MIL-OSI China: Unraveling the historical origins of ancient Chinese silk

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Source: China State Council Information Office 3

The ongoing Silk Road culture exhibition held in Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, has captivated visitors with a collection of artifacts that tell the story of how silk became a key international trade commodity, tracing its journey back to the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC-25 AD) about 2,000 years ago.

The Jinsha Site Museum showcases silk artifacts, a replica of a Han Dynasty loom, and ancient silk-woven texts excavated from various sites along the Silk Road. This captivating collection has sparked visitors’ curiosity about the early mastery of silkworm domestication, silk utilization, and the creation of vibrant brocades by the Chinese.

Centuries ago, civilizations around the globe developed distinct textile traditions. While silk, wool, cotton, and linen are all nature’s gifts, silk stands out as a unique Chinese innovation that spread globally via the Silk Road.

“Chinese silk has a 5,000-year history, characterized by its origins, evolution, dissemination, and exchange,” explained Zhou Yang, deputy director of the China National Silk Museum.

Chinese silk not only is crafted through ingenious technological inventions but also embodies profound philosophical ideologies, reflecting the Chinese interpretation of life, death, and the harmony between humans and nature, Zhou noted.

The transformative life cycle of a silkworm, with its four distinct stages, inspired ancient Chinese thinkers to ponder profound cosmic and existential questions. Historical records reveal that silk played a vital role in ancient Chinese rituals, symbolizing the connection between heaven and earth.

While historical records serve as valuable references, recent archaeological discoveries have provided tangible evidence of early silk production in China, predating the Silk Road by millennia, as Zhou pointed out.

Although limited archaeological finds directly related to the early origins of silk in China, due to the decomposition of most ancient silk into residue or microtraces, recent technological advancements have shed light on these ancient origins.

Over the past decade, with support from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China and various research institutions, the China National Silk Museum has developed an affordable and convenient silk micro trace detection technology based on immunology. This breakthrough enables the detection of ancient silk traces within approximately 15 minutes.

Utilizing this technology, Chinese experts have discovered significant amounts of silk in the ash of sacrificial pits at the Sanxingdui Ruins, marking the earliest silk found in the upper Yangtze River region. The technology has also been effectively applied to the South China Sea No. 1 shipwreck site, challenging the notion that maritime Silk Road sites lacked silk and providing new archaeological evidence for World Heritage applications.

“We are continuously refining our silk microtrace detection technology, enhancing its sensitivity. Now we can confidently state that if silk was present, we can detect its traces,” Zhou said.

Looking forward, Zhou plans to collaborate closely with archaeologists, applying this technology to prehistoric sites to further expand the temporal and spatial boundaries of silk’s origins. 

MIL OSI China News