The Origin of Chinese Silk

I wrote the following article when I was in Suzhou during my trip to China from 12 to 24 June 2016. It was published in The Brunei Times in my column The Golden Legacy on 31 July 2016.


Suzhou was the Chinese Silk capital. (Photo by Stephanie Kam)

Suzhou is also famous for its beautiful gardens. (Photo by Stephanie Kam)

The Origin of Chinese Silk
by Rozan Yunos

IT WAS in November 2014 when Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced plans to create a US$40 billion development fund, which would help finance China's plans to develop the New Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road. The Maritime Silk Road, officially known as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt” is a Chinese strategic initiative to increase investment and foster collaboration across the historic Silk Road.

The historic Silk Road itself was not a single road but it was an ancient network of trade routes that were once used connecting the trade between West and East from China to the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road derived its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along the length of the road.

The silk route trade began during the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty controlled China for 400 over years between 207 BC to 220 AD. It was said that the Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by the Hans, largely through the missions and explorations of the imperial envoy, Zhang Qian. Due to its texture and lustre, Chinese silk rapidly became a popular extravagance all over Eurasia.

However, even though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, there were many other goods that were traded. Similarly to goods, it was just not trade, many other items were carried and exchanged including religions, philosophies, and various technologies, as well as harmful items including diseases, which travelled along those historic Silk Routes.

According to Jerry Bentley in his book Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (1993), that in addition to economic trade, the Silk Road served as a means of carrying out cultural trade among the civilisations along its network.

Silk was also traded along the maritime silk route which passed through Brunei through the South China Sea reaching all the way to the Mediterranean.

According to DE Brown (1970), before the 16th century, Brunei’s trade fulfilled three criteria. The first is that Brunei’s trade was basically raw materials made up of food, resources from the sea, forest and mining produce. Secondly, Brunei imported finished products such as fabric, metal and vases and porcelains. Thirdly, all trades were controlled and supervised by the central authority.

Brunei’s main market in those days was China. Among Brunei’s exports were camphor, antlers, silver and bracelets made from ivory, lipsticks and wooden pots, plates and utensils. The Chinese traded their export items including porcelain, gold, silver, colourful silk, thick silk, cotton and other products.

Silk certainly played a very important role in the development of the silk road. According to Shelagh Vainer in his bookChinese Silk: A Cultural History (2004), silk fabric was first developed in ancient China, although, wild silk had been produced and have been known to be in use in China, South Asia and Europe much earlier.

However the scale of production by the early producers was very small compared to the latter domesticated silkworm in the Chinese regions. The wild silk were less uniform, the wild silk thread were much shorter and the cocoons were covered in a mineral layer that makes them difficult to be reeled into long strands of silk.

The Chinese Legend itself gives credit for the development of silk to a Chinese empress Leizu also known as Hsi-Ling-Shih or Lei-Tzu. From the writings of Confucius and Chinese tradition, it was in the 27th century BC that a silk worm’s cocoon fell into the tea cup of the Empress Leizu. In trying to extract it from her drink, the 14-year-old girl began to unroll the thread of the cocoon.

It was then that she had the idea to weave the thread. Having observed the life of the silk worm on the recommendation of her husband, the Yellow Emperor, she began to instruct her entourage in the art of raising silk worms scientifically known as “sericulture”. The empress became the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology.

Though silk was exported to foreign countries in great amounts, sericulture remained a secret that the Chinese carefully guarded. However, by 200 BC the knowledge had reached Korea and subsequently stretched to other areas, but the prestige of having a garment made from the finest Chinese silk endured for centuries.

Suzhou, in Jiangsu Province, is not only a famous cultural city and a city of gardens, but was also the silk capital of China. Because of its historical association with riches and royalty, Suzhou has had a major part to play in the prosperity of China’s silk trade.

Since silk was the material of choice for the garments of the ruling classes and, since the arrival of the gentry, cultivation of silk has been an integral branch of Suzhou’s past. In 1276, Marco Polo described it: “… they have vast quantities of raw silk, and manufacture it, not only for their own consumption, all of them being clothed in dresses of silk, but also for other markets …”

Suzhou has been at the centre of China’s illustrious silk trade for centuries. During the Tang Dynasty (618 AD - 907 AD) and Song Dynasty (960 AD - 1279 AD), it was the silk producing centre; in the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD -1644 AD) and Qing Dynasty (1644 AD -1911 AD), most of the high-grade silk produced for the royal families was made by silk weavers in Suzhou. Marco Polo described the city as “… live by trade and industry, have silk in great quantity and make much silken cloth for their clothing."

Today Suzhou is a major city located in southeastern Jiangsu Province of East China, about 100km (62 mile) northwest of Shanghai.

It is a major economic centre and focal point of trade and commerce, and the second largest city in the Jiangsu Province after its capital Nanjing.

Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of history, with an abundant display of relics and sites of historical interest. At around 100 AD, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it became one of the ten largest cities in the world mostly due to emigration from Northern China.

Since the 10th-century Song Dynasty, it has been an important commercial centre of China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, Suzhou was a national economic, cultural, and commercial centre, as well as the largest non-capital city in the world, until the 1860 Taiping Rebellion.

The city’s canals, stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens have contributed to its status as one of the top tourist attractions in China. The classical gardens in Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. Similarly to Brunei, Suzhou is often dubbed as the “Venice of the East”. It is also known as the “Venice of China”. Marco Polo described the city: “Let me tell you that in this city there are fully 6,000 stone bridges, such that one or two galleys could readily pass beneath them.”

No visit to Suzhou is complete without investigating the provenance of its silk and the best place to start is the Suzhou Silk Museum as one of the best museums to showcase the history of silk. The entire museum design combined a sense of ancient civilisation with modern style.

Despite its abundance and familiarity since its discovery thousands of years ago, silk is still considered a luxury item and many people today still regard silk as a priceless treasure.

The author was the leader of the ASEAN think tanks delegation visiting China’s think tanks programme sponsored by the Chinese government from July 12 to 24.

The Brunei Times



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