Leizu: Legendary founder of China’s silk industry
Chinese Empress Leizu from the family of Xiling was the first wife of the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di of China. They had two sons. A festivity is celebrated every lunar 15th of March to celebrate her birthday. She was believed to have been born in the Leizu Village located at Yanting County, Sichuan Province.
It is said that she died while accompanying Huang Di on an inspection trip that’s why Huang Di gave her the tribute as the Road Goddess. Myths and legends about Leizu are still shared among the Chinese people today.
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Silk Production – Mythological Perspective
Among the myths discovered at Huang Di’s home in Xinzheng County, Henan Province talks about Leizu as a housemaid of Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu. She was punished for eating the fruits of the tree from heaven, the mulberry tree, without permission. She was sent to earth carrying the silkworms and seeds of mulberry with her. She later on met and married Huang Di.
It is believed that she’s the one who discovered silk gaining her the honour of the Lady of Silkworm famously worshipped until today. She also developed the silk reel and silk loom. Development of sericulture was also credited to her, earning her the title the Sericulture Goddess.
She is worshipped in the Leizu temple also called the Temple of the Sericulture Goddess standing at Yuan’an County, Hubei Province.
Silk and Sericulture
The myth found at Dujiangyan City Sichuan Province, talks about how Leizu discovered silk. But when she instructed the women to reel the silk they encountered problems with the silk threads getting entangled. She was able to solve this problem by improvising a wooden spinning wheel with a permanent handle. They used it to reel the silk threads. She then used the fish-shaped like a medium in weaving.
Thus, she earned the title as the Goddess of Silk Making. There were variations on how Leizu discovered that the silkworms can produce silk.
One story states that when she touched the silkworm with her finger, the silk sticks out. She continuously wound the silk produced by the silkworm around her finger until it ran out of silk. That was when she discovered the tiny cocoon responsible for producing the silk.
A different account from the writings of Confucius says that she saw the silk worms munching the mulberry leaves and twisting cocoons. She gathered a few cocoons and took her seat to drink her tea. She accidentally dropped a piece of the cocoon into her hot tea and observed the separation of the silk from the cocoon. She soon discovered that she could loosen the soft silk and wrapped it around her finger.
She then encouraged the Yellow Emperor to grant her the mulberry trees where she could multiply the silkworms.
Sericulture is the technique of domesticating the silkworms to produce the cocoons needed in making silk. It is a long and complex procedure guarded by China for a long period even sanctioning death to those who dared to export the silkworms or their eggs to other countries.
The Yellow Emperor, after hearing and thinking about the his wife’s ideas on silkworm domestication, thread spinning and silk weaving, thought that it would be of great help to his people. Leizu later on taught what she discovered to the other Chinese people.
Silk Production – Historically Speaking.
Production of silk and sericulture first started in China. Silk production flourished in China. Mulberry silk quilts were used in the royal courts during the Tang Dynasty and cocoon fibre became a symbol of wealth during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
It was an exclusive product of China until the Silk Road paved the way for the prosperous silk trading industry with nations in Asia, Europe, and Africa. China exported silk to other countries, but they guarded the secret of sericulture for thousands of years.
This was broken when the Chinese princess who married the prince of Khotan. In her desire to make the silk readily available in her new home, hid mulberry seeds and silkworms in her headdress and smuggled them to India. It was also shared with other Asian nations through emigration. Around 300 AD, Japan managed to take some silkworm eggs and captured four Chinese girls who were forced to share the sericulture with the Japanese. And in 552 AD, the Byzantine got hold of the silkworm eggs after two Nestorian monks successfully smuggled the eggs concealed in their bamboo walking sticks.
Until today, China maintains the position of being the largest silk producer of the world. Recently, Shanghai urbanization decreased the availability of farm lands causing silk prices to increase.
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