Home > China Fascts > Chinese Culture and History > Chinese Arts > Sericulture and silk craftsmanship of China

Sericulture and silk craftsmanship of China

By all historical accounts, the art of silk weaving originated in China, where the technique remained a closely guarded secret for over two thousand years, perhaps longer, depending on the date the technique was first mastered, a matter about which historians are understandably in some disagreement and on which archeological discoveries continue to shed new light. From China, the art of silk weaving spread first to China's immediate neighbors, Korea and Japan, then to India, the Kingdom of Khotan (present-day Hetian, in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region)), and finally to Constantinople, before it eventually spread to Arabia and to Western Europe.

Not surprisingly, there exists a Chinese legend that explains how the use of silk thread was discovered, then "harvested" by humans, eventually leading to sericulture, or the practice of raising and breeding silkworms for the production of silk. The essence of the main silk-origin legend, or myth, is that it occurred by freak accident, and therein lies perhaps the greater part of the truth of mankind's discovery of the use of the thread of the humble silkworm in ancient China.

In the following we will take a closer look at the legend of how silk thread came to be, the mechanics of sericulture (silkworm husbandry and the "harvesting" of silk thread) and silk weaving (including the invention of looms), the history of sericulture and silk weaving in China and how this was gradually spread around the world, the transcontinental trade in silk wares (think: the Silk Road) and silk's role as a form of currency.

Note that silk was also used (it is still!) to make a special, pliant kind of paper, though we will not dwell on that topic here, except to mention that, as an ancient Silk Road artifact, artworks on silk paper remain a highly prized museum article. Silk was – is still – used to make the strings of musical instruments and the "greased" (waxed, in order to make them water-repellent so that they would float) fishing lines used by fly fishermen, though today's silk fly line is exorbitantly expensive by any standard (nor will these uses of silk be explored here).

The Myths

According to legend, the young wife of Shi Huang Di (aka the Yellow Emperor), Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih (aka Princess Lei Zu), was sitting under the shade of a mulberry tree about to drink a cup of herbal tea when a cocoon-covered insect fell from a branch above into the princess' teacup. Since the tea was boiling hot, it killed the insect, loosening its cocoon. Princess Lei Zu, wishing to lift the insect out of the teacup (no, don't worry, the princess wasn't planning to drink the tea! – she was probably just trying to save the poor insect from being boiled alive!) without having to handle the strange beast more than was absolutely necessary, gingerly took it by one end of its cocoon, whereupon the cocoon began to unravel as the insect spun around instead of being lifted out of the teacup.

Curious about this shiny filament (and having apparently forgotten all about the fate of the careless insect – or, to put it in modern terms: having sensibly "moved on"), the princess tested the strength of the shiny filament and was pleasantly surprised to discover how strong even a single strand of the thin filament actually was.

It was at that point that the princess arrived at the eureka moment that the shiny, strong thread of the cocoon, of which there was no lack in a mulberry tree during the right season, could possibly be doubled or trebled, etc., into an even stronger, multi-strand, spun thead that could be woven into a fabric. The result was a piece of cloth that was both beautiful to the sight and lasciviously soft to the touch.

This only inspired the princess to spool up the thread of numerous boiled cocoons (one of course imagines that the princess naturally had a servant shake the tree so that dozens of cocoons would fall to the ground, whereupon they could be collected and placed in a vat of boiling water... and note that all concern for the life per se of the hapless insect was now completely absent in the mind of the princess – after all, we slaughter cows and pigs, don't we?!) so that she could make enough silk cloth with which to fashion a complete garment. This admirable feat earned Princess Lei Zu the title of "Goddess of Silk", though, in the eyes of some, the princess was merely the "Goddess of Silkworm Breeding" while the Yellow Emperor was heralded as the "God of Silk Weaving". (Note also that the Yellow Emperor is a mythical figure, from which we may conclude that Princess Lei Zu was probably also mythical.)

The silk cloth that was woven from the thread of the silkworm cocoons was worthy of royalty, and royalty only. This led to the notion of raising and breeding silkworms so that their cocoons could be unravelled in their entirety (the abandoned cocoon of a hatched moth was invariably broken in several places and thus was more difficult to work with, whereas cocoons that were mercifully instantaneously killed by boiling water preserved their several-hundred-meters long silk filaments). Moreover, aged silk thread from abandoned cocoons was less receptive to color dyes than "fresh" silk thread.

Another, more fanciful legend has it that the heavenly Goddess of Silk (because, of course, the gods know about everything long before mortals discover these things!), having observed how the leader of China's northern tribe, Shi Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), defeated the leader of China's southern tribe, Chi You (the self-styled God of War), in a war that had broken out between the north and the south, in an admirably non-partisan spirit awarded the Yellow Emperor a ball of silk thread that she herself had spun from the silk of "Mulberry cocoons".

The Yellow Emperor ordered the silk to be woven into a cloth and then into a garment for his wife, Princess Lei Zu. The princess was so pleased with the garment that she immediately set about to collect "Mulberry cocoons" herself, and thus began the first small steps toward what would eventually develop into sericulture and silk weaving, first in China, then in the countries immediately surrounding China, before it spread to the rest of the then developed world.

The Mechanics of Sericulture and Silk Weaving in China

The silkworm belongs to the Order Lepidoptera, Family Bombycidae, Genus Bombyx. There are two species of the silkmoth genus: Bombyx mandarina ("mandarina" as in Mandarin (Chinese), of course) and its domesticated variant, Bombyx mori (meaning "silkworm of the mulberry tree"). It is said that B. mori does not mate – the B. mori is completely reliant on humans for its continued reproduction – while mating between B. mandarina and B. mori – between a male B. mandarina and a female B. mori, that is – not only is possible, but frequently occurs, producing a hybrid (note that a hybrid produced between two species, such as the hybrid produced between B. mandarina and B. mori, is generally sterile, while B. mori is apparently not sterile per se, the "problem" simply being that the male B. mori no longer feels "inspired" to mate).

Silkworm husbandry requires the auxilliary husbandry of the mulberry tree (Family Moraceae, Genus Morus), since the silkmoth larvae – i.e., the silkworm – feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree. Silkworm husbandry itself is a demanding process if the results are to be satisfactory, since two important conditions have to be met: growing the silkworm as large as possible before it pupates (or produces a cocoon in which the transformation to the adult stage takes place), and extending the pupation stage long enough for the silk to reach its highest degree of quality, with enough margin to permit the orderly "harvesting" of the pupa's cocoon; the ancient Chinese perfected techniques for achieving both of these goals (there is actually a third condition – maintaining the proper temperature for the eggs to incubate so that they will hatch – but this amounts only to maintaining the proper, constant temperature).

Once the eggs hatch, the baby worms feed every half hour – day and night – on the best parts of fresh mulberry leaves that have been chopped to the ideal size in order to facilitate the growth rate while minimizing any excess expenditure of energy. For the silkworms to grow at the optimal rate, they must be kept under optimum conditions, which includes maintaining the ideal temperature (including avoiding drafts, or air currents) and shielding the worms from loud noises and even strong odors, as all of these factors affect the silkworm's appetite. During this process, the silkworm sheds its skin many times until it reaches a point where nature signals to the silkworm that the time to spin a cocoon has arrived. The silkworm's weight, from egg to cocoon stage, can increase 10,000 fold!

In order to spin the pupal cocoon, the glands of the silkworm produce a jelly-like substance which the silkworm then "extrudes" in a thin stream, which stream hardens as it comes into contact with air, producing a fine thread, or filament, with which the silkworm spins a fluffy protective pupal case in which to "hibernate" while the transformation to a winged insect takes place. The filament and the resulting pupal case (a fluffy, glistening, slightly elongated ball), which takes 3-4 days to complete, are white.

Just as honey bees are kept in very concentrated colonies in a beekeeper's beehive, the "hive" of the silkworm houses untold numbers of feeding or pupating silkworms. The ideal design of the silkworm "hive" is a series of round bamboo trays, roughly 50 centimeters in diameter, with perpendicular edges (think of the lid of what might be a clothes hamper made of bamboo, but turned upside down), that are placed on "shelves" consisting of the most skeletal of materials so as to provide the optimal, draft-free circulation of air. A room filled with thousands, if not millions, of leaf-munching silkworms is said to sound like the soft patter of fine rainfall on a tin roof.

When the silkworm pupa has gestated 8-9 days, the cocoon is ready to be unwound. The cocoon is steamed, quickly killing the pupa (steam is of course hotter than the hottest of hot water), then plunged into a vat of hot water in order to relax the tightly woven, one-piece filament, which can be up to 900 meters long. The loose outer end of the cocoon is slipped through a small hoop, or guide ring, on the edge of the vat and then attached to a spool onto which the filament will be wound (reeled). A single silk thread is made up of between 5 and 8 separately reeled up filaments, depending on the desired "gauge" of the finished cloth, that are twisted together (spun), under tension.

The four elements of silk-cloth making therefore are: reeling (sometimes called "unwinding"), spinning, weaving and embroidery. Reeling and spinning were typical household activities for women (mothers and daughters) in ancient China, as well as tending the silkworms, since this was very much a cottage industry at the time. Weaving and embroidery, in contrast, took place at special workshops, albeit, manned by women as well, that were equipped with the necessary equipment (looms).

Eventually, dyeing became an additional element in the process of silk-cloth making. The spinning wheel that spooled up the raw silk filament, and which could be found in every home where silkworms were reared from roughly the 1st century CE onwards, was operated by a back-and-forth treadle. More simple methods for reeling and spinning silk filament were employed in earlier times. Since the mulberry tree is deciduous – meaning that it sheds its leaves in late fall and regrows them in spring – the rearing of silkworms and the processes of reeling and spinning silk were not year-round endeavors (it occupied about half of the year), though the processes of weaving and embroidery indeed were essentially year-round endeavors.

Looms existed elsewhere than in ancient China, and most scholars believe that the loom was not originally created in China, even if the Chinese were the first to use the loom to weave silk cloth. However, some of the earliest Chinese references to the loom claim that the Chinese variant was superior to other looms, even superior to other hands-free looms (note that the hands-free loom had a treadle, i.e., it was designed to be operated with the feet – as opposed to the hand loom, which was the earliest type of loom, and the so-called draw loom, which was a special hand loom for weaving figures into a cloth and which required two people to operate it, the weaver and an assistant, called a drawboy, who operated the figure harness – leaving the hands completely free to work with the threads).

The loom is believed by most non-Chinese scholars to have originated in ancient Greece, though Chinese scholars suggest that the Chinese employed looms at least as early as 2700 BCE if not earlier, since silk brocades as well as other silk garments dating from the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty were unearthed in 1927 in the village of Huzhou in Qianshanyang County, Zhejiang Province, and since brocades represent a refinement over ordinary weaving, which naturally predated the brocade stage of weaving. Note that it is the mythical wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor who is credited with having invented the loom, according to an ancient Chinese legend, while the Yellow Emperor is said to have ruled China somewhere around the year 3000 BCE.

Another important point to consider is that flaxen and cotton cloth both predate silk cloth by a significant margin, so the first loom – wherever it originated – was most likely used to make simple cloth of flax, cotton or perhaps another fiber common to ancient China such as hemp.

The History of Sericulture and Silk Weaving in China

It is generally accepted that the Chinese began making cloth from the thread of the silkmoth pupa at some point during the 4th millennium BCE. According to Confucius (BCE 551-479), the year of the accidental discovery of the use of silk in the aforementioned legend concerning the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, the hapless pupa (usually they are mindul to attach their cocoon securely to a leaf!) that fell into Princess Lei Zu's teacup did so in BCE 2640, though no specific date or time was offered (niether You Tube nor Twitter were around at the at the time, otherwise we could probably pinpoint the seminal event more precisely).

Curiously, a 1927 archeological find along the Yellow River (that word "Yellow" again!) in Shanxi Province, and dated to be from the period BCE 2600-2300 (which is pretty darn close to Princess Lei Zu's alleged cocoon-in-a-teacup experience), yielded up, among other interesting artifacts, half of a silkworm cocoon (less the silkworm larva, of course) that had been neatly sliced in half with a sharp instrument, suggesting... what?

Well, since slicing a silkworm cocoon in half would have ruined its value as silk thread, a more likely explanation could be that a Neolithic Age teacher was demonstrating the makeup of the silkworm cocoon to a classroom of silk reelers, and figured that a cross-section view of the cocoon would be more illustrative than a thousand descriptive words. Or perhaps mischievous children were afoot also in Neolithic Age China, or perhaps before the ancient Chinese learned that the cocoon of the silkworm larva could be used to make cloth, they ate the pupa-stage larvae, which they got to by cutting the elongated, furry ball in half – who knows?!

Fragments of silk garments have been discovered in the royal tombs of the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty's rulers, which may be the earliest evidence of the use of silk cloth in ancient China. Moreover, the ancient, so-called Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty period (think: suitably large, flat pieces of the shoulder blades of large animals as well as tortoise shells) make frequent reference to words such as "silk" and "silk fabric", "silkworm" and "mulberry"

However, the final word on the earliest use of silk in China has surely not been written. More recent archeological finds suggest that the Chinese used silk much, much earlier than has hitherto been imagined. For example, a small ivory cup decorated with what appears to be the design of a silkworm was unearthed from a lower Yangtze River find in Zhejiang Province, and has been dated to be from the period BCE 5000-4000, which puts it within the time frame of the Hemuda Culture (BCE 5000-4500), which culture also stems from Zhejiang Province's lower Yangtze River area.

Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the depiction of a silkworm even at this early date was nothing more than the fanciful whim of a Hemuda artist, but that is hardly likely, given the way that Chinese society was organized at this time (the period in question belongs to prehistoric China, while the first historical Chinese period, the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) Dynasty, was a slave society, so there is every reason to believe that the Hemuda Culture was, if not a slave society proper, then at least a rigidly hierarchical society where things were done with a purpose, not on a whim). Indeed, the Hemuda site has also yielded up fragments of an ancient loom, though this is no proof that the loom in question was used to weave silk (hemp and flax were the perhaps earliest, widespread fibers to be used in Chinese cloth making).

Chinese historical sources such as the Shangshu (known alternately as the "Book of History", the "Classic of History" and the "Book – and the "Classic – of Documents"), which dates from the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, but recording events that stretch back across the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty to the Shang and the Xia Dynasties, suggest that by the time of the 5th century BCE, silkworm husbandry, or sericulture, was common throughout the area recognized as the "Cradle of Chinese Civilization", or East-Central China (Hunan Province plus all of the contiguous provinces as well as the coastal provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu and nothern Zhejiang), with the city corresponding to present-day Hangzhou as its capital, as it were (another way to describe this geographical area, pictographically, is to say that it spanned the area that lies between the roughly west-east oriented Yellow River to the north and the similarly oriented Yangtze River to the south, with an equally large swath of land both above and below these two rivers).

Dyed silk cloth and intricately woven silk cloth dating from the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty have been unearthed in Jiangxi Province, which is not surprising since brocades, which represent an even further refinement in the progression of silk weaving techniques in ancient China, have, as indicated above, been dated to the Han Dynasty a few centuries later.

Sericulture had spread to Korea by BCE 200, and by CE 300, it had spread to Japan, to the Kingdom of Khotan (based in the ancient city of Hetian in Xinjiang, as indicated above), and to India. By the beginning of the 5th century CE, the well-kept Chinese secret formula for making silk had also spread to Persia, to Arabia and to Constantinople, even though the product itself had long since been introduced, via the Silk Road, in all of these geographical areas as well as in Europe. For example, when Alexander the Great (BCE 356-323) defeated the Persian army of Darius III (BCE 380-330) – under the command of Darius III himself – at the Battle of Issus in BCE 333, the latter fled, leaving behind his wife, two daughters, his mother and a vast amount of treasure... it is said that among this treasure, consisting of gold, silver and precious stones, etc., was a prodigious amount of silk.

Seven hundred years earlier, silk the product had apparently already reached Egypt, for silk was found in the hair of an Egyptian female mummy – presumably Chinese silk, since no one else, according to all extant historical records, knew of the technique – dated to roughly BCE 1070. The mummy in question was discovered in one of the tombs of the pharoahs, i.e., the tombs of the famous Valley of the Kings (think: Tutankhamun), built during the period BCE 1600-1000 near the village of Deir el Medina, not far from Thebes (present-day Luxor).

Finally, it is claimed that the tired and demoralized foot soldiers of the Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus (BCE 115-53), during the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians (a Persian people) in BCE 53, were so cowed by the radiantly reflective silken banners carried aloft by the self-confident and aggressive Parthians that they fled in disarray; Crassus himself was killed, his army was decimated, and Rome severely humiliated.

A corollary of the Crusades (11th – 13th centuries CE) – not unlike the corollary of the 15th century Spanish expulsion of the Jews (on the heels of the Spanish expulsion of the Moors) that resulted in the spread of the art of chocolate confectionery (think: sweets) – was that the art of silk making was spread to Europe, whereafter the trade in Chinese silk via the Silk Road declined significantly.

Some of the strange beliefs held by non-Chinese peoples (note that in Rome, the Chinese people were referred to by the Latin term, Seres, or "Silk People", hence the origin of the term, "sericulture") about the origin of silk are a bit incredulous when viewed through a modern lens, while the popularity of silk the product among even the lower classes in Rome was a subject that worried the Roman economists of the day. The following is a short collection of these odd silk-origin and balance-of-trade views that stem from antiquity...

Many Romans, including Lucius Annaeus Seneca (aka Seneca the Younger, BCE 3 – CE 65) and Publius Vergilius Maro (aka Virgil, BCE 70-19), were convinced that silk was harvested directly from the leaves of certain trees native to China, while Gaius Plinius Secundus (aka Pliny the Elder, CE 23-79, and note that the "Secundus" part of the name doesn't signify that this Pliny was the second such personage with that famous name... Pliny the Younger (CE 61-112), nephew to Pliny the Elder, is named Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus), writing in his work, Natural History, was aware of silk's true origin: "They [silkworms] weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious material, called silk, used for clothing women".

The 4th century CE Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (CE ca.325-ca.391), is credited with having declared that "Silk fabrics are made from soil. Chinese soil is as soft as wool. After watering and special cultivation, it can be used for the formation of silk threads", though it is generally agreed that much of what Marcellinus wrote was rather badly 'lost in translation', to put it mildly.

For sure, the consumption of silk wares imported from China was becoming such a burden on the coffers of the Roman treasury that the Roman Senate sought to discourage its use by denouncing the wearing of silk as a sign of moral decadence.

Throughout ancient China, silk became a concrete monetary unit of measure (i.e., it was used directly to pay debts, and even the wages of state functionaries), while abroad, it became a monetary unit of measure both in a concrete as well as in an abstract sense: a debt might be paid in so and so many "lengths" of silk (cloth) or it might be calculated at the going rate for so and so many "lengths" of silk, though paid in either gold, silver or other local currency.

During the bloodless seige of Rome by the Visigoth king, Alaric I, on the king's second invasion of Italy, Alaric I demanded a ransom of his hostages (the city of Rome) in exchange for ending the seige. After a bit of intrigue, where the Romans tried to wriggle out of the deal, the Roman Senate finally agreed to pay the following sum demanded by Alaric I in exchange for lifting the seige: 5000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4000 silken tunics, 3000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3000 pounds of pepper (my emphasis). The Visigoths may have been viewed as barbarians by the highly civilized Romans, but they at least appreciated the merit of a well-balanced portfolio...

The Resurgence of Chinese Silk Production and the Protection of its Heritage

After the spread of silk production to most other continents and regions in the then developed world, the production of silk in China fell drastically, though a niche market for Chinese luxury silks continued to flourish. This tendency was reinforced by the increasingly numerous local tariffs on silk transported via the Overland Silk Road routes (which caused a shift to the use of the sea, or the rise of the Maritime Silk Road routes that had existed in embryonic form much earlier, but which first came into prominence when the excessive tarrifs on transportation via the Overland Silk Road routes gradually made silk transportation via sea routes competitive) and by the spread to Europe of the bubonic plage, aka the Black Death, via both the Overland Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road.*

A silkworm epidemic during the early 19th century that devastated the silk-producing silkworm population of France so severely that the French silk-production industry never recovered, as well as the Industrial Revoluton of the 18th and 19th centuries, all but eliminated the worldwide market for silk due to the low-cost, mechanized manufacture of its cheaper substitute: cotton cloth. Still, a small niche production of Chinese luxury silks continued.

One of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, the Jacquard Loom, a revolutionary type of draw loom that simplified the process of producing textiles with intricate patterns and even with imagery, also helped the silk industry to survive, since silk brocades and damask (the weaving of imagery, such as flowers and animals, on silk cloth) could be manufactured much more cheaply on the Jacquard Loom, which was presented for the first time at the Paris Exhibition in 1801 by its inventor, Joseph Marie Charles, better known as Jacquard.

The recent emergence of China as an international economic locomotive, due in large part to the low Chinese costs of production, has seen a resurgence in the popularity of silk wares (linents, garments, etc.), doubling world silk production over the past 30 years. The two main producer-benefactors of this increased demand for silk wares are China and Japan, which, between them, command roughly one-half of the world's production of silk, with China, not suprisingly, as the larger supplier.

The resurgence in the popularity of silk has also focused world attention on the linchpin role of China as the originator of silk cloth and the main producer of silk wares during the Silk Road era – and now again the main producer of silk wares since the late 20th century opening of China to the West that resulted in China's rise as a major economic power. Accordingly, the world community, in the form of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, inscribed the Sericulture and Silk Craftsmanship of China on its 2009 Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Today, the production of silk wares in China is restricted to the Lake Tai area – the cities of Hangzhou, Jiaxing and Huzhou in Zhejiang Province, and the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province – and to the Greater Chengdu area of Sichuan Province, since both these areas still support the natural production of the mulberry tree on which the silkworm is dependent.

Prior to the UNESCO recognition of China's preeminent role in sericulture and silk craftsmanship, China itself took steps to protect this important cultural heritage and to promote its awareness within the country and beyond. The China Silk Museum, established in the city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, was opened to the public in 1992. Twelve years later, in 2004, China Silk Museum opened its doors to everyone, for free – both to foreigners as well as to domestic visitors. The museum naturally features exhibits that reflect all of the facets of silk production and silk trade, just as it is a treasure trove of ancient silk artifacts from the earliest times to the height of the Silk Road era – including many priceless silk wares, among which are several ancient documents and artworks that were painted on silk paper – that stem from the illustrious and brazenly opulent Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty period.

A visit to the Lake Tai area, and to the city of Hangzhou in particular, is not complete without a visit to China Silk Museum.

* The rapid spread of the Black Death was facilitated by infected merchants and other travelers, including rats, which were "stowaways" on every ship and unwelcome pests – and suddenly also carriers of the bubonic plague – in harbors everywhere during the period. In the year 1400, the Black Death shrank the world population from roughly 450 million to roughly 350 million, while in vulnerable Europe alone, where maritime shipping was quite extensive, the Black Death reduced regional populations even more dramatically: down to 40% of their former size in some places.

Our local experts are always ready to create you a hassle-free tour. Get an authentic experience by contacting one of our travel advisors.