China has given the world many gifts. Everybody knows the big four: gunpowder, compass, paper and printmaking. Actually, the list is vast and ranges from primal gifts: paper money and wheelbarrows, kites, whiskey and chess – to contemporary contributions: hybrid rice and agricultural techniques, cast iron, parachutes, decimal mathematics and laser technologies. But truly, the Middle Kingdom's most ancient and most valuable gift to the world was and in many people's minds, still remains silk.
Useful and elegant, silk, like Chinese civilization, is very, very old. Silk's discovery as material suitable for weaving goes to Lady Xi Ling Shi, Emperor Huang Di's 14-year-old bride. One day in 2640 BC, according to works attributed to Confucius, she was relaxing under a mulberry tree, drinking a cup of tea. A silk cocoon fell smack dab into her teacup.
The clever Chinese empress noticed that the delicate fibers unraveled in the hot liquid. Thus, according to romantic legend, Lady Xi became the first person unwind a silk cocoon and then use the filament to create yarn to weave cloth. Yet incontrovertibly silk is more than fabric: this substance epitomizes the very spirit of the Chinese people.
Silk, like the Chinese nation, looks gentle but is strong, as strong as steel of the same thickness. Durable, silk resists breakage; delicate looking, it's much tougher than cotton or wool.
Similar to a comely Chinese woman, foreigners view silken fabrics as elegant and beautiful, alluring and startling. A cross-section of a single silk filament reveals an alien, triangular shape that reflects glimmering lights off these surfaces.
Westerners view many Chinese habits, like the idiosyncrasies of silk production, as exotic and rather odd. Produced by the short lived pupae of the blind mulberry silk moth, Bombyx mori, this insect creates silk by excreting liquid from two large spinneret glands near a single exit tube located in its head. The substance hardens on exposure to the air, forming twin protein based filaments coated by a gummy binding fluid called sericin, which binds the two filaments together. Significantly, the ancient Romans called the Chinese Seres in homage to their silk commodities.
Silk also has political uses that reflect Chinese norms. At first restricted only to the emperor and his close relations, silk symbolized the Chinese love of pomp and ceremony. The emperor wore pure white silk inside the palace; outside, he and his consort wore yellow, the color of the earth. The practical, industrious spirit of the nation gradually brought silk into more general use. Widely used for clothing and decoration, silk quickly was put to business use, becoming one of the principal elements of the Chinese economy and used in conjunction with musical instruments, fishing equipment, archery, and even paper. During the Han and Tang dynasties, silk was used as measure of currency and reward, and as trade currency or as a gift for foreign powers. Silk became a staple of international trade prior to the Industrial Revolution.
The Chinese are very clever people and they are also good at keeping secrets. Silk, like many Chinese endeavors, requires intensive labor to produce. Experts developed hush-hush ways to prevent the mulberry silk moth from hatching out. Chinese breeders carefully perfected the diet on which the larvae should feed and provided an efficient, practical environment to raise the silkworms, as well as an efficient, painless way to harvest them: thousands of feeding caterpillars are kept on trays that are stacked one on top of another. A roomful of munching mulberry worms sounds like rain falling on a tin roof.
For nearly 30 centuries the Chinese had a global monopoly on silk production. They understood the value of this beautiful material and immediately guessed its potential trade value. Travelers were searched thoroughly at border crossings and anyone caught trying to smuggle eggs, cocoons or silkworms out of the country was summarily executed. This wondrous fabric created the lucrative trade routes, both the overland "Silk Road", and Zhang He's maritime "Silk Route". As early as 300BC during the Han Dynasty, merchants were avidly carrying silk westward and bringing gold, silver and wools home to the East. Only in AD 550 when two Persian monks, risking their lives, smuggled out silkworms in bamboo canes did the West learn to manufacture silk. Silk caused a significant impact on global markets – just as China is doing today. The material first spread to the Romans and caused a frenzy. By the middle of the first century A.D., the Roman Senate was railed against women wearing indecent, immoral and quite sexy silken garments.
More importantly, silk imports were damaging the Roman economy. Several edicts were passed to forbid silk clothing, but in vain.
"The Seres (Chinese), are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves... So manifold is the labor employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public."
(Pliny the Elder (23- 79) The Natural History)
The Romans could not produce silk so they continued to import it. Over time, Arabs and Persians, Italian and French – all coveted and tried to copy silk. The Middle Eastern nations originally unraveled the cloth and rewove it into their own traditional designs. The Italians got rich importing it during the Middle Ages but the French were the first nation to finally start mass-producing silk. From 1450-1466 Lyon became a silk manufacturing center. In 1685 when religious persecution of the French Huguenots – who controlled the weaver's guild in France – became unbearable the French weavers fled, catapulting the development of silk production toward England, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Silk prospered: Europe and Japan both wove silk. But throughout time China has maintained her status as the world's leading silk producer.
Today the Western nations are again wooing and chastising China, seeking trade and business opportunities. Remembering the lesson of silk: this exotic, secret, elegant and political fabric – will greatly assist the foreigners interested in doing business with the Seres, the Silk Nation.
(China.org.cn by Valerie Sartor, September 19, 2007)