Men Plow, Women Weave
Charms related to Rice and Silkworm Production
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
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
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
(This myth also includes sexual symbolism because the word
"silk" (si 丝) is a pun for "sexual desire" (si
Illustrations and Poems of Rice and Silk Cultivation
There is an ancient
artistic tradition in 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 耕织诗). The original set consisted of
twenty-one poems with illustrations of rice production and
twenty-four poems with illustrations of raising silkworms.
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). The set
consisted 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.
(To see an interesting "charm" coin cast during the reign
of Emperor Kang Xi, please see An Old Chinese Coin
with the Powers of a Charm. Please also visit
Chinese Poem Coins for charms
displaying a "poem" composed of the names of twenty (20)
coin mints from the time of Emperor Kang Xi.)
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.
Charm for Rice and Silkworm Production
This is an example of an old Chinese charm pairing rice
and silkworm production together.
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 10,000 times".
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 government 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 government.
The charm is 27 mm in diameter and weighs 6.8 grams.
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