From a popular luxury fabric to the Silk Road
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 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 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.
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.
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.
China National Silk Museum