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WATCH: Silk and the Song Dynasty

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Video transcript

There's an amazing scroll in the collection of the  New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's called "Along the River during the Qingming Festival". Dating to the 11th century during the Song dynasty in China, the scroll illustrates a thriving  society. We see farmers growing crops and herding animals, artisans producing goods, merchants  transporting their products by ship and caravan, and people buying and selling those goods. A common thread running through this masterpiece is silk, quite literally. Not only does the image  depict silk production and probably silk traders, but the scroll itself is made of silk, as is  the canvas on which the image was painted. Silk is nothing but a fabric using thread made  from a worm about as long as my pinky finger. So how did it shape culture diplomacy and politics in the Song dynasty? How important was it to this thriving society? To find out, we have to  dig deeper into the history of China and its connections to the wider world in the era of the Song. The Song dynasty reigned over much of China between about 960 and 1275. To the north, other  parts of China were under the control of mainly nomadic people in this period known as the Xia  and Jin, and they produced lots of silk as well. As you already know, this period saw an expansion  of trade across Afro-Eurasia. West African gold, Indian cotton, and many other products were flowing  around the world's biggest landmass, both over the   water by ship and over land by caravan. Within  this system, Chinese silk was one of the biggest industries, producing a more expensive product  that traveled much farther away than just about anything else. Some of the most important export  markets for silk traders were the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Korea, and Central Asian states.  Some markets may have been as far west as Europe. Hello, I'm Francesca Hodges, and I'm talking about  silk because I find it really interesting, but I'm not an expert. Luckily, I know someone who is, so  I'm going to interview Professor Xiaolin Duan to   find out more about the role of silk in the Song dynasty and in both Chinese and world history.   So my first question today is what are the major themes of the Song dynasty period of Chinese history? So the Song dynasty was, politically speaking, it is not an expansional or military strong dynasty. It's different from  the previous dynasty, the Tang, and also different   from the next one, the Yuan dynasty, but the Song  dynasty was known for its cultural achievements, and also the Song dynasty was a time of  commercialization and economic development. How did the economy work during the Song dynasty? So speaking of the Song dynasty economic system, there was a strong state involvement.  However, there was also a strong private commercialization going on. So in the other  word is on one hand, there is a well established, national transportation network, and on the other hand, the small towns and the urban network started to prosper. And we also see the  development of local industries, especially handicrafts and that involved with textile weaving  and silk and other types of clothes productions. Who made the silk and where? It took place in different locations, different level, but in different scales. So on the state level, there was an official office called the Linjing Office, literally translated as Twill and Brocade Office. It have an average of 200 silk workers annually, and they mainly produce  silk and textiles for the imperial family. And then there are the urban workshops  that either run commercially or under the major elite families, and those are  for market use. But a majority percentage of silk production during the Song Dynasty  still remained in individual households. And I would say, a large amount of the textiles produced  by individual households were used by themselves and paid as tax. Song dynasty China was not  the only producer of silk in this period. Their neighbors the Xia and Jin in northern China also  made and exported large amounts of the fabric. These states were often at war with each other, and war was expensive. But just as often, they practice diplomacy, partly paying each other  tribute or giving gifts. In this situation, silk wasn't just for clothing or tapestries.  It was also used as a form of currency. That's right. Large purchases or wages for  troops could be paid for in silk. Silk was also used in diplomacy as gifts or as tribute  to and from neighboring kingdoms, but of course a lot of the silk was exported for  sale in other parts of the world. I wanted to know more about that  trade, so I asked Dr. Duan about it. How did the silk export trade work? Both official organizations and private merchants. So the government had the shibao, which is  roughly translated as exporting port cities, and the government used those organizations  to deal with the foreign merchants. So the government definitely exports silk, and on the  other hand, there are a number of private merchants who are engaged in international trade  both legally and illegally. Would you say that the Song dynasty silk trade is  part of a wider Afro-Eurasian world system? So first of all, the Song dynasty started  in this so-called maritime Silk Road. So the Indian Ocean trade started to played an  increasingly important role during that time. So the Euro-Asia connections, which is emphasized  in this Afro-Eurasian world system, was definitely sustained and also energized because of the  exportation of silk during the Song dynasty. I understand that a lot of what we know about  Chinese silk production and trade during this time period comes from visual art pieces. Can  you tell me a little bit more about what we see in these pictures of tilling and weaving from  the Freer Art Gallery? The original picture of   telling and weaving was made by a scholar called  Lou Shu, and he actually made this in response to   Emperor Gaozong's call of persuading the farmers to  really engaged in tilling and weaving at the time. And this one had I think 24 images that detailed  every steps of weaving, from cultivating silkworm seeds into how to feed silkworms how to pick up  mulberry leaves and how to wave, and including how to worship the goddess of silkworm. So there  are a number of interesting features of the picture of tilling and weaving. The first one is  is showing weaving as a female-centered practice. So most of the people as we can see are female  and including younger ladies and older ladies and also the infants who were carried by the  ladies, so they were showing that this is a family-based production. When I saw there were so many  more women than men in these images, I realized   I wanted to better understand the role of gender  in silk production. My expert did not disappoint. You mentioned that silk industry  or the silk trade in China created   almost a gendered economy. Do you think you  could expand a bit on that? It's probably important, an important assertion  because it's empowered women   especially when the Song dynasty started  this commercialization of silk production and women started to found that they can  make money by making silk. They not only make clothes for their family members, but also made for the market. I wondered about the impact of all this silk production. The Song dynasty was a period  of great innovation. Gunpowder, the compass, and movable type printing were all invented. It was  also a period of great philosophy and art with an expanded system of schools and a big government  bureaucracy. These innovations were largely funded by this huge expansion in silk production. Could we compare this 11th and 12th century economic miracle to the Industrial Revolution  in 18th and 19th century Britain? I had to ask. Now some historians argue that there was an industrial revolution of sorts occurring during the Song dynasty. Would you agree? So yes, I do think  there was an industrial revolution of some sort during the Song dynasty, especially if we look at say three things, the using of coal as the main energy sources, and the second one is the production of iron, and the third one is the accumulation of technological development and the documentation of those practical knowledge reached a new level. But however, we have to admit that there was quite some difference between the Song dynasty  industrial revolution and the Industrial   Revolution we all know about in British history,  especially in speaking of the monopolizing of   wealth among several major merchants. We didn't see  that concentration of wealth in the Song dynasty. And the second one is the British history  witnessed a strong desire for the use of machine, but that didn't happen to the same extent in the  Song history because China was blessed by the   large amount of labor, so that was an advantage, but on the other hand also restricted the strong motivation of developing machines. The comparison  to Britain's Industrial Revolution six centuries later helps me to understand the incredible  scale of silk production in the Song dynasty. Some of this silk flowed into the vast Eurasian  trading system, some even reaching Europe, but most of it was absorbed by the massive economy of  China. It was used to pay taxes, used as currency, and of course was used in the way we use it now as clothing decoration or as a canvas for artwork. The Song dynasty would end with the Mongol  invasion of China in the 13th century, and China's economy would grow and decline in  cycles for centuries after. Today, China has the   world's largest economy once again. Silk is no  longer one of its most valuable products, but   China's silk output still dominates the global  market. In many ways, silk is permanently linked   with China across world history and for no time  period is this more true than in the Song dynasty.