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Silkworm Raisers' Customs

Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are prominent silkworm producers in China. in early May each year, every household begins preparing to breed silkworms when barley becomes yellow and the mulberry fields turn green.

A dust-sized silkworm ovum will grow into an ant-shaped silkworm after brooding for a month, and then grow into a long white worm after four periods of quiescence and exuviation and then, the silkworm begins spinning pure white silk and finally turns into a pupa. There are many legends about the development of silkworms. One of them is a touching story, which goes as follows.

Once upon a time, there was a father and his daughter who depended on each other very much. They had a white horse, which the girl fed with mulberry leaves. Once, the father went out to do some trade and didn't come back on time. No one knew of his whereabouts. The daughter was very worried about him. One day, she prayed to marry a kind-hearted man who could help her find her father. When she had just finished asking for this, the white horse standing beside her nodded, circled around her three times and galloped away. Several days later, the white horse found the old man who had lost his way in the mountains and carried him home on his back. However, the white horse was always with the girl from then on and the father was puzzled by the matter. After he questioned her, the girl told the truth to her father. He got very angry, "It is natural that the horse looks for its owner, but how can an animal be a match for a person?" When the horse heard this, it began neighing and refused to eat anything. The father was very angry, and killed it with an arrow. He skinned the horse and dried the hide in the sunshine. After the daughter collected mulberry leaves, she returned home. Caressing the skin of the horse, she burst into tears. When her tears dropped on the horse, her body was wrapped up by the skin and flown to the sky. Later, seeing snow-white silkworms hanging on the mulberry trees, people said that theses silkworms were the girls wrapped in the horse's skin. Since the head of the silkworm is similar to that of a horse's head, Matouniang (a girl with a horse's head) became another name for silkworm. When the daughter missed her father, she spun out the long silk. This is a legend about the origin of how silkworms spin silk and become silkworm cocoons.

In the past, whenever there was a bumper harvest of silkworm cocoons sericulturists would light an incense burner and offerings were arranged in the central room of a house to thank the Goddess of Silkworms. The statue of the goddess engraved on a wooden plate was a goddess in a horse-skin cloth. She had a vertical eye on her forehead which was deliberately drawn because no one could bear to see the arrow wound.

It is very interesting that Japan also has a legend about Matouniang with the spread of Chinese silkworms to Japan in the third century. However, in Japan the Goddess of Silkworms is a Japanese beauty in a kimono that rides a horse.

Sericulture in the region of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces is as important as farming. A good or poor harvest of silkworms is directly related to the livelihood of sericulturists. Silkworms are tender and delicate, hard to raise and easily get diseases. If the diseases spread, all the efforts of the sericulturists will be wasted. Therefore, when the season for breeding silkworms comes, every household in the villages is very busy. There are also many taboos and regulations in this period.

There are taboos surrounding the raising of silkworms. Women are prohibited from visiting friends, children from shouting, and men from going without a shirt during the time when silkworms are being hatched. On seeing peach branches which are thought to avoid evil and red paper with the characters can yue zhi li (A man should be polite in the month of silkworms) inserted on the eaves of a sericulturist's house, an unexpected guest should go away quietly.

There are other taboos and regulations concerning the homes of sericulturists, such as forbidding a stranger to enter the house, prohibitions on shouting, crying, and knocking doors or windows in the house. Liquor, vinegar, and anything smelling of fish of mutton should not be brought into a sericulturist's house and it is forbidden to dig the ground, cut grass, husk rice with a mortar and pestle or to burn fur and hair around a sericulturist's house. in the past, before putting silkworm eggs into a round shallow basket woven out of bamboo, people always pasted a wood engraving of a cat on the basket. This was because mice are natural enemies of silkworms. The mice often climbed to the shelves of silkworms and ate young silkworms when night-watchers dozed off. Hence, every household not only raised cats, but also retains the custom of pasting a picture of a cat on the basket.

Of course, some regulations are superstitious, for instance, menstruating women or women about to give birth are forbidden to raise silkworms; when buying mulberry leaves from other villages, in order to dispel evil spirits, sericulturists use mulberry branches to lash the leaves three times, and then feed them to silkworms. However, the purpose of all these prohibitions is to avoid noise pollution and bad smells. Young silkworms grow healthily in a clean and quiet environment.

When harvesting silkworm cocoons, sericulturists will, according to tradition, buy fish and meat, kill chickens and arrange feasts to celebrate. At this time, friends and relatives bring loquats, duck eggs and zongzi (a triangular dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or other leaves) to visit these sericulturists. They come to send best wishes and ask how many can hua (harvests) these sericulturists get.

Can hua (literally "silkworm flower") is not a flower, but a word which indicates a good or bad harvest of silkworm cocoons. According to local custom, when young silkworms lie dormant for the fourth time, sericulturists will weigh these silkworms on a scale. For instance, if one catty of silkworms can spin out six catties of silkworm cocoons, the six-catty cocoons are called liu fen can hua (liu means six, and fen is a unit of measurement). The word can hua is often used in reference to the silkworm trade, but its meaning has various connotations according to the situation.

For example, local people call women sericulturists can hua gu niang (gu niang means a girl). On the morning of the first day of the lunar year, a woman sericulturist must, according to tradition, sweep the floor from the outside to the inside of a house. It is called sao can hua di (sweep the floor of can hua), meaning that there will be a good harvest of silkworm cocoons when can hua is swept into a house.

On New Year holidays, people will greet each other by saying, gong xi fa cai (may you make a fortune) and can hua er she si fen) (wish you a good harvest of silkworm cocoons).

On the day of the Qingming Festival, at the beginning of April, can hua gu niang will insert can hua in their hair at the temples. Can hua here refers to small flower, or golden yellow vegetable flowers. The can hua gu niang will go to a monastery to pray together at an appointed time. They will also buy some silk flowers from the monastery and insert them in round shallow baskets. This is called tao can hua (tao here mean to beg). They believe that can hua coming from a monastery can expel all the evils in a sericulturist's house, so they will have a brisk silkworm business. At night, the woman of the house will prepare a delicious dinner. The family then gets together to drink. This is called can hua jiu (jiu means liquor). Drinking can hua jiu means that they will do their best to raise silkworms.

When a couple get married, the girl's parents will send the couple two young mulberries, two round shallow baskets of silkworms and silk clothes and bedding as a dowry. They hope that the bride will bring brisk business.

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