Early silk in China
The history of sericulture in China is a long one. The oldest silk found in China has been dated to about 3630 BC, which means that it is from the Chinese Neolithic period. This silk was found in the Henan Province, a region widely regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Another example of very old silk in China is a group of silk threads, a braided silk belt and a woven silk cloth fragment dated to circa 2570 BC. These items were excavated from the Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang, in the Zhejiang Province. The Liangzhu was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta.
The oldest known written reference to silk is on a bronze fragment found at the Shang Dynast site at Anyang. The Shang Dynasty existed from circa 1600 to circa 1050 BC.
A small ivory cup adorned with a carved silkworm design found in China is thought to be between 6000 and 7000 years old.
The legend of Hsi-Ling-Shih
According to Chinese myth, sericulture and the weaving of silk cloth was invented by Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor who is said to have ruled China in about 3,000 BC. Hsi-Ling-Shi is credited with both introducing sericulture and inventing the loom upon which silk is woven. In Chinese texts, she is sometimes referred to as The Goddess of Silk.
Only for a select few
For a long time, silk was a material reserved for the Emperor of China and those very close to him, such as important family members and very high-ranking dignitaries. Some very old and possibly semi-legendary sources write about how the Emperor always wore white silk within his imperial palace, and yellow silk when venturing outside. The principal wife to the Emperor and the heir to the imperial throne are also described as wearing yellow silk when showing themselves outside the palace.
The use of silk spreads
Gradually, the restrictions on who could wear and use silk in China began to vanish, and more and more people – who could afford the precious material – could be seen sporting silk clothing and decorating with silk ornaments.
Eventually, silk production grew to become quite a large industry in China. Silk was used for a variety of things, from fishing-lines and bowstrings to musical instruments. Earlier, documents had been written on silk cloth. Now, Chinese paper makers developed techniques for making more affordable, yet still luxurious, paper where silk rags were mixed with other naturally occuring fibers to make the pulp.
Soon, silk was present in so many aspects of Chinese life that it began altering the language. Even today, well over 200 of the 5,000 most commonly used characters in Mandarin texts have silk as their “key”.
Silk as a currency / commodity
During the Han Dynasty, silk became somewhat of a currency. There are for instance documents from this era telling us about farmers who paid their taxes in grain and silk. When taxes were paid in silk, it also ment that the state would make its payments in silk, and civil servents could for instance get their salary in the form of silk. The cost of something could be described using lenghts of silk as the unit of measurment, just like many other societies would use weight units of gold or silver.
Since silk was highly valued and appriciated outside China as well, lenghts of silk became a well-established trading commodity between China and foreign countries. It remain an important commodity to this day and you can buy a number of different silk based securities and financial instruments including futures, binary or over/under options, and ETFs.
The Chinese monopoly begins to faulter
The Chinese autorities worked hard to keep everything pertaining to silk production a secret to retain the nation’s monopoly, but eventually information began to slip out – partly through Chinese migrants that settled abroad and made a living there from silk making.
Silkworm cultivation for silk production, also known as sericulture, reached Korea around the year 200 BC, but it would take until after 300 AD before the practice was established as far away as India.
According to legend, sericultur reached the Kingdom of Khotan (today’s Hetian) in 440 AD. A Khotan prince courted and won the hand of a Chinese princess, and when she left China she brought silkmoth eggs with her in secret, hidden inside her voluminous hair-do.
Sericulture reaches the Byzantine
Around the year 550 AD, two monks affiliated with the Nestorian Church arrived to Emperor Justinian’s court in Byzantine. Inside their hollow bamboo staves, they were smuggling silkmoth eggs. Under the care of the monks, the eggs hatched into larvae, and the larvae eventually spun cocoons and developed into the adult moths that became the ancestor silkmoths of the Byzantine silk industry.
The Byzantine church and state took silk production very seriously and set up imperial silk workshops. Just like pretty much everyone else, those involved wanted to keep the sericulture secrets to themselves to avoid competition.
Still, the Byzantine silk industry was never able to compete with China when it came to high-quality silk. The Byzantine Empire became a notable producer of low-grade and medium-grade silk, but for consumers willing and able to pay for high-qaulity silk, imports carried along the Silk Road from China was still the way to go.
By the 6th century, silk weaving had been established in Persia. Over time, Persian silk weavers developed their own patterns rather than simply trying to copy established Chinese ones.
It would take until the 1100s before silk production was established in Europe. During the time of the Second Crusade, 2,000 skilled silk weavers from Constantinople arrived to Italy, setting up their business there.
The Silk Road
The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its lenght. It was this trade that made it possible for people in places located far away from any silk cultivation and silk weaving to wear and use silk. For instance, silk has been found with an ancient Egyptian mummy in the village of Deir el Medina; a mummy dated to 1070 BC.
During the 2nd century BC, the Chinese Emperor Han Wu Di dispatched ambassadors far and wide, and one of the many types of precious gifts they carried with them was silk. These embassadors travelled east as far as Persia and Mesopotamia.
Ancient Rome gets silk from the Silk Road
Exactly when the Ancient Romans first came into contact with silk remains unknown, and it is also quite possible that it took a long time before knowledge of silk – a very precious material – became widespread among the commoners.
We do know that during the 4th century BC, mentionings of Seres – The Kingdom of Silk – begin to appear in Greek and Roman texts.
We also know that as late as 53 BC, Roman soldiers were so startled by the sight of the bright silken banners carried by the Parthian troops at the Battle of Carrhae that they fled in panic, indicating that they were probably not at all familiar with the material.
As a precious material, silk – imported through the Silk Road – eventually became the hallmark of well-off Romans. By the 3rd century AD, the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, who reigned 218-222, reportedly wore nothing but silk.
In 380 AD, when the Roman Empire had already split into West Rome and East Rome, the Roman soldier and historian Marcellinus Ammanius writes that “The use of silk which was once confined to the nobility has now spread to all classes without distinction, even to the lowest.”
When the Gothic leader Alaric I beseiged the city of Rome in the early 400s, his demand for sparing the city included 4,000 tunics of silk.
The hidden silk near Dunhuang
Some remarkable finds of very old silk has been made in places located along the Silk Road. One of these amazing finds were made by the Hungarian-born British archeologist Aurel Stein in 1907 as he was exploring The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang. Dunhuang, located in northwestern Gansu, was once one of the pit stops along the Silk Road.
What Stein found in one of the cave rooms was more than 10,000 manuscripts and silk paintings, silk banners, and textiles. It is believed that these treasures were hidden in this room around the year 1015, by Buddhist monks fearing an Tangut invasion. They hid the items in the cave room and sealed it up, and did such a good job that the items remained hidden for nearly 900 years.