Rise and Fall of Chinese Silk Trade

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 97-100:

Not long after the time of Christ, the straitlaced Roman philosopher-orator Seneca voiced a frequently heard denunciation: “I see silken clothes, if one can call them clothes at all, that in no degree afford protection either to the body or the modesty of the wearer, and clad in which no woman could honestly swear she is not naked.” If salt was China’s premier domestic product, silk was China’s first international trade commodity. This remarkable textile gave its name not only to the route (the Silk Road) across which it was traded to the Near East and the Mediterranean but also to the Latin name for China (Seres or Serica). Silk was an ideal product for long-distance trade: high in value but low in bulk and weight, and not subject to deterioration in transit.

Before the time of Christ, high quality silk fabrics had made their way westward in sufficient quantities to motivate some of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and then, as we have seen, to become the subject of denunciation in Rome for their extravagance and for their sheerness. Large amounts of silk fabric were periodically exported to the rough nomadic peoples living north of China, as part of the price paid for peace along the Great Wall. From China, the technique spread to Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan. India probably learned the technology at about the same time. Finally, around A.D. 550, Bombyx mori eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in hollow canes carried by certain Indian monks who had lived for a long time in the Central Asian oasis city-states on the Silk Road. But the mere possession of eggs did not assure the successful development of sericulture.

Silk has always been an elite product, amounting to less than 1 percent of cotton and 3 percent of wool production in the twentieth century. In world trade, it reached its peak in about 1920, when its major use was for women’s silk hosiery—perhaps the only mass use of silk in its history. Thereafter, artificial fibres—rayon, nylon, orlon, etc.—were developed and replaced silk in many of its previous uses. Although silk technology was developed in China, by the mid-1930s Japan was the dominant Asian and world producer, partly because of aggressive adoption of the best production methods, especially quality control, and partly because Chinese production was seriously disrupted by unrest, revolution, and Japanese invasion.

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Filed under Central Asia, China, industry, Japan, Korea, Mediterranean, Middle East, South Asia

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