Tuesday, July 31, 2012

History of Silk: Part II

      In China, silk worm farming was originally restricted to women, and many women were employed in the silk-making industry. Even though some saw the development of a luxury product as useless, silk provoked such a craze among high society that the rules in the Li Ji were used to regulate and limit its use to the members of the imperial family. For approximately a millennium, the right to wear silk was reserved for the emperor and the highest dignitaries. Later, it gradually extended to other classes of Chinese society. Silk began to be used for decorative means and also in less luxurious ways: musical instruments, fishing, and bow-making. Peasants did not have the right to wear silk until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).
      Paper was one of the greatest discoveries of ancient China. Beginning in the 3rd century BCE paper was made in all sizes with various materials. Silk was no exception, and silk workers had been making paper since the 2nd century BCE. Silk, bamboo, linen, wheat and rice straw were all used differently, and paper made with silk became the first type of luxury paper. Researchers have found an early example of writing done on silk paper in the tomb of a Marchioness who died around 168, in Mawangdui, Hunan. The material was certainly more expensive, but also more practical than bamboo. Treatises on many subjects, including meteorology, medicine, astrology, divinity, and even maps written on silk have been discovered.
      During the Han Dynasty, silk became progressively more valuable in its own right, and became more than simply a material. It was used to pay government officials and compensate citizens who were particularly worthy. By the same token that one would sometimes estimate the price of products according to a certain weight of gold, the length of the silk cloth became a monetary standard in China (in addition to bronze coins). The wealth that silk brought to China stirred up envy in neighbouring peoples. Beginning in the 2nd century BCE the Xiongnu, regularly pillaged the provinces of the Han Chinese for around 250 years. Silk was a common offering by the emperor to these tribes in exchange for peace.

       ". . . the military payrolls tell us that soldiers were paid in bundles of plain silk textiles, which circulated as currency in Han times. Soldiers may well have traded their silk with the nomads who came to the gates of the Great Wall to sell horses and furs."

       For more than a millennium, silk remained the principal diplomatic gift of the emperor of China to his neighbours or to his vassals. The use of silk became so important that "silk" (糸) soon constituted one of the principal radicals of Chinese script.
      Broadly speaking, the use of silk was regulated by a very precise code in China. For example, the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty imposed upon bureaucrats the use of a particular color according to their different functions in society. Under the Ming, silk began to be used in a series of accessories: handkerchiefs, wallets, belts, or even an embroidered piece of fabric displaying dozens of animals, real or mythical. These fashion accessories remained associated with a particular position: there was a specific bonnet for warriors, for judges, for nobles, and others for religious use. The women of high Chinese society heeded codified practices and used silk in their garments to which they added countless motifs.
The main silk roads between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D.
      A number of archaeological discoveries showed that silk had become a luxury material appreciated in foreign countries well before the opening of the Silk Road by the Chinese. For example, silk has been found in the Valley of the Kings in a tomb of a mummy dating from 1070 BCE. First the Greeks, then the Romans began to speak of the Seres (people of silk), a term to designate the inhabitants of the far-off kingdom, China. According to certain historians, the first Roman contact with silk was that of the legions of the governor of Syria, Crassus. At the Battle of Carrhae, near to the Euphrates, the legions were said to be so surprised by the brilliance of the banners of Parthia that they fled.
       The silk road toward the west was opened by the Chinese in the 2nd century CE. The main road left from Xi'an, going either to the north or south of the Taklamakan desert, one of the most arid in the world, before crossing the Pamir Mountains. The caravans that employed this method to exchange silk with other merchants were generally quite large, including from 100 to 500 people as well as camels and yaks carrying around 140 kg (300 lb) of merchandise. They linked to Antioch and the coasts of the Mediterranean, about one year's travel from Xi'an. In the South, a second route went by Yemen, Burma, and India before rejoining the northern route.
      Not long after the conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE regular commerce began between the Romans and Asia, marked by the Roman appetite for silk cloth coming from the Far East, which was then resold to the Romans by the Parthians. The Roman Senate tried in vain to prohibit the wearing of silk, for economic reasons as well as moral ones. The import of Chinese silk resulted in vast amounts of gold leaving Rome, to such an extent that silk clothing was perceived as a sign of decadence and immorality.

      "I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes. ... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."

The craftsmanship of Nanjing Ynjin brocade can replicate ancient silk relics.

      Although silk was well known in Europe and most of Asia, China was able to keep a near monopoly on silk production. The monopoly was defended by an imperial decree, condemning to death anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs. Only around the year 300 CE did a Japanese expedition succeed in taking some silkworm eggs and four young Chinese girls, who were forced to teach their captors the art of sericulture. Techniques of sericulture were subsequently introduced to Japan on a larger scale by frequent diplomatic exchanges between the 8th century and 9th centuries. 
       Starting in the 4th century BCE silk began to reach the West by merchants who would exchange it for gold, ivory, horses or precious stones. Up to the frontiers of the Roman Empire, silk became a monetary standard for estimating the value of different products. Hellenistic Greece appreciated the high quality of the Chinese goods and made efforts to plant mulberry trees and breed silkworms in the Mediterranean basin. Sassanid Persia controlled the trade of silk destined for Europe and Byzantium.
       According to story by Procopius, it was not until 552 CE that the Byzantine emperor Justinian obtained the first silkworm eggs. He had sent two Nestorian monks to Central Asia, and they were able to smuggle silkworm eggs to him hidden in rods of bamboo. While under the monks' care, the eggs hatched, though they did not cocoon before arrival. The Byzantine church was thus able to make fabrics for the emperor, with the intention of developing a large silk industry in the Eastern Roman Empire, using techniques learned from the Sassanids. These gynecia had a legal monopoly on the fabric, but the empire continued to import silk from other major urban centers on the Mediterranean. The magnificence of the Byzantine techniques was not a result of the manufacturing process, but instead of the meticulous attention paid to the execution and decorations. The weaving techniques they used were taken from Egypt. The first diagrams of sample looms appeared in the 5th century.
      The Arabs, with their widening conquests, spread sericulture across the shores of the Mediterranean. Included in these were Africa, Spain and Sicily, all of which developed an important silk industry. The mutual interactions among Byzantine and Muslim silk-weaving centers of all levels of quality, with imitations made in Andalusia and Lucca, among other cities, have made the identification and date of rare surviving examples difficult to pinpoint.
      While the Chinese lost their monopoly on silk production, they were able re-established themselves as major silk supplier (during the Tang dynasty) and industrialize their production in a large scale (during the Song dynasty). China continued to export high-quality fabric to Europe and the Near East along the silk road. 
       Much later, following the Crusades, techniques of silk production began to spread across Western Europe. In 1147 while Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos was focusing all his efforts on the Second Crusade, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily attacked Corinth and Thebes, two important centres of Byzantine silk production. They took the crops and silk production infrastructure, and deported all the workers to Palermo, thereby causing the Norman silk industry to flourish. The sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 brought decline to the city and its silk industry, and many artisans left the city in the early 13th century. Italy developed a large domestic silk industry after 2000 skilled weavers came from Constantinople. Many also chose to settle in Avignon to furnish the popes of Avignon. 
      The sudden boom of the silk industry in the Italian state of Lucca, starting in the 11th and 12th centuries was due to much Sicilian, Jewish, and Greek settlement, alongside many other immigrants from neighboring cities in southern Italy. With the loss of many Italian trading posts in the Orient, the import of Chinese styles drastically declined. Gaining momentum, in order to satisfy the rich and powerful bourgeoisie's demands for luxury fabrics, the cities of Lucca, Genoa, Venice and Florence were soon exporting silk to all of Europe. In 1472 there were 84 workshops and at least 7000 craftsmen in Florence alone. Reciprocal influences

History of Silk: Part I
History of Silk: Part III

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