The Legend of Leizu and the Origins of Luxurious Chinese Silk
Leizu (嫘祖), known also as Lady Hsi Ling Shih (西陵氏) is a legendary figure in Chinese history credited with the discovery of silk and the invention of the silk loom. Silk is undoubtedly one of the most important inventions of ancient China, and has contributed greatly to its wealth and prosperity. It is well-known that silk, along with other luxurious trade goods, was exported from China to faraway lands (most notable example, perhaps, is the Roman Empire) via the Silk Road. As the trade in silk brought the ancient Chinese much revenue, they were determined to keep this knowledge to themselves.
The Secret of Silk Production
Although silk production was kept as a ‘state secret’, and monopolized by the ancient Chinese for a very long time, this knowledge eventually leaked out of China. For instance, sericulture (silk farming) reached the Korean peninsula around 200 BC, when waves of Chinese immigrants settled there.
It would take several more centuries, however, for sericulture to travel to the west. In India, for example, silk farming is reported to have been established shortly after 300 AD. One of the most famous stories about the smuggling of this highly-prized knowledge out of China can be found in Procopius’ History of the Wars.
Women preparing silk, painting by Emperor Huizong of Song, early 12th century. (Public Domain)
Justinian Silk Production
According to this tale, the Emperor Justinian was once visited by certain monks from India. These monks promised Justinian that they would provide him with the raw materials needed to produce silk, hence ending the empire’s dependence on the Persians (who were the enemies of the Byzantines) for the acquisition of this luxury item. The monks fulfilled their promise by returning to ‘Serinda’ (an area to the north of India said to be China), and brought the smuggled eggs of the silkworm, which were covered in dung and kept warm, back to the emperor.
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Emperor Justinian. (Public Domain)
Whilst the Byzantines learned the secret of silk-making around the 6th century AD, assuming that Procopius’ story is true, the Chinese have been producing this type of fabric for centuries. According to the archaeological evidence, silk was produced in China at least as early as the Longshan period (3500 – 2000 BC), and that the silkmoth, Bombyx mori, was domesticated from the wild silkmoth, Bombyx mandarina, around this time as well.
The monks sent by Justinian give the silkworms to the emperor. (Public Domain)
Discovery of Silk
Silk is made from the fibers produced by the silkworm (the larva of the silk moth) as it forms a cocoon for its metamorphosis into an adult. After being kept in a warm, dry place for eight or nine days, the cocoons are ready to be unwound. The pupas need to be killed first, so the cocoons are first steamed or baked. Then, the cocoons are dipped into hot water so as to loosen the tightly woven filaments, which are then unwound onto a spool. Between five and eight of these filaments are twisted together to made one thread. The silk threads can then finally be used to make cloths.
A silkworm cocoon. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain how silk production was first discovered. According to the Chinese, this discovery, like many others, was an accident, and not deliberately sought after. The central figure of this tale is Leizu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ruler of China who lived during the 3rd millennium BC.
In one account of the story, Leizu used her finger to touch a part of the silkworm cocoon, which caused a filament to come loose. She then began to wrap this filament around her finger. At the end of it, she found that it was a silkworm that made the cocoon, hence the discovery of silk.
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Sericulture (The Process of Making Silk). (Public Domain)
In another tale, Leizu is said to have found some silkworms eating the leaves of a mulberry tree and spinning cocoons. She collected some cocoons, and then proceeded to have a cup of tea. Whilst she was sipping her tea, Leizu accidentally dropped a cocoon into the cup. The heat from the tea caused the cocoon’s filament to loosen, which Leizu realized could be unwound and turned into thread.
Incidentally, the discovery of tea, which is attributed to Shennong, the Yellow Emperor’s predecessor, occurred in a similar manner, i.e. tea leaves (from tea twigs he was burning) dropped into his cauldron of boiling water.
A mature mulberry tree in Provence. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Leizu then persuaded the Yellow Emperor to provide her with a grove of mulberry trees so that she could domesticate the silkworm. Apart from this discovery, Leizu is also credited for the invention of the silk reel, a device that joined the silk filaments into a thread, as well as the silk loom, which was used to weave the silk threads into cloths.
Whether Leizu had a real role in the story of Chinese silk or not, the luxurious fabric certainly made her homeland very well-known.
Featured image: A painting depicting women inspecting silk, early 12th century, ink and color on silk, by Emperor Huizong of Song. Photo source: Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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