Feb 21, 2019

The Legend of the Horse-Headed Girl

Another legend relating to the origin of Chinese sericulture, and different from the official record on Leizu, circulated widely among the populace—the legend of the Horse-headed Girl.

The Stories of Immortals, an ancient Chinese myth, has this story about the start of seri-culture: Way back in antiquity, a father living in the region of Shu (present-day Sichuan) had just one daughter. He worked away from home, often leaving his daughter there alone to tend to their horses. One day, missing her father dreadfully, the girl jestingly told one of the horses that if it could find and bring her father home, she would marry it. At this, the horse freed itself from its reins and made off. The search was a tough one but it finally discovered the father, who was greatly surprised to see the horse continually neighing mournfully in the direction of home. Sensing there must be something greatly amiss there, the father mounted the horse and returned.

After their return home, the horse refused all food and would stamp its hoofs every time it saw the girl. Curious, the father asked his daughter and was told the truth. Outraged at what he saw as a disgrace to his family, the man shot the horse with arrows and put its hide in the yard to dry in the sun.

One day, the daughter, along with a neighbor girl, looking at the hide mocked the horse, “Why should an animal like you want to marry a woman? Was it worth such a fatal disaster as to lose your life?” Hardly were the words out of her mouth than the horse hide suddenly flew up from the ground, coiled itself around the girl and carried her away. After searching for days, the father found the girl on a tree, rolled up in the horse hide, in the form of silkworm with a horse-like head. She lived on the plant, and kept spitting out long, thin threads which twined around her body. This was the birth of a curious species which people called silkworm (the Chinese word is pronounced can, similar to the word for ‘twine’), and is commonly known as horse-headed girl. The tree that she lived on was named mulberry (sang), which in Chinese is a homophone for the word bereavement, signifying that the girl lost her life on that tree.

This legend about the origin of the silk-worm and mulberry tree was of course the association drawn by the ancients from the shape of the silkworm: When its head is raised it looks just like a horse head, and when it eats mulberry leaves, it behaves much the same as a grazing horse. The soft and plump body of a silkworm is also reminiscent of women. Since sericulture has been practiced by women since ancient times, it is most appropriate that its deity should take female form.

Yi Yin Born in Hollow Mulberry Tree

When a mulberry tree ages, the inner core of its trunk decays and hollows out, but its thick bark still has organic vitality and the tree keeps on growing vigorously. This dead-but-living phenomenon, a seeming miracle of Mother Nature, inspired the imagination of the ancients and gave rise to numerous myths about hollow mul-berry trees. Here is one of them.

According to Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals · The Flavors, a woman of the State of Youshen was picking mulberry leaves and found a baby in a hollow trunk. She gave the baby to the king, who ordered his cook to raise the child, while he himself kept an eye on its growing up. It is said that the baby’s mother lived by the river Yishui. Before giving birth, she dreamed that a god told her, “When you see water coming from the mortar, fly east and don’t look back.” The next day, seeing water gushing out, she rushed to tell her neighbors to flee eastward. Some 10 li on she looked back to her village and saw it en-gulfed in water. For disobeying the god, she was transformed into a hollow mulberry tree and her baby was left in the hollow. The baby was Yi Yin, a founding hero of the Shang Dynasty.

Yi Yin grew up to be a learned man, his talent was appreciated by Emperor Cheng Tang, whom he assisted to defeat Jie, the tyrant emperor of the Xia Dynasty and establish the ShangDynasty. He became the first prime minister.Despite his humble birth, Yi Yin made a greatcontribution to the effective administration of theempire, so his birth was mythologized. In theprocess, the mulberry tree also took on a shadeof mystery and magic.

Emperor Cheng Tang Prays for Rain in a MulberryForest

After Cheng Tang wiped out the Xia Dynasty and became the founding emperor of the Shang, there was a severe seven-year drought, and no harvest was to be had. Cheng Tang decided go to a mulberry forest in order to pray for rain. A diviner read the auguries and told him that the drought could be relieved only with human sacrifice. Cheng Tang responded, “It is for my people that I would pray. So, if there must be a human sacrifice, that sacrifice should be me.” He ordered that a sacrificial altar be built in the woods and wood prepared for a bonfire. After the necessary purifications of washing, haircut, nail trimming, and a vegetarian meal, the emperor stood devoutly on the bonfire, ready to sacrifice himself to invoke rain from heaven. Just as the wood was lit and the flames about to blaze, a torrential downpour intervened, quenching the thirsty land for over a hundred li. People across the land rejoiced and revered their sovereign even more. This story appears in The Book of Huai Nan Zi and Re-cords of the Historian · Biographic Sketches of Emperors. The fact that the ruler prayed for rain in a mulberry forest testifies to the ancients’ reverence for mulberry trees.

The Princess Who Gave Away the Secret of Silk

In the Western Regions, vast areas north-west of the ancient central kingdom of China, were many small states established by ethnic groups. Initially these peoples, just like the Ro-mans by the Mediterranean, regarded Chinese silk as something mysterious. But they soon came to realize that to obtain silk, with a value equal to gold, demanded only the know-how to grow mulberry trees and raise silkworms. 

Yet they were profoundly aware of the un-written rule that throughout the dynasties the Central Plains kingdom had never allowed any-one to take one silkworm egg outside the kingdom; any violator leaking the secret would be subject to the death penalty. The young King of Khotan (present-day Hotan) in Xinjiang came up with a clever scheme—sending an envoy to the Central Plains kingdom with a marriage proposal. In the interests of keeping the northwestern border areas secure through a marriage connection with the Western Region state, the Chinese king gave his consent.

The King of Khotan handpicked a shrewd envoy and handmaidens to form the bridal escort and gave them orders to implore the princess to smuggle out with her some silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds. The envoy told the Chinese princess that Khotan was so rich that she could live a life as comfortable as in the Central Plains, with the exception of wearing luxuriant silk clothes since Khotan was un-able to produce silk. He begged the princess to bring some silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds with her. The ingenious princess secretly acquired some mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs, and hid them in the wadding of her phoenix headdress.

When the departure time came, the princess’s wedding party made its way to a frontier pass. The soldiers obeyed the court order to search every item of luggage, yet did not check the phoenix headdress that the princess was wearing. This way the silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds were taken safely to Khotan and sparked the development of sericulture there.

When the celebrated Tang Dynasty Monk Xuanzang passed through Khotan on his west-ward pilgrimage looking for true Buddhist scriptures, he was told this story and recorded it in his book Buddhist Records of the Western World in the Tang Dynasty. Interestingly, the British explorer Aurel Stein found a woodblock print of the princess in the Dadar Ulug ruins in

Hotan area which lay on the southern arm of the Silk Road. In this picture the princess is accompanied by her maid who is pointing at her mistress’s headdress, an allusion to something hidden there. It is likely the local people created the picture to show their gratitude to the Central Plains princess.

The Mysterious Serica

Although the Greeks were using silks a long time ago, the great remoteness and inaccessibility of China meant they had not a clue about how Chinese silk was really made. This gave rise to wild imaginings. They called the worm that could spin a silk cocoon “ser,” referred to China as “Serica,” and to Chinese people as “Seres.”

To Westerners, the “ser “was a magical creature, and “Serica” a land of mystery, which fuelled a variety of weird, and even absurd, conjectures as to the origins of silk.

They once thought that silk fabric was woven from wool grown on trees. As late as the first century AD, when Romans began to wear silk garments arriving via the Silk Road, they still believed that the material for making silk was a very thin wool-like fiber collected from trees. The contemporary Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described his imaginative theory in an essay: “The Seres are known for their wool obtained from forests. They spray water onto the trees to wash the white floss off the leaves, then the wives carry out the weaving. In this way the patrician women of Rome are able to appear on public occasions wearing sheer and translucent garments.”

Around the second century AD, the Greek geographer Pausanias strayed even further from the truth in his Description of Greece: “There lives in Serica a little creature called a ser whose body is two times larger than that of the biggest gold beetle and it has eight legs. The Seres make small cages for raising these creatures throughwinter or summer. For the first four years, theyeat millet, but in the fifth year the Seres begin tofeed them with their favorite green reeds. Thsers eat greedily until they burst and silk flosse merges from their ruptured bellies.”

Mythical interpretations of sericulture persisted in the West until around the fifth and sixth centuries, when Silk Road trade boomed and silkworm eggs were taken to Byzantium. The term Seres gradually disappeared from use after the sixth century.

How the Romans Obtained Sericulture Know-How

Back in the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian tried to break Persia’s monopoly on Chinese silks by uniting with the Abyssinians to purchase silk from India, using a maritime route to bypass Persia. Once the Persian king heard about the plan, he pressed the Abyssinians with force to prevent them acting as the Romans’ silk brokers. Justinian tried again, asking the Turkic khan, Persia’s neighbor, to help intercede with Persia. The King of Persia, however, refused the mediation and actually had the envoy killed. As the conflicts between the two sides intensified, the Eastern Roman Empire and its Turkish ally launched attacks on Persia in 571. This “Silk War,” as it is known in history, went on for 20 years.

After Rome severed relations with Persia, a critical shortage of silk supply followed, causing prices to skyrocket and forcing Rome’s silk-processing industry virtually to a standstill, precisely when Justinian was eager to initiate sericulture in his own country. Just then, a missionary returning from Asia requested an audience with him, claiming he could obtain some silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds from China. A year later, the missionary returned to Rome from China, the valuable seeds hidden inside his bamboo walking stick. He then instructed the Romans to plant the silkworm eggs in the ground and to incubate the mulberry seeds in their bosoms like hens hatching eggs.  The only result was ridicule.

When some Indian monks in Constantinople heard about this fiasco, they came to the palace and told Justinian: “We sojourned long in the country of silk and studied how to raise silkworms.” The delighted emperor promised a handsome reward if they succeeded. Finally the Indian monks brought silkworm eggs, mulberry seeds and the know-how back to Constantinople and succeeded in raising silkworms there. Thereafter, sericulture began to spread across Europe from the Roman Empire.

Later, during the Crusades in the 12th century, King Roger II of Sicily captured 2,000 weavers and brought them to Italy to raise silkworms, reel silk yarn and weave silk fabrics. With its now greatly advanced silk-making technology, Italy gradually became the center of Europe’s silk industry.

Silk Roads Through the Ages

In the early Han Dynasty, the area of the Central Plains was frequently harassed and plundered from the north by the nomadic Xiongnu. After Emperor Wu came to power he was determined to wipe out the invaders and so sent Zhang Qian as an envoy to the western states to forge alliances against the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian’s first mission to the west in 139 BC was very tough. Once the Xiongnu had been defeated and the route was safe, he made a second journey to the west in 119 BC, taking with him over 300 troops and large quantities of silks.

Zhang Qian’s two missions opened up a major silk trade thoroughfare across the Eurasia. This Silk Road, starting from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an), reached Dunhuang via the Hexi Corridor. From there, the route branched northward to Anxi (Parthia—ancient Iran) and southward to Daqin (Rome and the Mediterranean coastal states). Over the next thousand years, business thrived and reached its peak. Since most of the goods traded were silks, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen named the route the Silk Road or the Desert Oasis Silk Road.

As a matter of fact, numerous archeological finds reveal that as early as the fifth century BC or thereabouts, the northern nomadic tribes already had a silk trading route in the vast grasslands of the north. This was known as the “Grassland Silk Road.” It started in the east from the Mongolian Plateau, crossed the Altai Mountains and the Jungar Basin to reach the mountains of present-day Kazakhstan; or went via the Barabinskaya Steppe directly to the Black Sea.

The Maritime Silk Road was initiated as early as the Zhou Dynasty, and was known as the East China Sea Silk Road at that time. It is said that King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty sent an official Ji Zi from the Bohai Gulf to Korea to spread sericulture and weaving techniques along this navigation route. During the Han Dynasty, another Maritime Silk Road was opened up, this time via the South China Sea to countries of Southeast Asia. Improvements in shipbuilding technology enabled the rapid development of the southern Maritime Silk Road and the decline in trade volumes along the Desert Oasis Silk Road presented a particularly good opportunity for the maritime route, which saw unprecedented development. In his seven voyages to the Western Seas (Indian Ocean), the navigator Zheng He and his fleet, dispatched by the Ming Emperor Yongle (r.1403-1424), visited over 30 countries in Asia and Africa, and vast quantities of fine Chinese silks reached the world via this Maritime Silk Road.

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.

Latest additions

Jun 17, 2019, 5:10pmAdmin added British Family Show Geno's Magic Story to Events | Stage.

Jun 17, 2019, 5:10pmAdmin add 1 photo to British Family Show Geno's Magic Story.

Jun 17, 2019, 4:57pmAdmin added Dance drama | Let Love Win to Events | Stage.

City Guide
Suzhou Metro

Suzhou Metro Line 1, with 24 stations, entered service on April 28, 2012.


Visa Q&A, Residence Permits

City Facts

History, Location, Culture


Airport, Railway, Taxi, Bus


Mobile phone, Internet, IP Card

View more...

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.

View more...