It seems barely credible that a country such as China, whose origins can be traced back to at least 7000BC, should be so closely associated with a material that is so perishable. Yet silk is synonymous with China, more so perhaps than its other great but more robust commodity, porcelain.
Silk was so central to the Chinese identity that it became an integral part of China's creation myth, dating its discovery to the third millennium BC, when the legendary Empress Xiling is said to have invented the loom and taught the people how to unwind threads from silkworm cocoons that would ultimately become garments. What is beyond doubt is that very early on - certainly by the Shang dynasty (c 1500-1050BC) - silk became a mainstay of the Chinese economy. It was used over successive centuries for clothing, as a commodity, as currency, as a medium and a means of artistic expression, and as a symbol of wealth and power.
Chinese Silk: A Cultural History , by Shelagh Vainker, is a bold attempt to address in an accessible way the multifaceted dimensions of this most luxurious of all textile materials. It is bold in that Vainker's approach is wide ranging, as her subtitle implies. This is not simply a picture book that discusses surviving examples in a stylistic context (in many cases there are not sufficient surviving examples to illustrate, particularly from the very earliest periods); it is also a study that draws on archaeological, historical, literary, technological and art-historical sources in the quest to understand the use, role and position of silk in Chinese society at different periods.
The framework is broadly chronological. The author traces the development of silk production from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (c 5000BC-221BC), through the early empire under the Han (206BC-AD220), the expansion of trade during the Tang (AD618-906) and the urban sophistication of the Song (AD960-19), to the expansion of the industry under the Ming and Qing dynasties in the 16th to 19th centuries. Finally, there is a brief discussion of the industry from the Republican period (1912-49) to the present day.
Within these broad chronological sweeps, there are many interesting details that help contextualise technical developments and cultural changes. For example, Vainker draws on the latest archaeological evidence to improve our understanding of the use and production of silk during the Bronze Age.
Much of this evidence is comparative, usually but not exclusively drawn from less perishable materials such as jade and bronze. There are details of technical advances, particularly during the Tang dynasty when new dyes and weaving techniques, such as the kesi (tapestry weave), were introduced.
Silk was closely associated with the high arts of calligraphy and painting, both as a medium and as a mounting material at least from the 4th century. During the 12th and 13th centuries, silk was used to create images in imitation of scroll paintings that were considered works of art in their own right. Silks as collectables, as furnishings as well as dress, are dealt with in some detail in the chapters on the Ming and Qing periods, as is the export trade to the West in the 18th century.
Surprisingly perhaps, this is the first book of its kind in English. There have been similar surveys that have encompassed the broader category of Chinese textiles, but none exclusively on Chinese silk. Scholarly yet accessible and richly illustrated, the book will have relevance to a wide readership, from textile historians and historians of China to those simply interested in beautiful things.
Nick Pearce is head of the history of art, Glasgow University.
Chinese Silk: A Cultural History
Author - Shelagh Vainker
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 224
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 7141 1479 0