III. Traditions in Silk

Sericulture refers to the production of silk fibers through the domesticated farming of silkworms. Chinese legend attributes the origins of sericulture to the wife of the mythical Yellow Emperor, Lady Xiling, around 3000 BCE. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that silkworms were domesticated in China as early as 3500 BCE.

Silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves
Silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves

Silkworm (Bombyx mori) caterpillars feed exclusively on mulberry leaves (Morus) which contain a type of latex toxic to other herbivores. The silk is produced as long fibers excreted as a gel during the larval stage. These fibers create the cocoon that silkworms use when transforming into moths. To collect the silk fibers, farmers unravel the cocoons; when unwound a single cocoon can stretch from 100 to 300 meters long.

Silk as a traditional medium for writing dates back to at least the seventh century BCE, while references in the Confucian Analects and other Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE) works suggest an even earlier origin for texts written on silk. Oracle bone script on Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) turtle plastrons and ceremonial bones often include inscriptions for a core group of animals and goods, such as silk, silkworm, book and writing brush. 

Oracle bone inscriptions for Silk and Silkworm based on the work of Sinologist Herrlee G Creel