A Chinese Empress and the Discovery of Silk-Making

Silkworm cocoon on mulberry leaf

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About 2700-2640 B.C.E., the Chinese began making silk. According to Chinese tradition, the part-legendary emperor, Huang Di (alternately Wu-di or Huang Ti) invented the methods of raising silkworms and spinning silk thread.

Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, is also credited as the founder of the Chinese nation, creator of humanity, founder of religious Taoism, creator of writing, and inventor of the compass and the pottery wheel -- all foundations of culture in ancient China.

The same tradition credits not Huang Di, but his wife Si Ling-Chi (also known as Xilingshi or Lei-tzu), with discovering silk-making itself, and also the weaving of silk thread into fabric.

One legend claims that Xilingshi was in her garden when she picked some cocoons from a mulberry tree and accidentally dropped one into her hot tea. When she pulled it out, she found it unwound into one long filament.

Then her husband built on this discovery, and developed methods for domesticating the silkworm and producing silk thread from the filaments -- processes that the Chinese were able to keep secret from the rest of the world for more than 2,000 years, creating a monopoly on silk fabric production. This monopoly led to a lucrative trade in silk fabric.

The Silk Road is so named because it was the trading route from China to Rome, where silk cloth was one of the key trade items.

Breaking the Silk Monopoly

But another woman helped to break the silk monopoly. About 400 C.E., another Chinese princess, on her way to be married to a prince in India, is said to have smuggled some mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs in her headdress, allowing silk production in her new homeland. She wanted, the legend says, to have silk fabric easily available in her new land. It was then only a few more centuries until the secrets had been revealed to Byzantium, and in another century, silk production began in France, Spain, and Italy.

In another legend, told by Procopius, monks smuggled Chinese silkworms to the Roman Empire. This broke the Chinese monopoly on silk production.

Lady of the Silkworm

For her discovery of the silk-making process, the earlier empress is known as Xilingshi or Si Ling-chi, or Lady of the Silkworm, and is often identified as a goddess of silk-making.

The Facts

The silkworm is a native to northern China. It is the larva, or caterpillar, stage of a fuzzy moth (Bombyx). These caterpillars feed on mulberry leaves. In spinning a cocoon to encase itself for its transformation, the silkworm exudes a thread from its mouth and winds this around its body. Some of these cocoons are preserved by the silk growers to produce new eggs and new larva and thus more cocoons. Most are boiled. The process of boiling loosens the thread and kills the silkworm/moth. The silk farmer unwinds the thread, often in a single very long piece of about 300 to about 800 meters or yards, and winds it onto a spool. Then the silk thread is woven into a fabric, a warm and soft cloth. The cloth takes dyes of many colors including bright hues. The cloth is often woven with two or more threads twisted together for elasticity and strength.

Archaeologists suggest that the Chinese were making silk cloth in the Longshan period, 3500 - 2000 BCE.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Chinese Empress and the Discovery of Silk-Making." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/chinese-empress-discovers-silk-making-3529402. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). A Chinese Empress and the Discovery of Silk-Making. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/chinese-empress-discovers-silk-making-3529402 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Chinese Empress and the Discovery of Silk-Making." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chinese-empress-discovers-silk-making-3529402 (accessed June 5, 2023).