable; the bamboo wife solves this problem by allowing airflow to reach more parts of the body.
Do People Still Use the Bamboo Wife Today?
The popularity of the bamboo wife is not what it used to be. Whatever the actual design may be, it is important as a potential user to check the bamboo wife carefully for signs of good craftsmanship. Poorly made bamboo wives can result in splinters lodging themselves into your skin. This difficulty, in addition to the prevalence of electric fans and air conditioning, has made bamboo wives unpopular and almost extinct. Another phenomenon contributing to its waning popularity is the rise of the fabric covered, stuffed bolsters and body pillows—less uncomfortable now that people have modern technological cooling conveniences—in regions where bamboo wives used to dominate.
Japan’s version, in particular—the dakimakura—has become well-known worldwide in the past decade. So while the bamboo wife is no longer present in most East Asian and Southeast Asian homes, it seems that the idea of a bolster for hugging while you sleep has endured—and even spread to more parts of the world.
The tradition of the bamboo wife is kept alive these days primarily in Korea. The jukbuin is embedded deep into the country’s culture, with mentions of the term in local literature dating back to the 13th century. There is also an annual event that keeps the jukbuin in the news year after year. Held at Damyang County (Damyang-gun) in the South Jeolla Province (Jeollanam-do) of South Korea, the Damyang Bamboo Festival is held every spring; it showcases local products made out of bamboo, including a large array of jukbuin.