The History of Silk. The Origins of Chinese silk
While its origins are obscured by myth and legend, the history of Chinese silk shows it played a central role in the civilization of ancient China.
According to legend, Lei Zu, the queen of China’s legendary Yellow Emperor, was drinking a cup of tea beneath a mulberry tree one day when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. Further investigation revealed that the unravelling fibres were both light and tough, ripe for spinning. And thus was China’s silk industry born.
The History of Chinese Silk
Silk has certainly played a major part in Chinese history for a long time. Silk related archaeological discoveries include remnants of silk and silkworm cocoons dating back to the Neolithic age. In 1958 silk thread and ribbons were found at Qianshanyang, Zhejiang Province, which are estimated to be over 4,700 years old, while in 1984 silk fabric dating back over 5000 years was found at the Yangshao Culture Ruins in Qingtai Village, Henan Province.
Similarly dated silk related relics such as ceramic and stone spinning wheels and spindles have been found at sites such as Cishan in Hebei Province. Characters identified as meaning “silkworm”, “mulberry” and “silk” have also been found inscribed on bones and tortoise shells, the so-called “oracle bones” which are the earliest records of the Chinese language, dating to around 1300 BC.
Silk in Ancient Chinese Society
The cultivation and production of silk pervaded every level of Chinese society. Each spring the empress herself would ceremonially open the silk-raising season, and the wearing of fine quality silk distinguished the high-ranking from the lower classes. Further down the social scale, the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius recommended peasant homesteads of just 5 mu should keep mulberry trees for the feeding of silkworms. To give an idea of how small that is, in an attempt to distribute land fairly during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) each male between the ages of sixteen and sixty was granted 100 mu (about 13 acres) of land.
Such was silk’s importance to Chinese civilization that the techniques and processes of silk production were a state secret. To reveal those secrets, or smuggle out silkworm eggs and cocoons, meant death.
The secret of silk was not that easy to keep, however. By the fourth century BC, even the distant Romans began to talk of the “Seres”, or people of silk. Knowledge of how to cultivate silk reached Korea around 200 BC, followed not long afterwards by India.
The Silk Road
Silk had many uses. Beyond its use as clothing, silk was also used as currency, with many regions paying their taxes to the central authority in silk. From the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) onwards, silk also played a major role in China’s trade with the regions to the west, such a big role that the trade route has become known as the Silk Road, a trading route that ultimately linked China all the way to the Roman Empire.
From mythical beginnings to a central role in trade, the humble silkworm and its beautiful by-product have played a major part in Chinese civilization.