China has an exceptionally long history. It is one of the few civilizations on Earth that has a continuous culture, an ancient past, a vibrant present, and a certain future.
None of the cultural attributes, industries or thoughts of China epitomize that long history better than SILK.
Silk culture – known a sericulture – began in China many centuries back. 嫘祖, Lei Zu or Ancestor Lei, whose name was 西陵氏, Xi Lingshi, was an Empress.Not just any Empress, mind you, her husband was the Yellow Emperor, China’s legendary ancestor-hero.
One day, the young empress (she was only 14 years old at the time) was drinking tea under a mulberry tree. A cocooned silkworm fell into her cup of tea, and a long silken thread emerged from the coccon. SILK was born.
To the Chinese, ancient stories like this are part fact, part mythology, and unraveling them is like trying to unravel a scan of twisted silk. Lei Zu I known as Silkworm Mother, or Silkworm Grandmother, and is worshipped in parts of China.
A silkworm cocoon, unearthed in Shaanxi province, near the Yellow River, dates back to around 3,000 years ago – the time of the Yellow Emperor. Yet recent archeological finds date back even further. 7,000 years ago is a very long long time ago, and a cup found near the Yangzi ( Yangtze) River, with silkworm design, is said to have 7,000 years of antiquity. The same dig saw silk ribbons and threads unearthed.
Silk became an object of trade, a representation of wealth itself. By the Han dynasty, bolts of silk became a kind of currency, and payments to officials and deals between merchants were made in SILK.
Eventually, other countries came to know of this exotic material, and a global trade in silk was born. Gold, silver, spices, perfumes, ivory, rhubarb and pepper, carpets and wine were part of the term of trade. The first Silk Road commenced in Chang’an, the ancient capital in central China, now known as Xian. Han dynasty ambassadors travelled westward, bearing silk, and reached Baghdad by 97 AD, at a time when silk was valued more than gold.
The Silk Road was an ancient trade route that connected cultures and countries for centuries. From China, across deserts and mountains, to the Mediterranean Sea, the Silk Road has been estimated to have been over 4,000 miles long.
The silk trade lasted in some shape or form through succeeding dynasties, till the Tang reopened trade routes after capturing territories in Eurasia. The Tang dynasty also reopened maritime trading routes in silk.
By the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan, grandson of Chinghis ( Genghis) Khan, continued the trade as recorded by his visitor Marco Polo. After the death of Chinghis Khan, his daughters and daughter’s in-law controlled or ruled over the trade in silk.
As the Mongol empire disintegrated, and Eurasian countries no longer had smooth trading routes, Europeans began to investigate maritime routes to continue trade.
For some decades, the Silk Road has been a developing tourist route within China, with camel-back tours, caravan tours, and visits to special places, such as the Dunhuang caves with its thousands of Buddhist cave sculptures along the way.
Two years ago, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the “new Silk Road”. This new Silk Road is a vision of developing trade, friendly relations, and cultural exchanges along the route of the old Silk Road.
It is a grand vision, aimed at developing bilateral relations with many diverse countries along the silk route, including Turkey, Greece, Russia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
As part of the ambitious plan, infrastructure will be built. High speed rail and road links are being constructed, and a new bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has been foreshadowed. Trade will not be in silk – instead of a common currency, participating countries will use bilateral currency exchanges for mutual economic benefit.
2015 has seen the commencement of two major projects – a cooperative venture between China and Kazahkstan in Lianyunguan, a port in Jiangsu which will be used as a trading centre for Asian goods to be exported to the world, and a hydro-electricity project in Pakistan, in conjunction with with Asian investors including the China Three Gorges Corportation.
2015 also saw the opening of the Silk Road Tourism year, with a ceremony in Xian, the ancient capital of China, to mark the occasion.
The trade in silk, an integral part of Chinese culture for millennium, has become a metaphor for cooperative economic development between China, her surrounding countries, and other Euro-Asian countries.
The rest of the world is joining in too. New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and the Maldives are all now participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank framework.
From Empress Leizu, the Silk Grandma, to a modern economic infrastructure involving many diverse countries, SILK is inherently symbolic of China.
Silken threads weave across time and space, drawing together the ancient cultures of China into a new, modern expression.
For information about the daughters and granddaughters of Chinghis Khan, and women’s role in running state economies, see Jack Weathford’s books, particularly The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.
For a critical account of the new Silk Road strategy see Forbes magazine at
For an uptodate message of where the Silk Road vision is heading, see
Only time will tell if Forbes cynicism or Xi’s vision is how the world unfolds – or perhaps, some magnificent weaving of both, like a Suzhou silk embroidery.