Legend has it that it was the Leizu, wife of the Yellow Emperor,
ruler of China in about 3000 BC, who discovered silkworms and
subsequently invented the silk reel and the silk (which was the main
products for ancient Silk Road, now mainly for Silk Road tour)loom.
One account of the story goes that as she was taking a walk in her
husband's gardens, she discovered that silkworms were responsible for
the destruction of several mulberry trees.
She collected several cocoons and sat down to have a rest. It just so
happened that while she was sipping some tea, one of the cocoons that
she had collected fell into the hot tea and started to unravel into a
fine thread. Hsi Ling Shih found that she could reel this thread
around her fingers. Subsequently, she persuaded her husband to allow
her to rear silkworms on a grove of mulberry trees, and using the silk
reel, an invention of hers, to draw the fibers from the cocoon into a
single thread so that they would be strong enough to be weaved into
silk. While it is unknown just how much of this is truth or myth, it
is certainly true that silk cultivation has existed in China for a
very long time.
Originally, silk worm farming was solely
restricted to women and it was the women who were responsible for the
growing, harvesting and weaving. Silk quickly grew into a symbol of
status, and originally, only members of the royal family were entitled
to wear silk. The rules were gradually relaxed over the years until
finally during the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911 get more about Qing Dynasty
via China tour guide), even peasants, the lowest caste, were also entitled to wear silk.
Sometime during the Han Dynasty(206 BC-220 AD), silk became so valuable that
it was also used as a unit of currency. Government officals were paid
their salary in bolts of silk and farmers paid their taxes in grain
and silk. Silk was also used as diplomatic gifts by the Emperor. From
198 BC to 135 BC, periodic gifts of silk, along with rice and liquor
were offered to the Xiongnu in exchange for peace.
Silk has historically been used for a number of purposes. Fishing lines,
bowstrings, musical instruments and paper were all made using silk.
The earliest indication of silk paper being used was found in the tomb
of a noble who is estimated to have died around 168 AD.
Silk was a closely guarded secret by the Chinese and for hundreds of
years, China was the sole producer of silk. However, in 440 AD, a
Chinese princess who had been sent off to marry a Khotan prince
managed to smuggle silkworm eggs out of China by hiding them in her
hairpiece. However, Khotan also kept the secret to themselves, and so
it was that up until 550 AD that China, although no longer the sole
producer of silk, still managed to mainatin a near monopoly on the
market for their silk products. It was exported to the west along Silk
Road with starting poing, Chang'an (now Xian where you can have Xian tour)
In 550 AD, two monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of China hidden in their
hollow bamboo staves. Subsequently the West began cultivating their
own silk. While China would continue to maintain dominance in luxury
silk items market for a long time, eventually it would lose it's hold
during the 11th century with the sudden boom of the silk industry in
A Short History of Silk in China