Production of Silk in China

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    The Legend of Leizu

    • According to legend, silk production was invented by Leizu, wife of the mythological Yellow Empire, in the 27th century B.C.E., when she supposedly invented the first silk reel and silk loom after stumbling upon silkworms her husband's mulberry tree grove. According to Cultural China, some accounts of the story have Leizu discovering a silk cocoon after watching a silkworm unravel a strand of silk around her finger, while other tellings have Leizu dropping a cocoon into the river to discover that a long strand unraveled itself.

    Earliest Evidence

    • Archaeological evidence of silk weaving in China dates back to the fifth millennium B.C.E.; a silkworm cocoon dating 5,600 to 6,000 years ago, and the earliest loom discovered dates back to 4,900 B.C.E. according to Gerard C. C. Tsang, Chief Curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. "It is certain that 5,000 years ago, silk was used to produce garments," explains Tsang.

    Early Silk Trade

    • Although silk remained an exclusively Chinese textile for thousands of years, it eventually seeped out of the country via trade. Strands of silk were discovered in an Egyptian mummy dated 1070 B.C.E., and by 200 B.C.E., silk farming had spread into Korea. Within China, silk became a standard of exchange during the Han Dynasty and when peasants began being taxed in silk as government salaries were paid in silk. The Silk Road opened in the second century B.C.E., and the precious fabric became a high-sought commodity in western markets.

    Silk as Currency

    • During the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 C.E.) silk began to be used in the minting of paper money, and became institutionalized during the Song Dynasty. Originally, the silk money began as "flying money", which took the form of certificates that were redeemable for hard currency. In 1154 the Song Dynasty established the Bureau of Paper Currency in Kaifeng, issuing strings of currency that were each worth a certain amount of coins.

    Silk Production Today

    • By the 15th century, silk production was established in Europe and China's monopoly on the trade was gone forever. In the 21st century, China is still the largest producer of silk, with an output value of 10.88 billion dollars in 2003 that supplied over 80 percent of the world's silk.

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