The Princess and the Silkworm Head Dress


There are many versions of the story of how the process of making silk was spread beyond the borders of imperial China into Central Asia. Some of the most popoular involve the tale of the Pincess and her Silkworm Head Dress. Even here there is more than one version of the tale. Here are two:

Version One: A Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, after he returned from a voyage to India in the seventh century CE, said that the people in Khotan are all Buddhists, and that this is how silk reached Khotan.

“In the olden days, the people of the rocky land of Khotan knew nothing about mulberry trees nor silkworms. But they heard that these things existed in the East, in China. Therefore they sent a delegation to ask for the secret of producing silk. The emperor laughed at them. ‘This is a secret,’ he said. ‘It is forbidden to let outsiders find out how silk is made.’ He had all border stations watched and allowed neither mulberry seeds nor silkworm eggs to be taken out of the empire.

The king of Khotan then had an idea. As a sign of his veneration for the Chinese emperor, he asked if he could marry a princess of the emperor’s house. The emperor kindly agreed to this wish. The king of Khotan then sent an envoy to the princess to tell her that Khotan had neither mulberry trees nor silk worms. If she wanted to wear silk, she would have to bring some seeds and eggs, with which they could make her beautiful dresses. The princess heard this and considered it. Secretly she got some mulberry seeds and silk worm eggs which she hid in her huge head dress.

When the princess reached the border gates, the guards searched her throughly, but they dared not touch her hair. The princess was taken with great pomp to the royal palace and brought her mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs there.

In the spring the princess had the mulberry seeds sown. When it was time for the larvae to hatch, leaves were gathered for them. At first they had to eat any kind of leaves, before the real mulberry leaves were available. The queen had an inscription made on a stone which said: ‘It is prohibited to kill the silkworm.’ In this way the secret of making silk was taken from China, and the people of Khotan began to wear not only furs but fine silk clothes.

Version Two: This tale is preserved in the oral tradtion of the people of Khotan.

“The princess going to the King of Khotan was asked to bring three items: mulbery seeds, silkworm eggs, and technicians skilled in producing silk cloth. If she brought these, this would be her dowry. She would not have to bring gold, silver, gems and pearls as well.

In leaving China, the princess concealed the silkworms in her headdress. Also, one of her female servants hid the mulberry seeds among herbs in a medicine chest. When the princess reached Khotan, its minister asked her why no male technician who knew the art of silk making had come with her. She told him that she had indeed brought three excellent technicians. They were her maidservants, women skilled in planting mulberry trees, breeding and raising silk worms, and also in weaving. In China, she explained, these skills are considered to be women’s work, and learned by all young girls.”

Xinjiang province, China, 7th-8th century AD

This panel comes a Buddhist sanctuary in Khotan, painted sometime between the 7th-8th century CE. It depicts the tale of the “Silk Princess” arriving in Khotan with a basket full of cocoons. In it, one of her servants points at the princess’s hair, and another girl is shown weaving.

Think About Questions and Research:

• Where would Khotan be on the old Silk Road?

• Who are the Uigars, the majority of people who live in the region?   What is their main religion now?

• In which version of the tale was the emphasis on the ideas and actions of the princess?

• Which version of the tale does the panel painting most support - the Chinese monk’s version or oral story of the people from the region?

• What might the Chinese monk’s story reveal about how the Chinese viewed the loss of their secret of making silk?

• In what ways can both the historic and contemporary work of women in silk in this area be illustrated?

The following facts can be used as aids in answering these questions:

• The ancient Kingdom of Khotan, located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, was one of the earliest Buddhist states in the world. It was a cultural bridge across which Buddhist culture and learning were transmitted from India to China. It came under Muslim control in the first decade of the 11th century CE. After many political changes, the region became permanently part of China. Now known by its modern Chinese name Hotan or Hetian, the area lies in present day Xinjiang, Province, China.

• Khotan was the first place outside of China to begin cultivating silk. It was from Khotan that the eggs of silkworms were smuggled to Persia, then reaching Justinian's Constantinople.

• Mulberry groves today support industries manufacturing silk textiles and carpets. In the carpet factories, weavers are all women who sit five or six to a bench and each working on her own section of carpet. The overseers are mostly men. In the silk cloth factories, the weavers tend to be all older men, though the spinners are women.

Women in silk cloth factory
in modern Hotan (formally Khotan)

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
  Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian   Making Silk   Primary Source Lessons
  Princess Wencheng   Wearing Silk  
  Sorghaghtani Beki   Reviving Silk Traditions  
  Empress Irene    

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