As in the case of most ancient
civilizations, China has depended on agriculture, and in particular the
production of rice, as a basic foundation of its society.
Along with food production, however, China is unique in
that it created
an agricultural industry known as sericulture which included raising
silkworms, growing the mulberry leaves needed as feed, processing the
cocoons and weaving the silk cloth.
Sericulture probably began in China during Neolithic times. A
cocoon was discovered at an archaeological site in Shanxi Province
dating to 2600 - 2300 BCE. The earliest silk remnant discovered
dates to the Shang Dynasty (circa 16th ~ 11th century BCE).
Silk was originally restricted to use only by the emperor and his
consort. Silk later because more widespread and besides being
used in textiles also became a form of currency during the Han (206 BCE
- 220 AD) and Tang (618 - 907 AD) Dynasties, and a staple of
international trade (Silk Road).
Silk played such an important role in Chinese life and history that it
came to symbolize "industry" itself.
Silk in Chinese Myth and History
The invention of silk has been
traditionally attributed to Lady Xiling (Lady Xi Ling Shi), the wife of
the legendary Yellow
黃帝), who purportedly lived from 2698 to 2598
BCE. According to Confucius,
while she was drinking a cup of tea under a mulberry tree in 2640 BCE a
silk cocoon fell into her teacup. She observed the silk threads
begin to unravel in the hot tea. She unwound the silk threads and
then used them to weave cloth.
For many centuries, China was the only place where silkworms were
cultivated and silk produced. There are inscriptions on Shang
Dynasty (circa 16th ~ 11th century BCE) oracle bones with references to
a silk spirit.
The legend regarding the Silkworm Horse Maiden (matouniang 马头娘) emerged during the
Tang Dynasty. According to a very ancient myth, there was a
father who spent his days traveling far away and left his daughter and
a white stallion at home. The girl, who took care of the horse by
feeding him mulberry leaves, lived in dismal poverty and longed for her
father's return. She told the horse that she would marry him if
he would bring her father home. The horse immediately galloped
off and eventually was able to find the father who rode the horse back
home. The daughter reluctantly admitted to her father the promise
she had made. Fearing disgrace to the family, the father killed
the horse with his bow and arrow and set the horse skin out to
dry. One day while the father was again off on his travels, the
girl was playing with the horse skin and mockingly said "you're just an
animal and you wanted a human for a wife?" The horse skin
suddenly engulfed her and whisked her away. When the father
returned, he searched for his daughter and finally found that she and
the horse had changed into a big white silkworm (with a horse-shaped
head) that was spinning silk thread in a large tree. Because the
silk was much stronger and more abundant that that of an ordinary
silkworm, this silkworm became the stock for all future silkworm
raising. To honor the girl's plight, the tree was named
"mulberry" (sang 桑) because sang (丧) also means "mourning".
(This myth also includes sexual symbolism because the word "silk" (si 丝) is a pun
for "sexual desire" (si 私).)
Illustrations and Poems of Rice and Silk Cultivation
There is an ancient artistic
China pairing rice farming and silkworm production together.
During the Southern Song Dynasty
(1127 - 1279 AD), the imperial court in 1145 AD published a series of
illustrations depicting the cultivation of rice and the rearing of
silkworms. This series is known as "Poems of Plowing and
Weaving" (Gengzhi Shi
The original set consisted of twenty-one poems with illustrations of
rice production and twenty-four poems with illustrations of raising
In 1696, Emperor Kang Xi of the Qing (Ch'ing)
Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD)
commissioned the publication of a revised version entitled
"Illustrations of Plowing and Weaving" (Gengzhi Tu 耕织图).
of twenty-three illustrations of rice cultivation and
twenty-three illustrations of silkworm raising. Each illustration
was accompanied by a poem written by Emperor Kang Xi himself.
These woodblock-printed books circulated widely and emphasized the
traditional division of labor of "men plow, women weave" where men were
responsible for rice production, and women were responsible for raising
the silkworms on mulberry
leaves, harvesting the cocoons, spinning the silk thread, and weaving
the silk cloth.
Good Luck Charm for Rice
and Silkworm Production
This is an example of an old Chinese charm pairing rice and silkworm
The inscription is read top to bottom
and right to left as tian can wan bei
(田蚕万倍) which means "may your (rice) fields and silkworms increase
The reverse side has a picture of a spotted deer.
The deer is a frequently seen
symbol on Chinese charms signifying the
hope for a long life as well as success in attaining an official
position along with the accompanying honor and wealth.
By including the deer, this charm expresses "good luck" in the major
occupations of agriculture, sericulture, industry in general, and
The charm is 27 mm in diameter and weighs 6.8 grams.