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China Begins to Export Silk to Europe

Early History of Production

IAt the sites of Yangshao culture in Xia County, Shanxi in China there was a silk cocoon found. With the use of a sharp knife, it was cut in half. It was said that the silk cocoon came from a species called “bombyx mori”- a domesticated silkworm.  Other fragments of these domestic silkworms were also found in the royal tombs of the Shang Dynasty, during 1600-1046 BC.  It is found on the Bible World History Timeline Poster during that time frame.

It came to a point that the Chinese community wasn’t able to keep their secret, and it spilled to the Koreans, the Japanese, and later to the Indians. It was also during the time of their discovery that they learned how to make silk. The Old Testament states that fabric production started in Western Asia. Biblical scholars believed that it was during the 2nd century BCE that the Chinese community established a means of networking and exporting their silk products to the west. During the reign of King Darius III of Persia, he used silk for himself and the Persian court. This was before Alexander the Great conquered the empire of King Darius III. Despite the rapid spread of the use of silk across Eurasia, it’s production remained exclusively Chinese for centuries.

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Silk: Myths and Legends

The writings of Confucius together with Chinese tradition, discussed the legend of the silk. It was said that a silk worm’s cocoon fell into the teacup of the Empress Leizu. Leizu was a legendary Chinese empress and wife of the Yellow Emperor. Based on Chinese tradition, she was the one who discovered silk and invented the silk loom. Empress Leizu wished to extract the silk worm’s cocoon from her teacup, and she began to unroll the thread of the cocoon. It then came to her mind the idea of weaving the thread. She then started to tutor her entourage in the art of raising silkworms- the process of sericulture. Through this event, she then became the Goddess of Silk in Chinese Mythology. Even though silk was brought to a vast number of foreign countries, the methods of sericulture remained hidden and the Chinese community guarded that carefully.

Silk: Its usage in Ancient and Medieval China

During Ancient times, silk worm farming was restricted to women. Some people saw the production of silk as useless, but it meant a lot to those who belonged to high society. Only those who belonged to the high society, with their families, were allowed to use silk products. The right to wear silk was only given to the emperor and the highest dignitaries. This right existed for 1000 years. It was only during the later part that the right of wearing silk extended to the other classes of the Chinese society. Along with silk, the paper is also one of the greatest discoveries in China.

The Spread of Silk Production

Silk, History_of
The emperor Justinian receives silkworms, 552 AD.

During the 4th century, BC silk began to be of such high value that it reached the West by merchants who used it in exchange for gold, ivory, horses and some precious stones. With the Roman Empire frontier, silk became a monetary standard for appraising the value of different products.

During 300 AD, Japan spread the idea of silk cultivation. They were able to acquire silkworm eggs, and they started to cultivate silkworm. Next to Japan, the Arabs also started silk manufacturing. Because of the leak of the methods of silk production or sericulture, it came to a point that Chinese silk export became less important, though they still dominated over the luxury silk market. This widespread idea of sericulture came across to Western Europe, more particular in many Italian states, which saw an economic boom by selling silk to the rest of Europe.

During the Middle Ages, silk manufacturing techniques began to take place, with the discovery of the devices such as spinning wheel. In the 16th century, France in collaboration with Italy developed the prosperous silk trade. It was during the 4th century BC that silk began to be of high value that it reached the West by merchants who would be used in exchange for gold, ivory, horses and some precious stones. With the Roman Empire frontier, silk became a monetary standard for appraising the value of different products.

Silk Industry During the Industrial Revolution

The rise of an epidemic silkworm disease caused the production of silk products to fall, more especially in France, where the industry never recovered. After the crisis in silk production in Europe, Japan’s modernization of sericulture made it the world’s foremost silk producer. Though Italy managed to rise from the crisis, France was never able to do so.

Silk in the 20th Century

It was only during the 20th century that China established and regained their role in silk production.  Nowadays, China is the world’s largest producer of silk. New fabrics such as nylon reduced the prevalence of silk throughout the world and silk regained its dignity of being a rare luxury but in a much less expensive way. 

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