The Legendary Invention of Silk

The Legend of the Yellow Emperor's Wife

Silkworms and Mulberry Leaves
Silkworms and Mulberry Leaves. CC Flickr User eviltomhai

Is the fabric known as silk 7000 years old? Did people wear it from as long ago as 5000 B.C. -- before civilization began at Sumer and before Egyptians built the Great Pyramid?

If silkworm cultivation or sericulture is as much as seven millennia old -- as the Silk Road Foundation says it may be -- the chances are poor that we will ever know exactly who invented it. What we can learn is what the descendants of the people who discovered silk wrote about it and what their legends say about the origins of processing silk.

Although there are other stories and variations, the basic legend credits an early Chinese empress. She is said to have:

1. Cultivated the silk-producing caterpillar (Bombyx mori).

2. Fed the silkworm the mulberry leaf that was discovered to be the best food -- at least for those interested in producing the best silk.

3. Invented the loom to weave the fiber.

Raising Silk

On its own, the silkworm larva produces a single, several hundred-yard-strand of silk, which it breaks as it emerges as a moth from its cocoon, leaving residue all over the trees. In preference to gathering the tangled silk caught in the trees, the Chinese learned to raise the silkworms on a fattening diet of the leaves of carefully cultivated mulberry trees. They also learned to watch the development of the cocoons so they could kill the chrysalis by plunging it in boiling water just before its time. This method ensures the full length of silk strands.

The boiling water also softens the sticky protein holding together the silk [Grotenhuis]. (The process of pulling out the strand of silk from the water and cocoon in known as reeling.) The thread is then woven into beautiful clothing

Who Was the Lady Hsi-ling?

The main source for this article is Dieter Kuhn, Professor, and Chair of Chinese Studies, University of Würzburg.

He wrote "Tracing a Chinese Legend: In Search of the Identity of the 'First Sericulturalist'" for T'oung Pao, an international journal of sinology. In this article, Kuhn looks at what the Chinese sources say about the legend of the invention of silk and describes the presentation of silk manufacture's invention across the dynasties. He makes note of the contribution of the lady of Hsi-ling in particular. She was the principal wife of Huangdi, who is better known as the Yellow Emperor.

The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi or Huang-ti, where Huang is the same word we translate as Yellow when used in connection with the great Chinese Yellow River, and ti is the name of an important god that is used in the names of kings, conventionally translated "emperor") is a legendary Neolithic era ruler and ancestor of the Chinese people, with almost godlike proportions. Huangdi is said to have lived in the third millennium B.C. for 100-118 years, during which he is credited with giving numerous gifts to the Chinese people, including the magnetic compass, and sometimes including silk. The principal wife of the Yellow Emperor, the lady of Hsi-ling (also known as Xi Ling-Shi, Lei-Tsu, or Xilingshi), is, like her husband, credited with discovering silk.

The lady of Hsi-ling is also credited with figuring out how to reel silk and inventing what people needed to make clothing from the silk -- the loom, according to the Shih-Chi 'Record of the Historian.'

Ultimately, the confusion seems to remain, but the upper hand is given the empress. The Yellow Emperor, who was honored as the First Sericulturalist during the Northern Chi Period (c. A.D. 550 - c. 580), may be the male figure depicted in later art as a patron saint of sericulture. The lady Hsi-ling is more often called the First Sericulturalist. Although she had been worshiped and held a position in the Chinese pantheon since the Northern Chou Dynasty (557-581), her official position as the personification of the First Sericulturalist with a divine seat and altar only came in 1742.

Silk Clothing Altered the Chinese Division of Labor

One could speculate, as Kuhn does, that the job of making fabric was women's work and that therefore the associations were made with the empress, rather than her husband, even if he had been the first sericulturalist. The Yellow Emperor may have invented the methods of producing silk, while the lady Hsi-ling was responsible for the discovery of silk itself. This legendary discovery, reminiscent of the story of the discovery of actual tea in China, involves falling into an anachronistic cup of tea. 

Chinese scholarship from the seventh century A.D. says that before the Yellow Emperor, clothing was made of bird (feathers can protect against water and down is, of course, an insulating material) and animal skin, but the supply of animals didn't keep up with demand. The Yellow Emperor decreed that clothing should be made of silk and hemp. In this version of the legend, it is Huangdi (actually, one of his officials named Po Yu), not the lady of Hsi-ling who invented all fabrics, including silk, and also, according to legend from the Han Dynasty, the loom. Again, if looking for a rationale for the contradiction based on the division of labor and gender roles: hunting would not have been a domestic pursuit, but the province of the men, so when clothing changed from skins to cloth, it made sense that it would have changed the storied gender of the maker.

Evidence of 5 Millennia of Silk

Not quite the full seven, but five millennia puts it more in line with important major developments elsewhere, so it is more easily believed.

Archaeological evidence reveals that silk existed in China as far back as around 2750 B.C., which puts it, coincidentally according to Kuhn, close to the dates of the Yellow Emperor and his wife. Shang Dynasty oracle bones show evidence of silk production.

Silk was also in the Indus Valley from the third millennium B.C., according to New Evidence for Silk in the Indus Valley, which says copper-alloy ornaments and steatite beads have yielded silk fibers upon microscopic examination. As an aside, the article says this raises the question of whether China really had exclusive control of silk.

A Silken Economy

The importance of silk to China probably can't be exaggerated: the exceptionally long and strong filament clothed a vast Chinese population, helped support the bureaucracy by being used as a precursor to paper (2nd century B.C.) [Hoernle] and to pay taxes [Grotenhuis], and led to commerce with the rest of the world. Sumptuary laws regulated the wearing of fancy silks and embroidered, patterned silks became status symbols from the Han to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (2nd century B.C. to 6th century A.D.).

How the Secret of Silk Leaked Out

The Chinese guarded its secret carefully and successfully for centuries, according to tradition. It was only in the 5th century A.D. that silk eggs and mulberry seeds were, according to legend, smuggled out in an elaborate headdress by a Chinese princess when she went to her groom, the king of Khotan, in Central Asia. A century later they were smuggled by monks into the Byzantine Empire, according to the Byzantine historian Procopius.

Silk Worship

Patron saints of sericulture were honored with life-size statues and rites; in the Han period, the silkworm goddess was personified, and in Han and Sung periods, the empress performed a silk ceremony. The empress helped with the gathering of the mulberry leaves necessary for the best silk, and the sacrifices of pig and sheep that were made to the "First Sericulturalist" who may or may not have been the lady of Hsi-ling. By the 3rd century, there was a silkworm palace which the empress supervised.

Legends of the Discovery of Silk

There is a fanciful legend about the discovery of silk, a love story about a betrayed and murdered magic horse, and his lover, a woman transformed into a silkworm; the threads becoming feelings. Liu recounts a version, recorded by Ts'ui Pao in his 4th century A.D. Ku Ching Chu (Antiquarian Researches), where the horse is betrayed by the father and his daughter who promised to marry the horse. After the horse was ambushed, killed, and skinned, the hide wrapped up the girl and flew away with her. It was found in a tree and brought home, where some time later the girl had been transformed into a moth. There is also a fairly pedestrian story of how silk was actually discovered -- the cocoon, thought to be fruit, wouldn't soften when boiled, so the would-be diners got their aggression out by beating it with sticks until the filament emerged.

Sericulture References:

"The Silkworm and Chinese Culture," by Gaines K. C. Liu; Osiris, Vol. 10, (1952), pp. 129-194

"Tracing a Chinese Legend: In Search of the Identity of the 'First Sericulturalist,'" by Dieter Kuhn; T'oung Pao Second Series, Vol. 70, Livr. 4/5 (1984), pp. 213-245.

"Spices and Silk: Aspects of World Trade in the First Seven Centuries of the Christian Era," by Michael Loewe; The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland No. 2 (1971), pp. 166-179.

"Stories of Silk and Paper," by Elizabeth Ten Grotenhuis; World Literature Today; Vol. 80, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug. 2006), pp. 10-12.

"Silks and Religions in Eurasia, C. A.D. 600-1200," by Liu Xinru; Journal of World History Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 25-48.

"Who Was the Inventor of Rag-Paper?" by A. F. Rudolf Hoernle; The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Oct. 1903), pp. 663-684.