The Silk Road spanned the Asian continent and represented a form of global economy when the known world was smaller but more difficult to traverse than nowadays. A network of mostly land but also sea trading routes, the Silk Road stretched from China to Korea and Japan in the east, and connected China through Central Asia to India in the south and to Turkey and Italy in the west. The Silk Road system has existed for over 2,000 years, with specific routes changing over time. For millennia, highly valued silk, cotton, wool, glass, jade, lapis lazuli, gold, silver, salt, spices, tea, herbal medicines, foods, fruits, flowers, horses, musical instruments, and architectural, philosophical, and religious ideas traveled those routes. The roads themselves were generally in poor condition. Travelers in caravans had to brave bleak deserts, high mountains, extreme heat and cold. They had to face bandits and raiders, imprisonment, starvation, and other forms of deprivation. Those going by sea braved the uncertainties of weather, poorly constructed ships, and pirates. Yet because the goods and ideas were in great demand and commanded high prices, courtly rewards, or spiritual benefits, they were worth the trouble of transporting great distances.
Since the German geologist and explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen first invented the concept of “Seidenstrassen” or “Silk Roads” in 1877, the “Silk Road” has been used as a metaphor of European and Asian cultural interchange. While largely commercial, the Silk Road provided the vehicle for all sorts of creative exchange between tremendously diverse peoples and cultures.
Given the Silk Road’s symbolic meaning of sharing and exchange, it is somewhat paradoxical that the desire to control its namesake commodity, silk, was so strong. The ancient Chinese guarded the secret of silk production for centuries. The Ottoman Turks and the Persians fought a war over it. The English and French competed to restrict its markets. However, despite such attempts, silk moved across the planet with remarkable ease and was a vehicle of cultural creativity wherever it went. The degree of borrowings and choosing of techniques and patterns, the invention and discovery of uses and styles is incredible. Every culture that touched silk added to its adornment of humanity.
In addition, silk turns up everywhere — aboard medieval Viking ships sailing out of Constantinople and as kerchiefs from India (bandannas, from bandhana) around the necks of cowboys in the American West. The terms used for silk reveal its history and influences. Damask silk, referring to the style of Damascus, Syria, is actually Chinese in origin. Silk chinois Erie is not Chinese but a European imitation of Chinese style. Martha Washington wore a dress of Virginia silk to her husband’s inauguration, and Native Americans learned silk embroidery to decorate traditional apparel. In the 19th century, Paterson, New Jersey, of all places, declared itself “Silk City.” What is so special about silk? How did it go around the globe, and connect diverse civilizations for millennia? In addition, what is the current significance of the Silk Road?
Silk cultivation and production is such an extraordinary process that it is easy to see why its invention was legendary and its discovery eluded many who sought its secrets. The original production of silk in China is often attributed to Of Xi, the emperor who initiated the raising of silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees to feed them. Xi Lingshi, the wife of the Yellow Emperor whose reign is dated from 2677 to 2597 B.C.E., is regarded as the legendary Lady of the Silkworms for having developed the method for unraveling the cocoons and reeling the silk filament. Archaeological finds from this period include silk fabric from the southeast Zhejiang province dated to about 3000 B.C.E. and a silk cocoon from the Yellow River valley in northern China dated to about 2500 B.C.E. Yet silk cloth fragments and a cup carved with a silkworm design from the Yangzi Valley in southern China dated to about 40005000 B.C.E. suggest that sericulture, the process of making silk, may have an earlier origin than suggested by legend.
Many insects from all over the world — and spiders as well — produce silk. One of the native Chinese varieties of silkworm with the scientific name Bombyx moriis uniquely suited to the production of superbly high-quality silk. This silkworm, which is actually a caterpillar, takes adult form as a blind, flightless moth that immediately mates, lays about 400 eggs in a four- to six-day period, and then abruptly dies. The eggs must be kept at a warm temperature for them to hatch as silkworms or caterpillars. When they do hatch, they are stacked in layers of trays and given chopped up leaves of the white mulberry to eat. They eat throughout the day for four or five weeks, growing to about 10,000 times their original weight. When large enough, a worm produces a liquid gel through its glands that dries into a threadlike filament, wrapping around the worm and forming a cocoon in the course of three or four days. The amazing feature of the Bombyx mori is that its filament, generally in the range of 3001,000 yards — and sometimes a mile — long, is very strong and can be unwrapped. To do this, the cocoon is first boiled. This kills the pupae inside and dissolves the gum resin or seracin that holds the cocoon together. Cocoons may then be soaked in warm water and unwound or be dried for storage, sale, and shipment. Several filaments are combined to form a silk thread and wound onto a reel. One ounce of eggs produces worms that require a ton of leaves to eat, and results in about 12 pounds of raw silk. The silk threads may be spun together, often with other yarn, dyed, and woven on looms to make all sorts of products. It takes about 2,0003,000 cocoons to make a pound of silk needed for a dress; about 150 cocoons are needed for a necktie. The Chinese traditionally incubated the eggs during the spring, timing their hatching as the mulberry trees come to leaf. Sericulture in China traditionally involved taboos and rituals designed for the health and abundance of the silkworms. Typically, silk production was women’s work. Currently, some 10 million Chinese are involved in making raw silk, producing an estimated 60,000 tons annually — about half of the world is output. Silk is still relatively rare, and therefore expensive; consider that silk constitutes only 0.2 percent of the world’s textile fabric.
There are other types of silkworms and of silk. Indian tussah silk dates back possibly to 2500 B.C.E. to the Indus Valley civilization and is still produced for domestic consumption and foreign trade in various forms. Since traditional Hindu and Jain production techniques do not allow for the killing of the pupae in the cocoon, moths are allowed to hatch, and the resultant filaments are shorter and coarser than the Chinese variety. The ancient Greeks, too, knew of a wild Mediterranean silk moth whose cocoon could be unraveled to form fiber. The process was tedious, however, and the result not up to the quality of mulberry-fed Bombyx mori.
Silk has been long thought to be a special type of cloth; it keeps one cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It is absorbent, meaning it uses color dyes much more efficiently than cotton, wool, or linen. It shimmers. It drapes upon the body particularly well. Silk is strong enough to be used for surgical sutures — indeed; by weight it is stronger than steel and more flexible than nylon. It is also fire and rot resistant. All these natural characteristics make silk ideal as a form of adornment for people of importance, for kimonos in Japan and wedding saris in India, for religious ritual, for burial shrouds in China and to lay on the graves of Sufis in much of the Muslim world.
Early in Chinese history, silk was used to clothe the emperor, but eventually it was adopted widely through Chinese society. Silk proved to be valuable for fishing lines, for the making of paper, for musical instrument strings. Under the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.220 C.E.), silk became a great trade item, used for royal gifts and tribute. It also became a generalized medium of exchange, like gold or money. Chinese farmers paid their taxes in silk. Civil servants received their salary in silk.
Evidence of trade in ancient Chinese silk has been found in archaeological excavations in Central Asian Bactria (currently the region around Balkh and Mazar-Al-Sharif, Afghanistan) dating to about 500 B.C.E. Strands of silk have been found in ancient Egypt from about 1000 B.C.E., but these may be of Indian rather than Chinese origin. Alexander the Great, who ruled much of the known world from the Mediterranean to India in the late 4th century B.C.E., wore robes of deep purple-dyed silk. The silk was probably from China, which the Greeks knew as Seres — the place where serikos or silk was made — and made optimum use of the rare and expensive purple dye that was produced by the Phoenicians of Tyre from the secretions of sea snails. Yet, in the West, knowledge of silk and its trade were relatively limited. So, too, in the Far East. Sericulture was carried to Korea by Chinese immigrants in about 200 B.C.E. Though silk was extant in Japan at the turn of the millennium, sericulture was not widely known there until about the 3rd century C.E.
Conventionally, historians refer to three periods of intense Silk Road trade: 1) from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E., between the ancient Chinese Han dynasty and Central Asia, extending to Rome; 2) from about 618 to 907 C.E., between Tang dynasty China and Central Asia, Byzantium, the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid empires, the Sasanian Persian Empire, and India, and coinciding with the expansion of Islam, Buddhism, Assyrian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, and Judaism into Central Asia; and 3) during the 13th and 14th centuries, between China, Central Asia, Persia, India, and early modern Europe, made possible by Mongol control of most of the Silk Road. Some would add a modern Silk Road period, beginning in the 19th century with the “Great Game” — the competition between Russian and British colonial powers for influence over Central Asia — and extending through today.
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