Ciyun from a Millennium-Old Town

Feb 20, 2019


The gentle rays of dawn touch and spread across the stone bridge in the ancient town of Zhenze and the tolling bell of Ciyun Temple seems to resonate from distant times, a thousand years since, threading through the hurly-burly of the old streets, through time and space, sun and shadow, tolling out the stories of this ancient town, testifying to the brilliant achievements of Ciyun floss silk quilt over the past two decades.

The lofty Ciyun Pagoda in the Ciyun Temple, located in eastern Zhenze, was built in the Song Dynasty. The story goes that when Princess Ciyun, daughter of Song Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125), came here in flight from the war-torn north, she had this pagoda built to look northward to the lost lands of the Central Plains, as a reminder of the burning humiliation of her father being taken hostage by the Jurchen (Jin Dynasty 1115-1234) invaders. The temple was named after Princes Ciyun who prayed that her father could break free from captivity and return south. 

A thousand years later, below the Ciyun Pagoda, another woman has come to the fore. This is Shen Fuzhen 沈福珍, board chairman of Suzhou Ciyun Silk Product Co. Ltd, a countrywoman born and bred in Zhenze, a woman more given to deeds than words. Not only has she opened up Zhenze’s floss silk quilt business and made Ciyun one of the four major brands in this trade; she has also won for Zhenze the accolade of China’s Silk Quilt Town.

Silken Ties

When trade insiders in the floss silk town of Zhenze talk about Shen Fuzhen, they all refer to her respect fully as Old Mistress. She was born in 1948, so cannot be considered old; yet, in terms of silk-quilt making history, compared with trade insiders she is without doubt the oldest and the only one who has persisted to date. As a leader of the trade, she deserves this respectful address.

Shen Fuzhen was born in Zhenze, in the Wujiang District of Suzhou (in the southernmost tip of Jiangsu Province), in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta and Lake Taihu area. Her grandfather Shen Yikun raised silkworms in quite a big way and was not without influence locally. He passed on his floss silk-making skills and business know-how to his son Shen Xianglin, who in turn passed them on to his daughter Shen Fuzhen. The Shen family, like many Zhenze locals, regard floss silk as the very soul of life. Shen Fuzhen grew up living and breathing the raising of silkworms. But the story of her bond with floss silk would be incomplete without mentioning another woman who, despite the discrepancy in their ages, became a bosom friend. This was Professor Fei Dasheng, hailed as a modern version of the 13th century Huang Daopo 黄道婆 who improved the tools and technique of cotton spinning and weaving.

In 1978 Shen, a high school graduate, came to work at Suzhou Sericulture Junior College where Professor Fei Dasheng was teaching. Shen, who had been a floss silk devotee since a child, plunged right in, seizing every opportunity to learn from the experts gathered at the school. In addition, she took full advantage of her work as a librarian to find answers to her questions from the wealth of information available there.

The more Shen got to know, the greater her love for silk grew, almost to the point of being besotted. Her each and every action was seen and noted by the observant Professor Fei. Both women were natives of Zhenze, shared a heartfelt passion for floss silk, and she felt immensely close to this diligent young student. So whenever Shen had questions about floss silk, Fei would put down whatever she was doing and answer them patiently.

Once, speaking from the heart, Fei told Shen, “Silk floss is more important than my own life. It’s been my whole life. My child, it can bring you a lifetime’s happiness too.” Even today, those emotional words often echo in Shen’s ears, stiffening her resolve in her life-long love and pursuit of silk.

Dream-Building with Ciyun Quilt

The year 1992 was a vital one in the course of China’s reform and opening-up. Early in the year, Deng Xiaoping made an inspection tour in the cities of Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, and gave a series of important speeches known as the “Southern Talks,” indicating the direction of travel for China’s reforms in the new era. In October 1992, the First Plenary Session of the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of China spelled out the direction of reform in the economic structure—to build a socialist market economy in China.

It was in 1992 also that, under the tutelage and encouragement of Fei Dacheng, Shen returned to her hometown, treading a career path in the silk industry like her father before her, setting up an enterprise for the manufacture and sale of floss silk quilts. Later, she took the well-known name Ciyun as the title of her enterprise—the Suzhou Ciyun Silk Product Co., Ltd, and for its product identity. Later that same year, she launched under the Ciyun label the product of her research—the first stay-fluffy floss silk quilt.

Helped by the guidance of Professor Fei Dasheng, an authority on floss silk, Shen soon made a name in the trade for her outstanding talent and imagination.

In 1993, Shen’s business innovated the wetted-cocoon boiling technique and applied it in production, gradually replacing manual cocoon peeling with a mechanized process. In 1997, she successfully developed a washable summer silk quilt, and has never slackened in her R&D efforts

to create more Ciyun products with core competitiveness.

The inspiration for Shen’s wetted-cocoon boiling technique came from daily life. “If you boil rice straight after washing it, the rice will often end up either undercooked or burned. But if you leave the wetted rice alone for 20 minutes before boiling it, the cooked rice will be soft but not too moist.” Inspired by this simple daily experience and after repeated tests, Shen finally arrived at the optimal interval between washing and boiling the cocoons. This advance proved a direct boost to the silk quilt trade.

Shen’s decades of career have produced simply too many examples of key technological innovation to enumerate. In the interests of constantly improving Ciyun’s quality and technology, she would learn from masters in every field, ignoring any hardship involved. Just as she said, “In whatever I do, conducting myself as a person or in an undertaking, I won’t engage with it if I can’t be the best.” She resolved to make her Ciyun brand the best there is.

All the materials for Ciyun floss silk quilts are purchased and processed by Shen’s factory, using only twin cocoons. Twin cocoons are formed when two silkworms curl up together when competing to make filament. Accounting for only 10 percent of all cocoons available, twin cocoons are regarded as discards at silk reeling factories since one cocoon should produce a single thread only, and a silk thread cannot be drawn out from twin cocoons. Since cocoon fiber quilts use the cocoon-peeling technique rather than silk reeling, twin cocoons are ideal material. The twin-cocoon floss silk quilts made by Ciyun have long fibers which are even and look better.

In the cocoon-peeling workshop, workers keep pouring water onto the cocoons to keep them thoroughly soaked but only to the extent that the pupae inside will not be affected. The process is technically demanding and time- and energy-hungry too. After feeling the way for many years, Shen has made many improvements. Turning on a tap above a trough on the cement floor, she said, “We keep the water running because it is crucial in the peeling process. If we don’t rinse the cocoons while peeling, they won’t be clean enough and the floss silk will look yellowish instead of white.”

It is the persistent quest for technical improvement that makes the floss silk quilts able to stand up to trampling and pressure without matting up. Light and warm, they remain soft, year in year out, without having to be shaken and fluffed up.

A Silk Industry Pioneer

As with all entrepreneurs, Shen Fuzhen is down-to-earth and abhors empty talk. Clear-sighted and determined by nature, sometimes she may seem almost obsessive. For instance, she has never borrowed from a bank and has developed the company solely with its own funds. Though mocked as conservative, she had the last laugh when the financial crisis hit and Ciyun remained unscathed. Her “obsession” is also reflected in her understanding of product quality. It would be unfair to characterize her as underplaying the importance of brand management, but she be-lieves that brand quality generates word-of-mouth reputation. “Our quilt is every bit as good as it was ten years ago.” Praise indeed from a customer in Shanghai where clients are notoriously picky! As Shen says, “If the label on our floss silk quilt says it contains such and such quantity of cocoon fibers that’s what it does contain.” “To trade insiders, nothing is more important than quality. We would use the top-grade material even if it means a lower profit. Ciyun lives or dies by quality.” In the 20-plus years since the founding of the Ciyun brand, there has never been a quality-related complaint. When the Jiangsu Province Textile Department made a random sampling check in 2011, Ciyun products were 100 percent problem-free. In these days of one product quality issue after another, this may seem miraculous; as Shen sees things, this is no more than her duty as an entrepreneur.

Whilst sticking come what may to keeping Ciyun product quality unchangingly high, Shen has not shrunk from innovation in her business model. In 2002, she decided to jump on the chain-store bandwagon and made the courageous move of opening the first franchised store in the Zhenze silk trade.

She chose the silk town of Shengze to open her first franchised store, which was managed by a laid-off worker from a local state-owned silk factory. She told the franchisee, “We’ll pay for remodeling and decorating the premises and cover the loss if you can’t make a profit.” There was no need. Ciyun’s first quilt franchise store was a great success, turnover exceeding 200,000 yuan in its first year of business. It is still there, but with annual turnover surpassing two million yuan. Today there are over 100 Ciyun franchised outlets and chain stores in northeast, northwest, north and south China.

Shen’s management philosophy has much to do with the fact that she was brought up in an “acquaintance” society, one that prioritizes reputation, a society in which survival would be hard for persons of no credibility. The supremacy of credibility is naturally central to her business operations.

In September 2007, when the Floss Silk Quit Association of Zhenze Town was founded, Shen was elected its first chairman. She and her company were conspicuous contributors to the drafting of the standards enshrined in the Silk Quit National Standard of the People’s Republic of China which came into law on February 1, 2010. In 2013, Ciyun was honored by the Suzhou People’s Government, hailed as the representative unit of the intangible cultural heritage of silk-quilt making. In 2014, Shen was certified as the inheritor of this ancient technique. From starting her quilt enterprise to initiating the trade association for group development, from her role in drafting a national standard to her efforts in establishing silk-quilt making as an intangible cultural heritage, Shen’s contribution to the revitalization of Zhenze’s silk industry is present in every area. 

Silk-making Heritage

“Ciyun is very important not only to Zhenze, but to the whole silk quilt trade. It’s no exaggeration to call it the trailblazer of the floss silk quilt industry.” Such is the sincere consensus of the town’s many silk quilt manufacturers.

The year 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of the Ciyun brand. After being at the helm for 20 years, Shen gradually handed over control of the family enterprise to her daughter Zhou Jiayuan, who began putting some of her own ideas into practice.

Compared with 1992, the market in 2012 had changed tremendously. In the eyes of the general public, privately-run enterprises had long been associated with entrepreneurship. The transformation from start-up to an independent brand owner had become the only way for retail sales enterprises to upgrade themselves, and the silk industry has gradually transformed from a purely light industry to a culturally creative one.

As the flagship enterprise of Suzhou’s silk industry, Ciyun faces head-on the huge challenges and opportunities of the market, while shouldering the historical responsibility of charging forward in the revitalization of the silk industry.

Through timely adjustments to its product structure and brand positioning, Ciyun emphasizes its cultural significance by embodying culture in every detail of its business operations, allowing consumers to experience the profound cultural connotations of its products.

“The manufacturing technology for producing floss silk quilts is an intangible cultural heritage handed down over a thousand years. Whilst perpetuating the tradition, we try to keep pace with the times through constantly innovating,” says the company’s general manager Zhou Jiayuan. On its debut in 2015, the floss silk quilt with visible inside padding, developed by Ciyun as China’s first such see-through product, made quite a stir.

In recent years Zhou Jiayuan created a Ciyun e-commerce team to explore the online market. As well as boosting overall sales through ecommerce platforms such as Tmall, online promotion has also enhanced Ciyun’s influence and popularity. Ciyun also formed a strategic partnership with ugoshop.com, a well-known TV shopping platform, to sell its medium- and top-of-the-range products. A one-hour TV shopping program on this platform generated sales of more than two million yuan.

“Silk is one of best media for reflecting the special nature of this area’s history and culture and I feel blessed for my good fortune in pursuing this career,” Shen says, and sees her company as battling to revitalize Suzhou’s silk industry. This aim for even greater resurgence will be followed in the context of China’s national “One Belt One Road” strategy, one in which she hopes Ciyun can play an even bigger role. 

The Ciyun Pagoda, witness to ups and downs in the silk town’s economy and culture, cradle for generation after generation of silk makers, continues to tell the moving story of Ciyun, passing on the silk legacy down the years.


About the Column

Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.

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Columns Suzhou-Silk City

Suzhou-Silk City is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. Suzhou, though associated with classical gardens, is even more the city of silk. The peaks and troughs experienced in Suzhou’s silk making and embroidery worlds are an important aspect of the enduring brilliance of China’s silk art.



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