The Story of Silk

I’ve often heard about the Silk Road, but I was curious and wanted to know more about the history of silk so I did some Google research and discovered that silk has a long history in China.

For example, in 1984, silk fabric dating back more than 5000 years was found in Henan Province.


Worker makes silk cloth from a silkworm.

According to legend, Lei Zu, the queen of China’s legendary Yellow Emperor, was drinking a cup of tea beneath a mulberry tree one day when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup. Further investigation revealed that the unraveling fibers were light and tough, ripe for spinning. Thus China’s silk industry was born.

What I didn’t know was that merchants from the Roman Empire sent ships by sea to China and traded directly with the Han Dynasty. It’s well known that China traded with India, the Persians and even Europe using a land route called the Silk Road across Asia. But this was the first time I heard of ships from Europe reaching China about two thousand years ago.

Ships from the Roman Empire first sailed to India and bought silk, which became very popular in Rome. In fact, purple silk was worth its weight in gold.

Eventually the Roman merchants set up trading posts all the way to China and reached Canton; then traded in Chang-Cheou near today’s Shanghai. – Romano-Chinese Relations

In fact, until 73 AD, the silk sea route was the only one open since the caravan routes along the Silk Road were closed at the time.

Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar (31 BC to 14 AD) earned credit for establishing trade between Rome and China.

In 166 AD, Roman travelers arrived at the Court of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 219 AD) in Chang’an near today’s Xian. These Romans met powerful representative of the Han Dynasty.

About the same time, Buddhist missionaries arrived in China by ship from India and introduced Buddhism to China.

The next paragraph may sound as if history were repeating itself between the U.S. and China.

Romans spent recklessly. Gold left Rome and flowed to the East at such a rate that the government had to restrict imports. After a long period of prosperity in Rome, the empire entered a serious economic crisis.

Rome was bankrupt from its overspending and couldn’t maintain the hundreds of thousands of troops needed to protect the empire.

In 312 AD, Constantine moved the Roman capital to Constantinople.  In 395, the Roman Empire was divided between the Western and Eastern Empires. Then the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD ushering in what’s known as the Dark Ages in Europe (5th to the 15 centuries AD).

During this same period, the Tang (618 – 907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties ushered in the golden age of China, and China was the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country on the Earth.  The long decline of imperial China’s started in the 15th century as the Renaissance was getting under way in Europe (14th – 17th centuries).

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the unique love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

A1 on March 13 - 2016 Cover Image with BLurbs to promote novel

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