Chinese silk: past and present

UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

The beauty of chinese silk is been well-known in the world, while the skills of the ancient Chinese people to create beauty has earned great appreciation. Silk weaving is a great invention of China and a cultural identification of the Chinese nation. In 2009, Chinese silk craftsmanship was inscribed on the Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Chinese Silk
The vast Gobi Desert, the winding camel caravans and the lonesome tinkle of camel bells – such is the modern impression of the Silk Road.

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Zhou Xinhua
本刊记者 周新
During the 2010 China Farmer Arts Festival at the National Agriculture Exhibition Center in Beijing, a lot of unique craftsmanship was demonstrated. But what struck visitors most was the exhibition of chinese silk weaving craft. Silver raw silk was reeled off the bright cocoons floating in hot water. Through a guide roller and a hook, the thread was wound evenly around a reel. When some threads snapped, a nimble hand caught the ends and skillfully rejoined them. “What fantastic craftsmanship it takes to turn cocoons into soft and beautiful silk!” The visitors were amazed at the performance.

Ancient silk weaving skills date back to the Neolithic Age (5,000 to 10,000 years ago). It is another marvelous craftsmanship that the ancient Chinese people developed for mankind. The world has long considered silk a symbol of happiness and auspiciousness. On most grand occasions, like banquets and wedding ceremonies, silk can be seen almost everywhere.

Silk is the synonym of all mulberry silk products. It feels light and smooth. Some silks are as thin as a cicada’s wing and others as fair and delicate as coagulated grease. Its mysterious, oriental beauty can induce infinite reverie.

Chinese legend has it that Leizu, the legendary ruler Yellow Emperor’s wife, invented the techniques of breeding silkworms and reeling silk. Before the invention of silk, people’s clothes were made of sack cloth, which was stiff and heavy and always in dull colors. One day, the Yellow Emperor defeated the tribe’s enemy and returned home. The tribes people came to celebrate with gifts. Some of them presented the chief with shining silver cocoons. Leizu was very happy with the cocoons and began weaving the silk. She was surprised that the clothes made of silk were beautiful and comfortable. Then she bred silkworms, reeled silk and wove cloth, and finally worked out the complete techniques of silkworms breeding and silk reeling. The tribes people learned the techniques from Leizu and worshipped her as the “Silk Goddess.” Today, the relics of Leizu Temples can still be seen in some silkworm-breeding areas.

Chinese Silk
Reeling silk from silkworm cocoon.

Leizu is worshipped not only because she invented the techniques of breeding silkworms and reeling silk but also because she was a motherly model of the nation. She helped the Yellow Emperor organize men to till farmland and women to weave cloth, which built the foundation of Chinese civilization. The ancient Chinese production style of men tilling farmland and women weaving cloth originated from the spread of chinese silk craft. In such a division of labor, women naturally played the role of producing silk and formed a hardworking and docile character. “My husband is a peasant and I am a peasant woman. We were married and I’ve been weaving ever since.” This is a line from the poem “Ode to a Woman Weaver” by Meng Jiao, a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is a vivid description of the ancient lifestyle. The splendid silk resulted from the industrious work of women weavers. To them, silk has always been the most beautiful “cloud” in the world. They blended their pursuit of beauty into their daily lives: lush mulberry trees were a common sight in the age of farming. Chinese silk is a symbol displaying the ancient people’s perfect interpretation of beauty.

During the Han (206 BC- AD 220) and Tang dynasties the nation’s prosperity and the fame of chinese silk rose. The vast Gobi Desert, the winding camel caravans and the lonesome tinkle of camel bells – such is the modern impression of the Silk Road. At the other end of the road lived the Romans who established their classic glory. Back at that time, Julius Caesar went to the theater in silk robes. Silk were a luxury that Roman nobles were eager to buy and show off. With the lapse of time, the Romans turned their favor of the soft and smooth texture into an appreciation of beauty. In the words of French Sinologist René Etiemble, once the Roman women put on a silk shawl, they shared the artistic values of the East.

Chinese Silk
Aristocrats in Europe became enthusiastic about China’s silk some 2,000 years ago.

Every one loves beauty. Roman ladies were enthusiastic about splendid and glossy silk, leading to a dramatic price higher than the cost of gold. Silk was the most expensive commodity from China. The countries along the Silk Road all desired to master the mysterious craft. China, famed as the “Land of Silk,” kept the craft a national secret and made laws to keep the esoteric craft from leaking out. Despite the efforts, the craft still spread to India and Japan around AD 300. and later to Europe.

Today, Chinese silk still enjoys an excellent reputation. At the Silk Street Market in Beijing, there are many dazzling silk products on display. Customers, of various complexions, are attracted here and bargain with the dealers. Dignitaries, businesspeople and tourists from different countries are familiar to those dealers at the market. It is reported that former U.S. President George Bush and one of his daughters visited the market during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and bought six silk dressing gowns with dragon and phoenix embroidery patterns. On the same day, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and his wife also came to buy silk. “That day, the whole floor was crowded with people. Body guards and reporters were seen everywhere,” the report said.

Chinese Silk
Weaving an antique painting with silk

The beauty of chinese silk is been well-known in the world, while the skills of the ancient Chinese people to create beauty has earned great appreciation. At the fourth meeting of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009, Chinese silk craftsmanship was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is in commemoration and appreciation of the excellent craftsmanship of the ancient Chinese people


Chinese Silk
Weaving silk tapestry

Silk weaving is a great invention of China and a cultural identification of the Chinese nation. This heritage covers the skills of planting mulberry trees, breeding silkworms, reeling silk off cocoons, dying and weaving. The heritage also includes the tools and looms, the products like foulard, leno and brocade, and related folk activities. The traditional chinese silk craft and the folk activities are maintained in the Taihu Lake Area in the north of Zhejiang Province and the south of Jiangsu Province (including Hangzhou, Jiaxing, Huzhou and Suzhou), and also Chengdu in Sichuan Province. It is an inseparable part of the Chinese cultural heritage.


The Silk Road refers to an overland trade route first traveled by Zhang Qian in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC- AD 8.). It started from Chang’an (now called Xi’an), across Gansu and Xinjiang, and stretched through Central and West Asia, to the Mediterranean countries.

The Maritime Silk Road came into being during the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC – AD 220), prospered during the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-907) and further flourished during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960 –1368). Early Ming Dynasty (second half of the 14th century) saw the climax of maritime trade. However, the routes began declining due to a ban on maritime trade in the 15th centry. The important starting points of the maritime trade routes include Panyu (Canton), Dengzhou (now Yantai), Yangzhou, Mingzhou (now Ningbo), Quanzhou, Liujiagang, and others. There were three primary routes:

  1. The Japan route from coastal China ports to Korea and Japan;
  2.  The Southeast Asia route from China ports to Southeast Asian countries;
  3. The Western route from China to South Asian, Arabian and East African countries.

More in Series Of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in ConfuciusMag

Confucius Institute Magazine 13

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 13. Volume 2. March 2011.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


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