The ancient "Silk Road," a land thoroughfare linking China with the West, has gained new popularity with the rejuvenated craftsmanship of Atlas Silk.
Atlas Silk, with its startling colors and beautiful patterns, is a unique local specialty of Jiya village in Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Weaving Atlas Silk is a common household skill with craftsmanship that still strongly resembling that 2,000 years ago.
Tureaili Haji, a Jiya villager in his thirties, spent all his savings bringing back a state-owned Atlas Silk mill from the verge of bankruptcy. With his great efforts, the pure hand-made silk has now become a hot souvenir, popular among foreign tourists.
The silk's history is recorded in folklore. A Han dynasty (about 2,000 years ago) princess, who came to the Western Regions for marriage, brought a silkworm cocoon to this place by hiding it in her hair. Then the locals began to culture silkworms and weave silk.
This anecdote is echoed by the findings in Shanpulu Ancient Tomb and Niya Town Relics. The unearthed silk scraps and weaving tools prove Atlas Silk's long history, which is as long as the Silk Road's, according to some archaeologists.
Its invention may have nothing to do with the princess, but one thing is certain - central China and the western regions had established trade relations as early as Han dynasty.
It takes much more time to produce Atlas Silk by hand than artificial silk by machine. Even the most skilled hand can weave only three meters a day.
A traditional outfit made of Atlas Silk costs about 400 yuan (US$49), which is too expensive to the locals whose annual per capita income is only 1,000 yuan (US$123).
The villagers thus saw no profits in weaving hand-made silk and began to fell mulberry trees and grow economic crops instead, leaving this old workmanship endangered.
Fearing the decadence of this traditional legacy rich in cultural and ethnic flavors, Tureaili Haji bought the unprofitable weaving mill and even offered a free course on his own terms, training people weaving and dying skills.
Now he employs over 30 craftsmen in his mill and has two sales offices in Kashi and Turpan Prefectures.
The silk attracts customers from home and abroad. It is especially popular in neighboring Uzbekistan. Last year Haji's mill made a profit of 500,000 yuan (about US$62,000).
Tureaili Haji even set up a museum where visitors can learn about the history of Atlas Silk and also visit the work site. This museum has been listed as a tourist attraction by the local tourism bureau.
"I am considering launching sales agencies in Urumqi and other big cities. I believe Atlas Silk has a broader market," said Tureaili Haji.
(Xinhua News Agency October 10, 2005)