- 4.1 Domesticated Silkworm Breeding and Wild Silk Production: The Song-Yuan Period
- 4.2 State Interference and Change: Sericulture in the Late Ming and Early Qing Period
- 4.3 Technical Developments in Moriculture
- 4.4 The Wild Silk Industry: Individual and Imperial Campaigns
- 4.5 From Wild Forests to Planned Wild Forest Plantations for Sericulture
- 4.6 Conclusion
During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) a combination of agricultural policy carried out by the throne and technical progress led to the concentration of sericulture in particular regions such as the Lower-Yangzi Delta, the Red Basin (or Sichuan Basin), the Pearl River Delta and the Lower-Yellow-River Delta.1 By the late Ming dynasty, this concentration was particularly pronounced in the lower-Yangzi Delta, as the silk produced here was indispensable for the making of refined silk goods. One century later, the state began to take an interest in wild silk production and Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799, r. 1735–95) even officially promoted its production in 1744. These developments occurred against the background of fiscal reforms and a flourishing maritime trade.
The history of the Chinese silk industry in these areas has long interested modern historians. Many consider that sericulture centralized in these particular regions because it complemented the expansion of cotton, which had been introduced into the region of Jiangnan around the mid-thirteenth century during the late Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). Sericulture was arduous, risky, and more technically demanding than cotton culture, but market demands for raw silk and silk products rose incessantly throughout the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) eras. Due to technical progress in sericulture, productivity increased and thus prices for raw silk fell.2 Soon after 1684, when maritime trade was re-opened, domestic silk prices skyrocketed. By the mid-eighteenth century the Imperial Weaving Manufactures whose prices were regulated by the Imperial Instructions were hit by a dramatic rise in the price of their raw materials.3 Demographic shifts and a lack of cultivable land lead to Qing official interest in wild silkworm pasturing, that is, a practice whereby natural forests were used to grow wild silkworms (from here on abbreviated as “wild pasturing”).
In the second half of the twentieth century, the “golden age” of studies on the history of the Chinese silk industry, few scholars dealt with sericulture and even fewer with technical progress during the Ming-Qing period. Dieter Kuhn, like many others, took the technical achievement of the Song-Yuan period to be the model for later eras, assuming that Ming-Qing era silk workers did not add any major improvements of their own. This paper focuses on the technical revolution in sericulture during the late Ming and early Qing period. Emphasizing regional variations and delineating technical evolution in mulberry plantations, silkworm breeding and silk reeling as well as broadening the view to include wild pasturing, provides new insights into the evolution of Chinese silk production after the sixteenth century.4
4.1 Domesticated Silkworm Breeding and Wild Silk Production: The Song-Yuan Period
Several species of caterpillar from the Bombycidae and Antherea
families produce silk viable for textile manufacture. Whilst elite
writing singled out the Bombyx mori (named
formally household silkworms, jiacan
The introduction of advanced sericultural know-how and of a
species of mulberry from Shandong—known in Chinese literature as the
Lu-mulberry tree (Lu sang
The climate of the lower Yangzi Delta was humid and warm and the
region also experienced annual flooding which deposited silt on the
soil, effectively fertilizing the land. With the fall of the
northern capital Kaifeng and the retreat of the Huai River to the
south, the Song government had to invest in draining swamps and
building dikes in order to create new rice fields to feed the
population. Chen Fu
The Essential Treaties on Agriculture and
Sericulture (Nong sang jiyao
Chen Fu was an atypical handbook author who, in his attempts to
spread advanced agricultural and sericultural knowledge, wrote down
his own personal experience and developed guidelines for farmland
management appropriate to Southern China, mulberry cultivation and
silkworm breeding.14 In contrast, most literati provided instructions by
gathering existing documents, together with information from
experienced farmers and their own observations. The Essential Treaties represented the later format:
it gave advice on quality of leaves, frequency and timing silkworm
feeding and passed on knowledge on cultivation and fertilization.
From these sources we know that farmers believed that feeding
caterpillars abundantly during the last stage before pupation
increased both the quality and quantity of silk thread. The
guidelines also suggest that lady silkworm farmers (canmu
White coloration suggests they are starting to eat; those with a blue color need to be abundantly fed; those with a wrinkled skin are hungry; stop feeding those that start turning yellow little by little.15
By the early fourteenth century, sericulture farmers in Jiangnan
grasped that moving silkworms during the moulting stages could
inflict injuries. As healthy silkworms quickly clamber onto fresh
leaves, Wang Zhen 王禎 recommended using a silkworm net (canwang
Fig. 4.1: Drawing of a silkworm net (canwang
The Essential Treaties says nothing about mulberry feeding quantities, preferring to stipulate the spatial requirements for caterpillars at different stages:
[…] place three ounces (circa 120 g) of new-born silkworms on a basket. When they reach the age for cocooning, divide them into thirty baskets. One ounce of new-born caterpillars requires ten baskets of silkworms for cocooning. The basket is one zhang (circa 300 cm) in length and seven feet wide (circa 210 cm).17
Fig. 4.2: Silk farmer placing mulberry leaves on silkworm net, Haining
4.2 State Interference and Change: Sericulture in the Late Ming and Early Qing Period
Upon his accession to the throne in 1368, Emperor Taizu, Zhu
People with land of between five to ten mu must cultivate half a mu (ca. 600 m2) each with mulberry trees, hemp,19 and cotton plants. Owners of more than ten mu have to double this number. The levy for hemp land is eight ounces per mu; four ounces per mu for cotton land. Mulberry cultivation will be taxed from the fourth year [of plantation]. Not cultivating mulberry trees has to be compensated with a piece of plain tabby; not planting hemp or cotton costs one piece of hemp and cotton cloth each.20
Cotton cultivation was thus integrated into the agricultural policy by imperial edict. In 1381, Emperor Taizu restricted merchant families to wearing cotton and hemp attire, whilst allowing peasant families to wear silk gowns in an attempt to boost agriculture.21 In 1394, the Ministry of Public Work once again encouraged mulberry and jujube cultivation alongside cotton and hemp.22
Alongside the state’s vigorous promotion of silk, a flourishing trade also positively influenced sericulture. The inhabitants of prefectures of Jiaxing, Hangzhou, and Huzhou specialized in sericulture. By the Jiajing (1522–66) period, “the soil was available for mulberry trees” at Shimen (modern Zhejiang province) and “cocoon silk was marketed and merchants came from all over the world on the fifth lunar month of every year to purchase silk. They accumulated gold like stones.”23 An increasing number of people dressed in silk. Emperor Chongzhen (1627–44) disliked luxuary clothing. Mandarins in Court thus dressed in wild silk instead of the refined silk produced by Bombyx, and that provoked a craze for wild silk.24
Another important influence was an increase in global trade. European merchants, but also Japanese and South Asian traders, flocked to Ming ports through the newly opened maritime trade or inland trade routes.25 Foreign trade built on existing structures and stimulated the established private silk weaving workshops around maritime ports. In Quanzhou the Ming had already established state-owned Regional Weaving Manufactures (1438).26 Nevertheless, it is important to note that, even though generations of officials had tried to promote sericulture, the silk produced in these regions was inferior in quality and quantity and weavers had to import raw silk from Zhejiang province.27
Since the foundation of the Ming, prefectures in the Jiangnan
region had borne the heaviest fiscal weight in the empire,28 because of the occupation by Zhang Shicheng
In the early Qing period, Yan Kaishu
Such innovations included new breeds of silkworms and new
techniques. Farmers in the Jiangnan region bred older silkworms
directly on the ground—the “silkworm farm on earth” (dican
Fig. 4.3: Silkworm breeding on earth, dican
4.3 Technical Developments in Moriculture
The Ming-Qing dynasties developed and spread the techniques of
growing dwarf mulberry trees which facilitated leaf picking and
favored leaf growing: moriculture became a proto-specialized
activity. By comparison in the sixth century, Jia Sixie
In the Huzhou region, two main types of dwarf trees emerged: a
“fist” shaped tree (quansang
Fig. 4.4: Guide to pruning mulberry trees at various stages of growth
(r. to l.). Quansang
By the Ming–Qing period, Huzhou silk farmers had succeeded in
cultivating high quality mulberry trees (Hu
The Zhejiang gazetteer identifies Hu as
actually a breed of the Jing mulberry,37 whereas the Qing literati, Bao Shichen
Because the mulberry tree prefers loosened soil, the cultivation must be times four and the depth more than one foot. As the mulberry prefers fertilizer, heap silkworm litter as well as bean dregs and compost made of manure and straw [around the roots]. Since mulberry hates gravel and weedy land, mulberry must be planted on plain and perfectly weeded ground. Because they [farmers] know how to prepare the soil according to the nature of mulberry tree, the latter produces many big and thick leaves.38
Compared to the Song-Yuan period, materials for fertilizing had multiplied by the late Ming era:
Heap fertilizer around a mulberry root, use excrement, silkworm litter, ash from rice straw, mud from gutters or ponds and fertile earth. Use algae, or cotton seeds as heap fertilizer at the beginning of the culture.39
Mud from riverbeds was highly valued as a free and abundant fertilizer: “if a mulberry tree is not flourishing, it lacks river mud.”40 The practice also ensured the regular clearing of sediment.41 However, many Qing authors said to “stop fertilizing the mulberry tree at least half a month before leaf-picking” and not to feed silkworms with leaves picked from recently fertilized mulberry trees, because they considered that these leaves would be harmful to silkworms.42
Advances in moriculture were hence central to increased yields
and quality of raw silk. One of the main reasons silk farmers in the
Jiangnan region were able to produce the best quality silk in the
empire, must have been the culture of Hu mulberry trees.43 Zhang Kai
4.4 The Wild Silk Industry: Individual and Imperial Campaigns
Since antiquity, Chinese historiography had hailed the appearance of wild cocoons as a good omen.45 Further development of wild silk production relied on the initiatives of farmers and the efforts of some civil officials, until Qing emperors included wild silk onto the official list of textile production encouragement, including domesticated sericulture.46
In 1738, Chen Yudian
[…] the reputation of Zunyi silk cloth [zunchou
遵紬] can finally compete in quality with refined silk goods from Wu [the region roughly equivalent to the plain of Lake Tai] and silk clothes from Shu [an abbreviation of Sichuan] for a high price. Merchants from Shaanxi and Shanxi, as well as those from Fujian and Guangdong, roll [into Zunyi] during the cocoon harvests seasons and leave with bundles of silk.51
Chen Yudian’s campaign happened to coincide with that of Chen
In 1744, following the suggestion of the provincial inspector of
Sichuan Jiang Shunlong
Chen Hongmou’s case illustrates how the central state thrived on
local efforts. When Chen, for instance, arrived at his post in
Shaanxi, local scholar, Yang Shen
In the following years, several handbooks on wild silkworm
pasturing appeared. Han Mengzhou
4.5 From Wild Forests to Planned Wild Forest Plantations for Sericulture
From the end of the 1750s on, civil officers promoting wild
pasture also started to plant suitable trees. For instance, Aertai
Due to the lack of cultivable land and the need to assure
people’s livelihood, the government considered wild silkworm
pasturing an ideal way to exploit formerly “useless” land.
Furthermore, in the early years of Daoguang Emperor’s reign
(1821–50) the administration restarted encouraging the exportation
of raw silk to balance the silver deficit in the Imperial Treasury,
thus stimulating a new rise in wild silkworm pasturing, as well as
the planting of trees for wild silkworm feeding. As well as
Shandong, Guizhou rose to prominence in this trade, as wild silk
making had been established there since the beginning of Emperor
Qianlong’s reign. In the early Daoguang era (1820-50), Chen Yudian’s
model was imitated by the judicial commissioner in Guizhou, Song
Emphasis was placed on oak silkworms in Anping, Guizhou where the
magistrate Liu Zuxian
Fig. 4.6: Farmers digging holes to store oak seeds. Liu, Zuxian
Many of these campaigns in the south were abruptly interrupted by
the Miao rebellion in late 1850s. It was not until 1870, that the
prefect of Liping, Yuan Kaidi
During the late Ming and early Qing periods, Jiangnan asserted its leading role in sericulture thanks to advanced techniques in mulberry culture, silkworm breeding, silk reeling, and soil improvement. The area featured a growing population with skilled labor and thriving foreign and domestic markets. By the late fifteenth century, farmers around Lake Tai were pursuing intensive sericulture and providing goods of outstanding quality. Increased high-quality productivity in Jiangnan put pressure on other regions where their sericulture know-how was relatively rudimentary and, freed from tax payments in silk and silk goods required by governments, Chinese farmers switched from mulberry cultivation to other crops, such as cotton, fruit trees and even the newly-introduced tobacco.
Silver inflow from Mexico via the maritime trade led to fiscal reforms generally known as the Single Whip Law, which freed people to grow the most profitable agricultural crops. At the same time, modification in clothing regulations further stimulated market demand for silk clothes but in more simplified styles. Maritime trade with European nations incited the development of sericulture in the Pearl River Delta, despite its substandard quality. Still, the demographic pressure on land was intense and wild silk pasturing thus became valued by the government. Officials attempted to capitalize on formerly “value-less” forests in order to provide textiles to clothe the people and the growing international market of wild silk. However, wild silk pasturage only took root in poor regions, such as Ningqiangzhou in Shaanxi, and Guizhou, where local people had difficulty finding more profitable activities.
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Tuojin 托津 1991, 7170–71 (juan 900, Gongbu, “Neiwufu 16,” 11b–12a) lists silk prices regulated by the central authority for raw material acquisition for the Imperial Weaving Manufactures according to different uses, including imperial families, tributary nobles and administrations. A margin was tolerated for adapting to market movements.
In his work on Textile Technology, Dieter Kuhn dealt with Chinese traditional production of textile fibres (hemp, ramie, cotton, and silk), but did not mention the artisanal industry of wild silk. Kuhn 1988.
In regions such as Bengal, wild silk, tussah, represented an important industry. See Peigler 1992.
Sinongsi 1995, 124–25 (juan 4, 5b–6b). One can read
the method for using bean flour after the third moulting on
pages 14a–b (129) of the same juan (Damian taisi
Chen 1966 juan shang, 8a-9b, “fentian zhiyi pian
Up to the introduction of French sericultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century, Chinese farmers grew silkworms in their own home. When sericulture season came round, farming families fitted out a room for the silkworms to stay in.
Zhao 1991, “Shiduji
Several sources bemoan the high tax load. In 1425, for
instance, the prefecture of Suzhou owed eight million dan of tax. Owing to the efforts of Zhou Chen
The Local Monograph of Kuaiji
Huang 1966. In the handbooks which appeared later than Canjing, such as Can sang
jiyao by Shen Bingcheng
Wu 1995, 7a–b, 279. As for Lu Xiechen
In addition to the example mentioned above, one can find
several similar cases: Fang 1986, liezhuan di 41, zhi di 19 mentioned: “in the seventh year of Taikang era (AD
286), the cocoons formed by wild silkworms at Donglai Mountain
reached forty li (ca. 4,5 km) and the
indigenous peoples collected them for reeling silk and making
The term “official list of textile production encouragement” is used in a figurative sense; When provincial or local officials encouraged textile cultures, many of them encouraged wild silk culture at the same time with domesticated sericulture.
For example, the Gazetteer of Qixia
District (Qixia xianzhi
Wang 1963, juan 6, 15b–16a, “Qianlong chao,” 203b–204a. So far I have been unable to locate the original of this booklet. However, after the distribution of the first edition by Qianlong, many local officials included either unabridged text or extracts in their local gazetteers, such as the whole text reproduced in Xu 1755 and the extracts in Luo 1758.
Hada 1970, juan 10, “Canshi
Chen 2004, juan 37,
1152. According to Yang Hongjiang
In 1755, several merchants from different European Indian
companies were busy opening up ports for maritime trade. This
led to the imprisonment in 1759 of James Flint—an agent of the
British East India Company. One can gather details of the affair
through numerous documents in English, Chinese and other
languages. Some of China’s trade affairs with the British were
published in Shiliao xunkan
The text on “Zhong Xiang” is held in
Zou 2004, juan 53, Yiwen zhi 10 and the proclamation (qing
zhongxiang yucan zhuang) in Gu 2004, juan 33, xianzheng zhi, 11a–b. Wei Yuan
Yu and Chen Yu 陳瑜 2006, vols. 17–18, juan 3 xia, 49 a–b. Wang Yuanting reproduced the passage in Wang 1995b, vol. 978, 651–52.