History of Chinese Silk Production

Written by Sally Guo Updated May. 29, 2021

For centuries China was the only place where silkworms were domesticated and silk fabric was made. It is very difficult to find out with exactness the date of the discovery of silk, but its use goes back to something like 4 500 years.

Legends on Chinese Silk

The legend tells it is a Chinese Princess named Xi Linshi who the first one would have unwound a silk thread from a cocoon fallen in her cup of tea.

Another of the fairy tale surrounding it was recorded by the seventh-century monk Xuanzang: "A Chinese Princess who was to travel to Khotan to be married was warned by envoys that there were no mulberries or silkworms there; she, therefore, hid silk moth eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress and went unchallenged across the border, to the delight of the king of Khotan who had long been seeking to make silk." Note: Khotan is located far west along the southern silk route, and a painted wooden plaque discovered at Dandan-oil in that region depicts this legend.

hangzhou silk museum
Hangzhou Silk Museum

The History of Silk Production in China

The institution and revival of silk ceremonies met with varied success in the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, though throughout the latter two, Lady Xiling was remembered in a dedicated building within Beihai Park to the north of the Forbidden City imperial compound in Beijing.

There, the Hall of the Imperial Silkworm and the Altar of Silkworms were used for examining mulberry leaves that were then fed to the imperial silkworms, which were kept in stone houses along the outer wall of the silkworm hall.

Images of sericulture were sometimes used to reinforce imperial patronage, most notably in the twelfth century when the academician Lou Shou’s scroll of weaving processes, which was accompanied by pictures of ploughing, was annotated by the first empress of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).

Series of paintings known as “Illustrations of tilling and weaving” became in fact quite regularly created as reminders of the agricultural base of china’s prosperity.

In 1696 the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722) personally inscribed lines of poetry on a series of forty-six tilling and weaving pictures and issued the preface to the mulberry poem throughout the country.

The title always used for this series of paintings is associated with the ancient phrase nan geng nu zhi (men plough, women weave) that summarizes the traditional division of labour.

The silk was produced in such quantities that it cost cheaper than the hemp and its use was no more only limited to the clothes: archer's ropes, fishing lines, side filling, tight bowls for the transport of the water were the other functions.

silk clothing
Silk Clothing

There were particularly abundant big silk-producing areas at each end of the Yangtze River, in the western province of Sichuan and the coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang in the east.

In Sichuan, a silkworm temple was built in AD 460, and it was also in that region that one of the principal popular goddesses emerged.

The legend and the goddess became widespread and particularly popular in the Jiangnan region, which comprises the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

Two focal points of popular adoration of silk deities were, predictably, located in the central Jiangnan region, at Hangzhou, which was the site of one of the imperial workshops of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and at Huzhou, which was renowned in the same period for producing some of the finest silks available.

At the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou, offerings and thanks were made for a successful silk harvest.

At Hanshan near Huzhou, a pagoda was erected in the eleventh century on the site of the ninth-century temple; it was decorated with carved images of the silk goddess and it had the reputation of being visited by her each year during the Qingming festival.

Contributions to the silk goddess or goddesses at the imperial altars and at the popular shrines made obvious the importance attached to silk and sericulture, whether as a foundation for a prosperous country or as a central part of rural life.

It is in the luxury clothes that the silk found its first use in the West and to this day always carried this magnificence image.

Silk Fabric
Silk Fabric

The Development of Silk Production in The World

The past silk routes which borrowed the long caravans were the vector of the flow of silk in the West, well before that, silk production was introduced into the trail of the Arabic conquests in the Middle East, in North Africa and in Spain.

From this moment, the Chinese domination of sericulture gradually crumbled off as the other countries became more and more self-sufficient in raw material, whereas China was torn by internal wars which disrupted its production.

From the end of the XIXth century, Japan, which had realized enormous progress in the mastering of the silkworm diseases, the production and the quality control already began to export considerable quantities of raw silk in Europe and in the United States, during China entered for the period the most disturbed by its recent history.

The slow but inevitable decline of western production strengthened the Japanese domination and in 1923 Yokohama became the biggest silk warehouse in the world.

Silk Production Nowadays

The situation of today is very different. The speed of Japanese industrialization kept pace with the decline of its silk production.

In the years following the communist revolution, China demonstrated significant efforts to catch up with its setback to such a point that its production of raw silk overtakes promptly the main part of the world production.

Yet, this production represents a tiny percentage of all the textile fibers produced in the world, which explains the rarity and the value of the silk, independently of its intrinsic qualities.

In fact, the first producing country became again the main producing country, not only of raw material but also fabrics, clothes, and accessories.

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