Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Chinese Invented It: Silk - History and Legends

Photo Credit: HansenX
Thousands of years ago, the empress Lei Zu was drinking hot tea in a garden of mulberry bushes, when a cocoon fell into her bowl. When she tried to fish it out with her hands, she found it unraveled into an unending string. She was then inspired to weave the thread into fabric and raise silkworms for their cocoons. 

Or so the legend goes. 

No one is certain of who discovered the process of making silk (known as sericulture), but the empress Lei Zu is known as the Goddess of Silkworms in China, and was worshiped for thousands of years. In fact, the old tradition of honoring her is still kept in certain parts of China.

We do know that silk has been made for nearly 5000 years, and was a vigilantly kept secret in China for thousands of years. In fact, revealing the secrets of silk making by smuggling silkworms, their eggs or cocoons was punishable by death. The fabric itself was used for trade through a series of trade routes known as the Silk Road, introducing it to various countries. Eventually, the secret did become known, and one legend tells of a young princess smuggling silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds in her hair when married off to a foreign prince. 

As well as for clothing, silk was used in a number of ways, including as scrolls for artwork and writing on, fans, kites and toys. Over time, laws passed that only emperors and nobles could wear clothing made of silk. Peasants were not allowed to wear silk until the Ching dynasty (1644-1911 AD)

Silk was so valuable that customs were developed to ensure silkworms were healthy and spun strong silk. It was believed that loud noises would affect the growth of silkworms, and certain smells would affect the quality of silk. 

We read the following books to learn about silk, and enjoyed them all.

Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China by Deborah Noyes.

This is a beautifully illustrated telling of the legend of how a princess, being sent away to a distant land to marry a king, brings a piece of China with her: the secret of silk by smuggling silkworms in her hair. 
This story is told with poetic, repetitive text, and winsome illustrations. Both of the girls enjoyed this story, and its setting in ancient, imperial China led to light hearted discussions of imperial fashions, concubines, and courtyard homes. 

The Silk Princess (Picture Book)  by Charles Santore

A beautifully illustrated retelling of the legend of how silk making was discovered. The author notes that he took liberties with the story adding the empress' daughter and her adventure leading to the discovery of silk making. 

The Biography of Silk (How Did That Get Here?) by Carrie Gleason.

This great informative book about silk, with lots of colorful photographs, is written in sections, making it easy to read it when the interest is there. It describes the life cycle of a silkworm/moth; the process of making silk; the history of silk from ancient China, Europe and America; the Silk Road; the uses of silk; the top producers and consumers of silk; the future of silk; and the issue of child workers in silk production, past and present. Again, this was a great book.

Dragons of Silk (Golden Mountain Chronicles) by Laurence Yep.

This is a historical fiction book, and part of the Gold Mountain chronicles (which we haven't read). It is a multi-generational story spanning the years of 1835-2011, with strong female characters. Love, family, Chinese lore, sacrifice, and immigration to America are strong themes throughout, woven together by silk, and the silk industry in China. This was a wonderful book, though we now wish we had read the previous installments in the series as the stories and their characters are connected. 

In learning about silk, we learned the process of making silk, made silk calligraphy scrolls, and even tried raising our own silkworms

Find more creative ideas to explore world cultures at the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop
I've linked up this post to this great blog hop of reviews and activities for Children's books the Kid Lit Blog Hop & Booknificent
Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library,I've made it easy by linking book titles to Amazon.com. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website
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  1. I always thought that the princess was rather treacherous for taking this secret with her :) We listened to the legend of silk discovery in the Story of the World - it actually sounds quite believable :)

    1. I know what you mean! Especially when you read about the politics and subterfuge within the imperial palaces, it does seem believable, and not at all innocent.

  2. I love all the books you choose. I wish I had known about them all when we did China.

    1. My book choices are highly dependent on what our library has! We were pretty happy with these.

  3. This is a wonderful resource for when we study China! I'll be bookmarking this. Thanks so much for sharing at Booknificent Thursday!

  4. Wow, I did NOT know this much about silk! Thank you so much for educating those of us in the KLBH ;)

    1. I was surprised at how interesting I found this to be - it's amazing, the history behind things we might take for granted. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. So interesting!! We will have to check out some of these books.

    1. These are great books, I'm sure you and your daughter would enjoy them.


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