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Silk and Chinese Art

The Artworks with Silkworm as the Theme

The life of a silkworm is amazing. In its short life, it undergoes four changes -- from egg to larva (generally known as silkworm) to chrysalis (cocoon or pupa) to moth. These changes inspired ancient Chinese people to contemplate the fundamental questions of life and death. The egg is considered as the beginning of life; larva, the hatched egg, as the birth of life; the chrysalis, as the end of life; and the flying moth, as the spirit after life.

The physiological changes of the silkworm is somewhat related to the primitive ideas in ancient China. People worshiped the silkworm as an auspicious creature and an incarnation of their god. Besides, the ancient Chinese also made pottery, jade, bone, and bronze into accessory gadgets in the shapes of a silkworm or chrysalis. Therefore, the earliest traces of the ancient silk industry were not in any document, but rather were relics reflecting the subject.

A number of porcelain and jade chrysalis, silkworm, and moth carvings have been excavated at Neolithic sites.

At the 7,000-year-old Hemudu Site located in Yuyao of East China's Zhejiang Province, a silkworm carving on ivory was unearthed. A black pottery artwork at the Meiyan Site (3,000-2,500BC) in Wuxian County of East China's Jiangsu Province also had silkworm carvings. A pottery chrysalis was unearthed at a Yangshao Cultural Relics Site in Ruicheng of North China's Shanxi Province, while the pottery carvings vividly revealed the process of silkworm changing into a chrysalis at another Yangshao Cultural Relics Site in Zhengding of North China's Hebei Province.

All these abovementioned relics demonstrated that people at the time began to notice the changes of the silkworm's life.

Another more important finding was that of a half cocoon unearthed in Xiaxian County of Shanxi Province. The cut cocoon was probably used for divination (predicting the future). In the Shang and Zhou dynasties (16th century-221BC), figures with a human head but a chrysalis body appeared on a lot of jade wares, which directly reflected people's thoughts on life.

The Artworks with the Mulberry as the Theme

The image of a mulberry tree often appeared in ancient Chinese artworks. The ancient people thought the mulberry forest was the place that led to heaven. Fu sang was thus the legendary huge mulberry tree beyond the seas, where the sun rises.

At the Sanxingdui Cultural Relics Site of the Shang Dynasty (16-11th century BC) in Guangyuan of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, a huge bronze Fu sang was excavated, which has a tall and big trunk, and is indeed a rare elaborate work.

In the Zenghou Yi Mausoleum during the Warring States Period (475-221BC) in Central China's Hubei Province, there was a Fu sang painting. Under the tree stood a man shooting his bow. It was estimated that the man is Houyi, a figure in Chinese mythology.

By the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), the shapes of Fu sang depictions were more varied. In the Mawangdui Han Tomb, a piece of silk with an embroidered Fu sang was found. The Fu sang of the same shape was also found in Hubei Province.

However, more Fu sang images appeared on the painted stones of the time, with some featuring resting birds, some having horses beneath them, and some showing girls plucking mulberry leaves. The mulberry that best resembles a real tree is the painting on a bronze kettle featuring a group of girls dancing in a mulberry forest. 

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