From a popular luxury fabric to the Silk Road

Sericulture in the Warring States Period
Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC - AD 220)

During these seven centuries, unprecedented advances took place in sericulture technology and scale, and the importance of silk in Chinese grew significantly. The breeding of silkworms, cultivation of mulberry trees, and invention of looms in which foot operated treadles controlled the warp to allow the insertion of weft threads, as well as patterning looms in which “pre-programmed” patterns could be reproduced coalesced in the classical system of Chinese silk production.

The penetration of the Western Regions of Central Asia by Zhang Qian, beginning in BCE 139 during the reign of the Han dynasty Martial Emperor Wudi, paved the way for the trade routes that eventually connected the advanced Central Plains civilization of China with Central Asia, West Asia and Europe.

The creation of the Silk Road provided a conduit for the international commerce in silk, and stimulating the transmission, exchange and assimilation of silk production, silk technology and art across the two continents.

Silk in the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties
AD 420 - AD 589

The third through sixth centuries in China were a time of conflict and confrontation as well as cultural assimilation. Increased commercial and cultural traffic on the Silk Road between the East and the West brought about significant developments in culture, the fine arts and sciences.

Due in part to the influx of numerous Western influences, the traditional system of silk manufacture established during the Qin and Han dynasties advanced rapidly. This was a major turning point in the history of sericulture in China.

Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties Period
AD 581 - AD 960

The late sixth to late tenth centuries in China were another period of intense conflict and cultural assimilation. During this period, three major centers of silk production gradually took shape: the Yellow River (Huanghe) valley; the Sichuan basin in southwest China; and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Changjiang), the region called Jiangnan.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the string of oasis towns along the Silk Road that had been settled during the Han dynasty flourished as never before. The brisk international trade along the transcontinental route greatly stimulated cross-cultural encounters between China and Central and Western Asia.

The impact of this grand diversity was strongly felt in China. As a result, in both technological and aesthetic terms, the silk produced during this time exhibited an unprecedented hybrid East-West style.

Silk in the Liao, Song and Yuan Dynasties
AD 960 - AD 1368

The founding of the Song dynasty brought an end to the regional power struggles that prevailed during the late Tang. Due to long years of conflict and changing weather patterns, the former production of silk in the Yellow River basin decreased dramatically, while silk production in the Yangtze River delta increased.

By the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the Yangtze delta was the most important center of sericulture in China. To increase government revenues, the Song and Yuan governments practiced a policy of treating farmers and merchants equally, and encouraged overseas trade in silk.

Maritime silk roads replaced the desert silk roads, transporting silk over great distances in less time. Sericulture technology evolved on the basis of the achievements of the Sui and Tang. Once again, cultural conflict and assimilation in the Yuan dynasty saw the blending of Mongol, Islamic and traditional Chinese elements.

Silk in the Ming and Qing dynasties
AD 1368 - AD 1912

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the silk industry reached a zenith, with private workshops rather than state workshops accounting for the majority of production. Satin, velvet and brocaded silk with discontinuous supplementary wefts broadened the repertory of weave types, and auspicious motifs auguring good fortune, long life and large families predominated.

With the marked expansion of the sea trade between China and the West, unprecedented quantities of Chinese silk were shipped to Europe and the Americas, inspiring the widespread taste for Chinoiserie in the 18th century.

Dragon robe, kesi tapestry on purple ground.

Dark-red Brocaded Satin Mang Dragon Robe with Cloud Pattern

Credits: Story

China National Silk Museum

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