How The Secret to Silk Was Smuggled Out of China

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Podcast Transcript

There was no product more important to the economy of the ancient world than silk. 

Silk was transported thousands of miles to be purchased by people so far away from its source that they had no clue where it came from. 

The source of silk, however, was China, and for centuries, they had a monopoly, which brought them tremendous wealth. 

That was until they didn’t. 

Learn more about how the secret to silk was smuggled out of China, and the silk monopoly was broken on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is hard to stress just how important silk was to the ancient global economy. 

Silk was the ultimate luxury product in the ancient world. It was a soft, smooth material that was nothing like the other fabrics which could be found at the time.  It was far superior in almost every way to wool or linen.

It was said that Julius Caesar had curtains made out of silk, which might not sound like much to us, but it was an incredible indulgence.

Wealthy Romans wore togas or dresses made out of silk as a way of displaying their status and wealth. 

Silk was quite literally one of the most expensive things that someone could purchase. 

The Roman Senate actually considered banning silk clothing because they considered it to be upsetting the social order, both because of the perceived immorality of wearing silk and the vast amount of money that was being spent on it.

If you remember, way back to my episode on if the Chinese and Romans knew about each other, the Romans knew of a faraway land they called Serica. Serica was derived from the Latin word for silk. 

The Romans were far from the only people who valued silk. Rulers and religious figures in India wore silk, as did Persians, as well as people in Central Asia, Japan, and Southeast Asia. 

There is evidence that Vikings wore silk clothing, and recently a strand of silk was found in the hair of an Egyptian mummy that was buried over 3,000 years ago. 

Long story short, silk was a highly coveted and prized item for centuries in the ancient world. 

It was so desired that it eventually led to the creation of the Silk Road, a 4000-mile, 6000-kilometer overland route from China to the Mediterranean.

Here I need to stress just how expensive it was to ship anything overland in the ancient world. There is a reason why the world’s first civilizations all developed along rivers. The Euphrates, Nile, Indus, and Yangtze rivers all allowed for low-cost transportation of goods from one city to the next. 

Transportation overland was incredibly expensive. For starters, you were limited in volume and mass to what a horse or camel could carry, which was much less than a ship. 

Then, it was incredibly slow. If you could travel twenty miles in a day, you were making good time. 

It was incredibly dangerous. Thieves and bandits constantly threatened caravans carrying goods. 

Finally, there were tons of middlemen. Almost no one made the entire trip along the Silk Road. You would take your goods from one location to the next, where they would be sold to another merchant, who would then sell them to someone else. 

To give you an idea of how expensive land transportation was, as late as Colonial America, the cost of shipping a piece of furniture from London to New York cost the same price as shipping the same item just 20 to 40 miles inland over land. 

As a result, by the time silk made it all the way to the Mediterranean, the cost was astronomical. In contrast, silk was cheap enough to be used for writing back in China. 

The fact that silk was in high demand all over the ancient world is only one half of the story. 

The other half is the fact that China had a monopoly on silk. China was literally the only place in the world where silk was produced. 

There is some evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean knew how silk was produced and that there might have even been some sort of proto-silk industry in the region at one time. 

Aristotle actually wrote about silk production. In his book “A History of the Animals” he wrote, 

A class of women unwind and reel off the cocoons of these creatures and afterwards weave a fabric with the threads thus unwound; a Coan woman of the name of Pamphila, daughter of Plateus, is credited with the first invention of the fabric.

Likewise, Pliny the Elder wrote about silk production in the first century when he said, 

A specially large grub changes into a caterpillar with two projecting horns of a peculiar kind and then into what is called a cocoon, and this turns into a chrysalis and this, in six months, into a silk moth. They weave webs like spiders, producing a luxurious material for women’s dresses called silk. 

It seems that there must have been some form of early silk-making in the West. It isn’t known if the silkworm or some related species was native to the region or if they had been imported from China. Regardless, silk production eventually disappeared. 

That left China with a monopoly on the ancient world’s greatest commodity. 

There is evidence of silk production in China going back 8,500 years. 

As silk became more important economically, Chinese emperors put restrictions on the exportation of the secrets of silk, most importantly, silkworms themselves. 

Smuggling silkworms out of China was a crime that could be punished by death. 

It should then come as no surprise that there was a great desire to produce silk outside of China. Whoever could break the Chinese monopoly on silk would make a fortune, not only as a producer of silk but as a producer who was closer to the end consumer with reduced transportation costs. 

As much as the Chinese emperors tried to keep silkworms and silk production in China, and despite the centuries of success they had in doing so, it eventually started to leak out. 

Silk began being produced in Korea in the first century BC, and by the 4th century, it was being produced in Japan. 

However, both of these places were to the east of China, which meant that they didn’t pose a threat to the lucrative Chinese trade located in the west. 

There was silk production in India as well around this time, but it mostly involved the collection of wild silkworm cocoons, not the cultivation of domesticated silkworms. Hence, silk production was limited and of a lower quality than that produced in China.

The spread of silk westward first took place in the Kingdom of Khotan. Khotan was an isolated oasis city located on the Silk Road in the Taklamakan Desert. Today it is part of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang (Shin-jong).

According to legend, sometime in the first century, a Chinese princess was betrothed to the King of Khotan. She was told that if she wanted to continue to wear silk dresses, she was going to have to bring silkworms with her and mulberry plants, which are the preferred food of silkworms. 

The princess hid several silkworm eggs in her headdress, and when she reached the Chinese border, none of the border guards dared inspect the hair of the princess.

Regardless if the legend of the princess is true, Khotan did become a silk producer, albeit on a small scale, and was the first crack in China’s silk wall. 

By middle of the 6th century, the Roman/Byzantine Emperor Justinian was looking for a way for Rome to produce its own silk. The Romans were at the end of the trade route and paid the highest price for silk. Moreover, any time there was a war anywhere between them and China, trade would stop.

His opportunity to break the silk monopoly fell into his lap in the form of two Nestorian Christian Monks. 

The monks had traveled to India to preach the gospel and during the course of their travels, they found themselves in China.  While in China, they were able to observe the entire silk-making process. How the silkworms were hatched, how they fed on mulberry leaves, and how the silk was collected and processed. 

They returned to Constantinople and told Justinian their story. It was the first time that there were first-hand accounts of silk production and where silk actually came from. The distant land of Serica was usually thought to have been India, but the monks explained that it was actually even further away.

The monks told the emperor that they could bring silkworms back to Constantinople, which could be used to start their own silk industry. 

Justinian promised the monks that if they could do this, they would be well rewarded. 

The monks set out on a northerly route which took them into Central Asia. Since silk had spread to Khotan several centuries earlier, production had been slowly moving west. 

They eventually managed to procure several silkworm eggs, which they hid inside the hollow core of their bamboo staves. Silkworms themselves are quite fragile and require a particular temperature range to survive. 

It is also believed that they were given mulberry plants as gifts, as the plant themselves were of no economic importance without the silkworms. 

The eggs hatched along the way, but the monks managed to keep the silkworms alive. 

The entire mission took two years, but the monks returned to Constantinople with the beginnings of what would become a new silk industry. 

The Byzantines soon were producing silk in many places around their empire, including Constantinople, Beirut, Antioch, Tyre, and Thebes.

Perhaps the most important city for Byzantine silk production was Catanzaro in southern Italy, which served as the center of silk production for much of Europe throughout the middle ages. 

Byzantine silk cloth was actually considered to be of high quality because they were able to use weaving techniques that were developed in Egypt. Something that the Chinese never had.

Just like the Chinese before them, the Byzantines established a monopoly on silk production for the rest of Europe. The Byzantine silk monopoly lasted for over 600 years until the Sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204.

Eventually, silk spread all over, with the Islamic Caliphate establishing silk production in North Africa and Northern Italy becoming the biggest silk-producing region in Europe. 

Today, China is once again the largest silk producer in the world, with India a distant second. 

A scene with Europeans trying to smuggle out silkworms in walking sticks was in the Netflix series Marco Polo, but in reality, Marco Polo lived centuries after the first silkworm eggs were smuggled to Constantinople. 

One of the lessons of the historical silk industry is that all monopolies eventually come up to an end. Whether it was the Chinese silk monopoly or the latter Byzantine silk monopoly, a monopoly, especially for the most desired product in the world, can’t last forever, especially if all that was required to break the monopoly was hiding some caterpillar eggs in a stick.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener ‘Bugsquisher1295’ over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

A total blast

Outstanding, fun, and informative. Dry humor sprinkled throughout gives me a smirk of joy. Look forward to listening daily. Heard your interview with Cal (Fussman); listened, subscribed, and slowly working my way backward through the catalog. Greetings from the LLC (Lower Lake County (Leesburg)) Florida. Hope that completes your Bingo card.

Thanks, Bugsquisher! If anyone is interested, they can listen to my interview on the Big Questions with Cal Fussman podcast. I talk about my travels around the world and, of course, this show. There is a link to the interview on my website. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.