Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Shadow of the Silk Road

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Shadow of the Silk Road

by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron X
Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 363 pages
    Jul 2008, 400 pages

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The Silk Road (map) starts at the western gate of old Changan in Xian which, in the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), was the greatest city in the world. The Xian municipality commissioned a red sandstone sculpture of twice life-size camels in commemoration, but the site is now engulfed by a supermarket - so the camels have been relocated to a traffic island!

Nobody in ancient times spoke of the Silk Road; the term was coined by 19th century German geographer, Friedrich von Richthofen, who termed it the seidenstrassen; and it isn't a single road either, but a "shifting fretwork of arteries and veins" stretching from Xian to the Mediterranean at Antioch, which very few traveled in full - instead, traders traveled lengths of the road "in an endless, complicated relay race, the goods growing ever costlier as they acquired the patina of rarity and farness."

Chinese silk from 1500 BC has been found in tombs in Afghanistan, strands were discovered twisted into the hair of a tenth-century BC Egyptian mummy and in a German Iron Age grave dating to about 600 BC. Of course, silk wasn't the only object traded; iron, bronze, lacquer work and ceramics were some of the products that traveled West; glass, gold, silver, spices, gems, woolen and linen fabrics and slaves traveled East. Fruits and flowers also spread along the route - orange, apricot, mulberry, peach, rhubarb, roses, camellias, peonies, azaleas and chrysanthemums traveled West; while flax, pomegranates, jasmine, dates, olives and many other vegetables and herbs traveled East.

In the mid-fifteenth century, as Central Asia splintered into Turkic and Mongol khanates, China closed its borders, but even before that traffic along the Silk Road was in decline as it became easier and cheaper (no middlemen) to transport goods by water rather than overland. After centuries of dominance, the Eastern Mediterranean port city of Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) went quiet as the countries of the North Atlantic (Spain, Portugal, Holland and England) began to roar.

The Spread of Sericulture
The Romans went crazy for silk, causing a massive outflow of gold from the Roman empire, to the point that the Senate issued edicts prohibiting the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds.

The allure of silk was enhanced because the Roman's didn't know the source of the material. Seneca the Younger and Virgil both opined that it came from trees; Pliny the Elder got closer writing, "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk."

Confucian and Chinese traditions hold that silk was discovered in the 27th century BC by the Empress Leizu, when a silk worm's cocoon fell into her cup of tea and she extracted it and began to unroll the thread. However, archaeological evidence points to silk being cultivated as far back as 5000 BC.

Sericulture was a closely guarded Chinese secret, defended by an imperial decree condemning to death anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs. However, around 300 AD, a Japanese expedition did manage to abscond with both silkworm eggs and four Chinese girls (silk worm farming was originally restricted to women) who were forced to teach their captors the techniques of sericulture. 250 years later, two monks successfully smuggled out silkworm eggs for the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and before long, silk production had spread across the Mediterranean coast, and from there to Persia.

Silk Production
Shortly after the silkworm caterpillars have made their cocoons, the cocoons are tossed into boiling water or hot ovens to kill the inhabitants and soften the cocoons. The moths are not allowed to emerge naturally as doing so breaks the silk fibers. The thread is then unraveled and the pupae become a welcome source of protein for the locals.

A few companies produce what is often referred to as "peace silk", in which the moths are allowed to emerge naturally and then the broken threads are woven like cotton, as opposed to being unspooled; the resulting silk has a coarser, thicker texture than regular silk. It's debatable whether this process is really any more humane considering that, after thousands of years of captive breeding, the Bombyx mori, better known as the silkworm, has evolved into a blind, flightless moth that cannot eat. During their short 4-5 day life, moths that emerge naturally from their coccoons mate and lay about 500 eggs before starving to death. The term "wild silk" refers to silk that comes from the various species of silk-producing wild caterpillars that are allowed to live out their full natural life cycle; wild silk tends to be darker, coarser and cannot be bleached.

One acre of mulberry trees produces enough leaves to create 178 pounds of cocoons which produces 35 pounds of raw silk. In other words, it takes about 2600 cocoons to make 1lb of silk, and about 5000 to make a sari.

This article was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the July 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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