Evolutions of Silk from Neolithic China to Today

by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

The origins of silk production can be traced back to 4000 B.C.E. by the Yangshao culture in present day Henan, China. It remained in China until westward trade through Central Asia became more established during the Han and Tang dynasties (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. and 618-907 C.E.). Initially, trade consisted primarily of raw silk fiber and silk goods from China exchanged for horses from Central Asia. Silk was highly valued and functioned as currency in some instances. Silk fiber was used to pay debts and dowries, as payment to artists, scholars, and government officials, and as offerings in Buddhist temples. While silk textiles were coveted and traded throughout the far reaches of the Silk Road, sericulture, or silkworm cultivation, and silk production was knowledge fiercely guarded by the Chinese. 

It is said that the secrets of silk production were leaked by Chinese women. As told by Chinese oral history, this prized knowledge and labor-intensive skill were always understood as women’s work. The tale of the Chinese Silk Princess, as told by a Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, describes how the King of Khotan finally breaks the Chinese monopoly on silk production by marrying a Chinese princess in the fifth century. Knowing that Khotan makes no silk, the princess decides to smuggle both the seeds for the cultivation of mulberry trees and silkworm eggs to feed on them, in order to ensure that she will always have a a supply of silk robes for herself. This was a risky maneuver as there was an imperial decree condemning to death anyone attempting to export silkworms or eggs. In addition, the fearless princess brings with her three maidservants who are silk technicians, skilled in planting mulberry trees, breeding and raising silkworms, as well as weaving. This tale illustrates how sericulture spread from China to Khotan and subsequently to India and Europe.

By the 16th century, Lyon, France had already emerged as the capital of the European silk trade, with the silk industry employing more than a third of the city’s population. The craze for intricate and decorative silk cloth in France and throughout Europe inspired countless technological inventions, most notably the revolutionary Jacquard loom in France. Designed by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1804, the loom processes a string of sequenced punch cards mechanically, allowing for intricate patterns, like brocade and damask, to be mass-produced. These Jacquard looms are understood to be the first computers, in that they could be programmed to produce a specific output.

Today, silk as a material plays an increasingly important role in our lives. Silk is currently being developed as biosensors, designed to be implanted in the human body, to sense shifts in target materials — blood sugar in hemoglobin, for example. “Silk is compatible with our body tissues; our immune system accepts it on surfaces as sensitive as the human brain,” writes artist and poet, Jen Bervin.

From ancient luxury good to present-day life-sustaining material and subject of art and poetry, silk proves to be a timeless source of captivating mystery. Take a look at the historical significance of silk as recorded by Jen Bervin in the “Research Sampler” of Silk Poems below:

Ancient Chinese writings on silk were to communicate not only among humans, but between human and spiritual beings. Silk letters were tied to the foot of a wild goose. An ancient Chinese poem says, “calling the boy to cook the carp, in its body a silk letter of one foot.”

In the second century, the Chinese Empress Teng, a lover of literature, asked only for chih, a paper made of waste silk, and ink cakes as royal gifts.

In the fourth century, the Chinese poet Su Hui wrote a reversible poem in five colors of silk, designed to correspond to a star gauge for reading the cosmos. Her poem had nearly eight thousand possible readings. Su Hui sent this poem as a letter to her husband who was far away. Upon reading Su Hui’s poem, the couple reunited for life.

Heavily embroidered West African riga or robes of honor, magical and protective, especially in times of war, create an affect of bigness. “The older the silk embroideries get the shinier they will become. Your gown will tear while the embroidery remains intact.”

Sources:

Sea of Silk: A Textile Geography of Women’s Work in Medieval French Literature by. E. Jane Burns

Heavenly Splendour: the Edrina Collection of Ming and Qing Imperial Costumes by Edwin Fengying

Silk Poems by Jen Bervin