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The Myth of Silkworms

Ancient China was famed for fine silk. The silk was from the threads which were spun by silkworms. Silkworms were originally the special native animals of China. For the most profit, ancient Chinese government prohibited exporting silkworms. In the Silk Road, the Persian monopolized the silk selling to the Western world, so silk was very expensive in the markets of the Europe. Justinian I, the great emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, fought against Persia, but didn’t achieve his goal. It is said that Indian monks smuggled silkworm eggs out of the Liang (梁) Empire (the third one of the Southern Dynasties) of China and presented them to Justinian I, and they told the emperor to breed silkworms with mulberry leaves. There are many local mulberries in the Europe, so silkworms started to be bred widely by the European people. The Europe could independently produce silk since then. About the breeding of silkworms, Chinese people have a myth about its origin.

The myth is recorded in the book “Soushenji” (搜神記), a collection of stories about ghosts and spirits, written by Gan Bao in the Eastern Jin Dynasty. It is said, in the remote far times, a man had to leave his daughter and go to a far place. Only a male horse was kept with the girl. She was very alone, and missed her father very much. She said jokingly to the horse, “If you can meet my father and let him return home, I will marry you.” The horse heard the words, and then it broke the reins and ran. The horse found the girl’s father. The man recognized that it was his horse, and felt very pleasantly surprised. He used the horse to draw his carriage, but the horse watched the direction of the home, and cried sadly. The man said, “This horse strangely does so. Does my family have any accident?” Then he rode the carriage and returned home rapidly.

When the man returned home, he saw his daughter was safe and well. The father and the daughter felt very excited each other. The man thought the horse had supernatural feelings, and fed it very well. But the horse didn’t eat the forage, and became very fidgety when it saw the girl. Many times it did so. So the man felt surprised, and asked his daughter secretly. The girl told the joke to her father. The man was angry and said, “Don’t tell others, because the joke will bring disgrace to our family. Don’t go out.” Then the man shot the horse and skinned it. He dried the skin in the dooryard.

One day the man left home. The girl and a neighbor’s girl played beside the skin. The girl kicked the skin and said, “You were an animal, and how dare you wanted to get married with a human? Now you was killed and skinned, and why did you want such miserable end?” The skin of the horse suddenly jumped up and wrapped the girl and went away. The neighbor’s girl was horror-struck, and ran to find the girl’s father and told him about it. That man rapidly returned, but he couldn’t find his daughter.

Several days later, the man found his daughter, but the girl with the skin of the horse had been transformed into a silkworm, and she wove silk in a special tree. The fibers of this silkworm’s cocoon were stronger and more durable than ones of ordinary silkworms. A neighbor’s woman took the silkworm and bred it with the leaves of that special tree. Later her profits were several times more than the profits of others who bred ordinary silkworms with other leaves. The woman called that special tree “Sang” (桑) for mourning for the girl. The “Sang” tree was a mulberry. Another Chinese character “喪” which is also pronounced “Sang” means “mourning”, so the woman used the character “桑” which has the same pronunciation but has a radical “wood” (木).

More and more people heard the story, and came here for buying the eggs of the silkworm transformed from the girl and the seeds of the mulberry. So ordinary silkworms gradually disappeared, and the breed of the special silkworm was kept and spread widely. Mulberry leaves became almost the only feeding stuffs of silkworms. In the Zhou Dynasty, people believed that silkworms and horses could influence each other mysteriously. In the Han Dynasty, a silkworm goddess was worshiped. The story of the girl should have relations with the old belief.

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