Silk in Chinese History

Posted by Christine Boado on August 05, 2012

Chinese legend tells the story of Empress Hsi-Ling Lo-Tsu, the 14 year old concubine of the Yellow Emperor, the Emperor who is regarded as the man that established Chinese civilization. While taking her tea one afternoon under a mulberry tree, a cocoon fell into her cup. The Empress reached in to retrieve the worm, picking up the end of the delicate silk strand. As she lifted her finger out, the silk around the cocoon began to unravel, revealing the secret of silk.

Silk has been an integral part of Chinese culture for over 4,000 years, since the late Neolithic period (4000 to 3000 BCE). During this period Europe and Africa saw the rise of farming and the introduction of rudimentary linens made from animal skins. However in China, the Chinese were already using cultivated silk to create fabrics and using silk to embroider intricate patterns on two-piece garments. Able to master sericulture (silkworm cultivation) and silk-manufacturing techniques centuries before any other culture, the Chinese had a distinct head start when it came to developing the advanced techniques needed to create luxury silk textiles and the intricate silk embroidery that was used to adorn these fabrics.

Initially silk was reserved solely for garments worn by the Emperor and the royal family. However as advances were made in sericulture and increasingly more provinces were involved in the cultivation of silkworms and the making of silk fabrics, the use of silk in garments spread to higher ranking dignitaries and eventually, the general population. By the fifth century BC, at least a quarter of China’s territories were involved in some aspect of silk cultivation or silk embroidery, producing silk in order to meet the high demand in the west and within China.

Silk was a luxurious and highly coveted material, and techniques in sericulture and the resulting silk remained a highly guarded secret by the Chinese for many centuries. Because of their monopoly, they were able to set their own terms for trading and establish strong trade partnerships with the West. Silk was so lucrative a commodity that the extensive network of trade routes between China and the West became known as the Silk Road.

But the Chinese could not hold on to their monopoly on silk and by 100BC the secrets behind sericulture and the uses of silk had leaked to Korea and Japan, and eventually to India and the West. Centuries of holding the secrets of silk gave the Chinese a head start and to this day, China remains the world center in silk embroidery and the largest producer of silk worldwide. Although silk is now manufactured in many countries worldwide, China remains at the forefront of silk production and continues to create the stunning silk embroideries that they are renown for.

References:
  • Silk Road Foundation. "History of Silk." Silk Road Foundation. www.silk-road.com/artl/silkhistory.shtml (accessed June 28, 2012).
  • "History of silk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_silk (accessed June 28, 2012).
  • Chung, Young Yang. Silken Threads - A History of Embroidery in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2005.
  • Jacob, Georges. "Silk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk (accessed June 28, 2012).
  • Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Masterpieces of Chinese Silk Tapestry and Embroidery in the National Palace Museum. Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1971.

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