The Story of Silk

From a popular luxury fabric to the Silk Road

By China National Silk Museum

Jin silk with confronting dragon and Phoenix motifsChina National Silk Museum

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.

Jin-silk with Standing Birds and Continuous Cloud PatternChina National Silk Museum

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.

Jin-silk with Woven Characters Meaning “Longevity and Blessing for Offspring”China National Silk Museum

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.

Jin-silk with Bead and Tree PatternChina National Silk Museum

Silk in the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties

AD 420 - AD 589

Tie-dyed Juan BlouseChina National Silk Museum

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.

Sleeve Fragment with Embroidered Figures and FlowersChina National Silk Museum

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.

Jin-silk Pillow Case with Woven Characters Meaning “Emperor’s Travel”China National Silk Museum

Jin-silk Hat with Flowering Trees and Confronted Deer in Beaded Floral FanChina National Silk Museum

Sui, Tang and Five Dynasties Period

AD 581 - AD 960

Qi Robe with Figures and Birds in Ear-shaped Cloud RoundelsChina National Silk Museum

Kesi AccessoryChina National Silk Museum

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.

Board-dyed Gauze with Embroidered Floral PatternChina National Silk Museum

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.

Red-foundation Jin-silk with Necklace-biting Turkeys in Petalled Floral MedallionsChina National Silk Museum

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.

Jin-silk with Confronted Goats in Beaded Floral MedallionsChina National Silk Museum

Jin-silk with Gold Da Zi Themed on Autumn MountainsChina National Silk Museum

Silk in the Liao, Song and Yuan Dynasties

AD 960 - AD 1368

Embroidered leather pouch with twill damask and samite borderChina National Silk Museum

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.

Silk tabby sash with samite panelChina National Silk Museum

Embroidery with Lotus Pond and Paired GeeseChina National Silk Museum

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.

Luo gauze unlined jacketChina National Silk Museum

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.

Manchu robe with embroidered floral motifsChina National Silk Museum

Silk in the Ming and Qing dynasties

AD 1368 - AD 1912

White-foundation Satin Bedspread with Embroidered Birds and Intertwining VinesChina National Silk Museum

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.

Red-ground Satin Bedspread with Embroidered Birds and Intertwining VinesChina National Silk Museum

Dragon robe, kesi tapestry on purple groundChina National Silk Museum

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 PatternChina National Silk Museum

Dark-red Brocaded Satin Mang Dragon Robe with Cloud Pattern

Credits: Story

China National Silk Museum

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