Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/February 1890/Chinese Silk-Lore

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CHINESE SILK-LORE.[1]

By General TCHENG-KI-TONG,

SECRETARY OF THE CHINESE EMBASSY AT PARIS.

THE time of the hatching of silk-worms in China always corresponds with the first thunder of spring. As soon as the detonations are heard, a watch is set upon the eggs, which have been carefully made ready beforehand for the occasion; and the appearance of the larvæ may usually be counted on within five days, more or less.[2] Thunder at this season is the sign of that condition of electrical movement in the air which is produced artificially in Europe to hasten the hatching, by means of a shower of sparks.

For the protection of the mulberry trees, the raising of poly-voltines, or worms that hatch several broods a year, is forbidden in many countries. But most caterpillars have only three moltings. Here I may remark that we define two periods in the moltings: the first, when the worms cease to take food, when we say that they lie down; and the second, when they lay aside their envelope, which we call their getting up. We also say, when we smother them with hot water, that they are taking a bath.

PSM V36 D517 Collecting the leaves.jpg

Fig. 1.—Collecting the Leaves.

Climbing the trees, the village boys

Fill the air with the songs of their age;
Each of the trees has its owner,
But every one respects his neighbor's.
The living leaf flies to-day into our basket.
And the zephyr is less quick than the hand that gathers it.

I am not acquainted with the significance of these terms, to lie down, get up, and take a bath; but I suppose that those who are charged with the duty of raising the Worms wish to give them an orderly regimen.[3] The quality of our silk and the
PSM V36 D518 Separation of the worms about to spin.jpg

Fig. 2. — Separation of the Worms about to spin.

A peculiar luster of the worm's belly

Is a sign that it is about to change,
And that its mouth will spin us its silk.
Madam busies herself in preparing its bed,
And lays it on the straw, that nothing may soil
The immaculate thread which itself fixes.

method of manufacturing are so well known that it is not necessary to relate them in detail in this short address ; but I must remark upon one feature which, I believe, exists nowhere but

with us, and the discovery of which goes back to ancient times. I mean the music of silk. My countrymen, even before they had invented the art of working silk and making cloths of it, had discovered the secret of making it musical, and of drawing from it the sweetest and most tender sounds. From the time of the Emperor Fo-Hi (3000 b. c.) they made an instrument consisting of

PSM V36 D519 Fabrication of the thread.jpg

Fig. 3. — Fabrication of the Thread.

The steps in front lead to the clear water
In which, carried by a maiden, the skein
Is rinsed; on the right a turning wheel
Winds it, for ready hands to change it oft,
With care that it do not get knotted and tangled.

a board of soft, light, and dry wood, on which they stretched cords of silk twisted between the fingers. The board gradually assumed a definite shape and curvature, with measured dimensions. The cords were more artfully spun and composed of a determined number of fibers, and the number of them was fixed according to the character of the instrument desired. These cords, properly adjusted as to size and tension, were made to give the tones of a regular stringed instrument. Such was, in short, the origin of our first musical instruments, the kin and the ché, which were both invented by the same person and at the same time, and both give the peculiar sound of silk.[4]

The construction of the instrument kin affords matter for an interesting study. It is made of toung-wood. The upper part is rounded, to represent the sky; the lower part is flat, and represents the earth. The abode of the dragon—that is, the upper part, from the bridge, eight inches down—represents the eight areas of the wind; and the nest of Foung-Hoang, or the same part at four inches in its height, represents the four seasons of the year. It is furnished with five cords, representing the five planets and the five elements. Its total length is seven feet and two inches, representing the universality of things. The inventor, by means of this instrument, first regulated his own heart and restrained his passions within just limits. He then labored to civilize men. He made them capable of obeying the laws; of doing acts worthy of reward; and of engaging in peaceful industry, by which they acquired the arts. Besides these five cords which give the five full tones, there are two others that give the half-tones and represent the sun and moon.

Concerning the construction of the ché, I will only mention that it had fifty and still has twenty-five cords; for I perceive that I am saying too much about the music of silk. It was, how-ever, proper to give a full account of the kin, for it represents the first application of this music.[5]

You know so well how our silk-worms are cultivated that I need not relate the details of the method. In principle there is not much difference between our method and yours; possibly yours is only a copy of ours, without pretending to possess any novel features. But our system goes back to twenty-seven hundred years before Christ. The queen of the Emperor Hoang-Ti at that time first conceived the idea of raising silk-worms and of making from their production garments with which to clothe the people over whom her august husband ruled.[6]

The invention had such a following that it is still spreading through the whole world on a growing scale. Notwithstanding we have the wool and fur of animals, silk still is and always will be an article of luxury that no one who has the means of getting it will do without.[7] We, who are always grateful to our benefactors, honor the inventor of the art of silk-culture with a real perpetual cult. Besides the temples which we have erected in all the corners of the empire, her Majesty the Empress goes every year at the hatching season, in person, with all her suite, and in great pomp, to the field of the mulberry, to sacrifice to the goddess who was the queen of the Emperor Hoang-Ti.[8] After the

ceremony at the temple, her Majesty, followed by her ladies, goes into the field, and, surrounded by the farmers' wives, cooks some mulberry-leaves and lays them on a basket containing the newly hatched worms. The festival is closed with her winding a cocoon

PSM V36 D522 Thanks to the goddess of silk.jpg

Fig. 4. — Thanks to the Goddess of Silk.

In Szechuen our ancestors in ancient times

Became masters of the precious worms;
So, when the snowy skeins we see,
Let us pay our vows, all, at Loui' Tseu's feet.
Bending our heads before her shrine,
Offering her silk and the flowers of the land.

by way of setting an example, in the presence of the people, and distributing gifts to those persons who have been reported by the authorities of their villages as most worthy by reason of their fidelity in attention to the care of the silk-worms.

This ceremony, which is one of the most important of those her Majesty has to perform during the year, is a great incentive to the silk-raising population, who can not neglect their own work when they see their sovereign occupied in the same way. An old proverb says that "an idle farmer causes two persons to die of hunger, and a woman who will not weave will see ten dying of cold." The proverb illustrates the value of encouragement, and shows that silk-worm raising and weaving are duties of the women. — Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.


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  1. From an address given at the Orange Garden of the Tuileries, during the exhibition of Useful and Injurious Insects.
  2. The Emperor Yu, called the Great, ascended the throne 2205 b. c, and reigned twenty-seven years. He founded the second dynasty and completed the civilizing work of the Emperor Hoang-Ti, of whom he was a descendant. He divided each of the signs of the zodiac into two equal fractions of 15. The farmers observe with the greatest attention the manner in which the several parts of this cycle follow one another, and prognosticate concerning meteorological phenomena from them. The observations made at Zi-ka-wei by Father Dechevrens do not lead us to suppose seriously that there was any foundation for this superstitious meteorology. The date of the entrance of the sun into each of these twenty-four divisions was indicated by that of the Chinese New Year. According to the calendar for 1888, as marked out by Bishop Perney's table, the 14th of February was the date for the opening of spring; February 29th, for rain; March 15th, for the hatching of silk-worms; March 31st, for real spring, etc. There is nothing absurd in the idea of a connection between the first electrical phenomena and the hatching of the worms; for the early electrical phenomena are usually associated with an atmospheric temperature favorable to such changes.
  3. The verse subjoined to our second illustration expresses the same thought as the remark of General Teheng-Ki-Tong, that, to preserve the luster of the silk, the worms that have ceased to perform their digestive functions must be carefully separated from those which continue eating. This duty, which requires experience, devolves upon the matrons, while the fabrication of the thread is assigned to the young women. But the separation is hardly as absolute as is assumed by the poet. It may be seen from our figures that the Chinese women, in preparing the silk fiber, use extremely rudimentary processes; but it must be remembered that manual labor is very cheap among the Celestials, and that, consequently, they have few inducements for economizing. The people, men and women, are assiduous workers, and make available instruments so rude that Westerners would find it very hard to use them at all. Only the culture of the domestic silk-worm is described in the treatise of the Emperor Kang-Hi, while the less precious though useful fiber of the wild worm is prepared in a quite different manner.
  4. The engravings accompanying this article are from photographs from an edition of the poem of the Emperor Kang-Hi, published at Shanghai. They show most evidently that the artist has depicted customs of a very remote antiquity. Men are employed only for operations that require strength, like the cultivation of the mulberry-tree, the collection of leaves, etc. The legends beneath the designs are free translations of the Chinese verses above them.
  5. The inventor of the kin and the ché was no other than the Emperor Fo-Hi, who reigned about two hundred years before Hoang-Ti. The invention of thread and of fire is attributed to him; and he taught men, who had previously eaten their meat raw, to cook it. The ché kept its fifty cords till the time of Hoang-Ti, when a young maiden played it before the emperor with such effect that he concluded that it was a dangerous instrument to hear, and too liable to excite the passions of the people. Instead of throwing himself at the feet of the siren, as a European monarch would have done, he in his wisdom decreed that the ché should in future have only twenty-five cords. Notwithstanding Hoang-Ti's edict, the number of cords has been varied several times. There have been sometimes twenty-seven, sometimes twenty-three, and sometimes only nineteen, but no one has ventured to go back to fifty; the changes having been instigated by considerations of the significance of numbers, to which the Chinese are much addicted. The ché has now twenty-five strings. Each string is held by a colored bridge. The first five are always blue; the next five red; the next yellow; the next white; and the last series black. The bridges are movable, and each one is adjusted according to considerations that we shall not enter into. There are four kinds of ché's, which are of different length, but of identical construction. They are played at court and in the Confucian temple. In the latter case four instruments are used, two of which are placed in the east and two in the west. Music was regarded by the ancient Chinese as an affair of state and religion, as a science revealed from heaven, a ray of the universal harmony emanating from divinity. Celestial forces and virtue were attributed to it. It was to them the science of sciences, the one by which all others were explained, to which they were related and from which they were descended. The modern Chinese have not abandoned their notions, although the sound of their music does not suggest them to Europeans.
  6. This celebrated woman, whose name was Loui Tseu, is adored as the goddess of silk. She was born, according to the Chinese historians, 2697 b. c. in the city of Si-Ling. Her husband was the first Chinese legislator, and reigned a hundred years—from 2737 b. c. to 2637 b. c.—and died at the age of one hundred and twenty-one years. One of his ministers composed the famous Chinese cycle; another constructed the celestial sphere; and a third regulated the notes of the gamut, with which he associated a metrical system. The Chinese refer the invention of wagons, bows, spun goods, and bells—in short, the origin of civilization—to that period.
  7. Mencius, the Chinese philosopher next in esteem after Confucius, said that after fifty years of age one could not keep warm without wearing silk clothing. It is likely that even before the time of Hoang-Ti the Chinese could make cloth of the silk of the wild worms, those that lived on the oak, for example. Another use of silk, which the author does not mention, was in the fabrication of the cords by means of which grand dignitaries received orders to strangle themselves. The messengers, who communicated the sentences to them, besides bearing the order written with the terrible vermilion, were usually instructed to proceed with the execution in case the victim had not courage to perform it himself. On the other hand, the emperor often expressed his satisfaction through gifts of balls of silk; whence originated the expression to "present the silk"; and this, being confounded with the sentence-bearing cords, has given rise to some curious mistakes.
  8. The calculation of the days for the performance of the traditional sacrifices by the Emperor is one of the principal duties of the astronomers of the observatory at Pekin. Since the ancient formulas no longer suffice for the determination of the dates, the astronomical bureau includes several Europeans, who are called assistant astronomers, and are charged with making all the calculations. There are four full astronomers, two Chinese and two Tartars, who appear in the religious solemnities. Under the reign of the Emperor Kang-Hi the astronomers were Jesuits, and had a great influence at court. But they were denounced at Rome by the Franciscans, as favoring idolatry. A suit ensued, which the Franciscans gained, and the Jesuits had to resign their long-held functions.