Leizu Discovers Silk Making Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

An ancient and perhaps legendary Chinese empress discovered the technique for unwinding silkworm cocoons and weaving them into fabric.

Summary of Event

China has long been associated with the production of silk, to the point that ancient Egyptian writers referred to it as Serica, literally “the land of silk.” The Chinese so closely guarded the secrets of silk that the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 c.e.) wrote that it was produced by washing downy fibers from leaves. So old is sericulture (the techniques surrounding the raising of the silkworm moth, Bombyx mori, and the unwinding of its cocoons for silk fiber to be woven into fabric) that its origins have become surrounded by myth and legend. Leizu

However, one person is generally singled out as having first discovered that a silkworm cocoon could be unwound to make fiber. This is Leizu, who was either a wife or a concubine of the celebrated Yellow Emperor Huangdi (Huang-ti, c. 2704-c. 2600 b.c.e.) in 2640 b.c.e. According to the most common versions of the story, she went to retrieve a cocoon that had fallen into a cup of hot water (some versions say it was tea that she had been making while in the gardens of the Imperial palace). When she withdrew the cocoon, she and all her court were astonished to discover that it came out hanging from a delicate silken thread. The heat of the water had dissolved the gummy substance known as sericen that the silkworm moth uses to bind the silken thread into a solid cocoon and thus enabled the silk fiber to be reeled up for weaving. Although the discovery is generally said to have been an accident, other versions of the tradition suggest that Leizu’s husband had assigned her to study the possibility of weaving a useful fiber from silkworm cocoons.

Leizu is said to have developed the techniques by which silkworms could be raised in controlled conditions and invented looms and other equipment with which to transform raw silk fiber into the beautiful, sensuous cloth for which China would become famous throughout the world. So extensive was her contribution to the production of silk that she was deified and joined the sizeable Chinese pantheon as Shantzen (Sien-tsan), the goddess of silkworms. This apotheosis further contributed to the blurring of historical fact with legend, making it difficult if not impossible to determine the boundaries of each.

Archaeological finds have hinted at the substance behind these legends. In 1927, half a silkworm cocoon was unearthed from soil near the Yellow River in Shanxi Province of northern China. It was radiocarbon dated to be from between 2600 and 2300 b.c.e. More recent discoveries have suggested that the beginnings of sericulture and silk weaving may date even earlier, perhaps by as much as one thousand years, although these finds are hotly debated in the archaeological community.

Over the centuries that followed Liezu’s discovery, the silkworm became a truly domesticated insect, and selective breeding made it exceedingly docile and incapable of surviving in the wild. The adults became incapable of flight and uninterested in flying away from their cocoons, while the caterpillars became gregarious with no tendency to wander from their feeding beds, as do related species. These transformations made it easier to handle the valuable insects because it was no longer necessary to fully enclose the chambers in which they were raised, as would be the case with a more mobile species.

In the early years of silkworm culture, only members of China’s imperial family were permitted to wear silken garments or use items made of silk. However, as time passed, restrictions were relaxed and other aristocrats and officials were permitted the privilege of using this high-status fabric. Ultimately even ordinary people wore silk, and the fabric was used as money during some eras of Chinese history. Eventually, Chinese emperors discovered that a substantial fortune could be made from selling silken cloth abroad, and by the second century b.c.e., the famous Silk Road had come into existence. This trade route or set of trade routes, stretching across Asia, brought not only silk but other exotic Asian goods such as tea and spices to Western Europe and northern Africa. Although China sought to maintain a complete monopoly on the production and sale of silk, within a few centuries, brave spies risked their lives to smuggle live eggs and cocoons abroad. After that point, the primary limit on the growth of sericulture would be the availability of fresh mulberry leaves and willing workers for this labor-intensive industry.

Significance

Until the development of modern synthetic fibers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, silk remained the strongest and finest fiber available for making cloth. These characteristics, as well as the labor-intense methods of raising silkworms, gave silk a reputation for richness and a symbolic association with wealth and power. At the same time, silk was also used in certain precision instruments, such as the cross-hairs of the finest scopes.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anquitel, Jacques. Silk. Paris: Flammarion, 1996. A closely researched study of the history of sericulture and the impact of silk on society that is accessible to the average reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feltwell, John. The Story of Silk. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990. An overview of the history of silk, from its discovery in China through the development of the European and American silk industries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu, Xinru. Silk and Religion: An Exploration of Material Life and the Thought of People, a.d. 600-1200. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Discusses the interaction between China’s trade in silk and its religious ideas and institutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Major, John S. The Silk Route: Seven Thousand Miles of History. New York: Harper Trophy, 1996. Although aimed primarily at younger readers, this book includes copious notes at the end dealing with every aspect of the history of the Silk Road.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Philippa. The Book of Silk. Reprint. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. An extensive history of silk and its role in society, includes bibliographic references and index.

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