In the 27th century BCE, empress Leizu was drinking tea when a cocoon fell into her steaming cup and began to unravel. Noticing the soft and strong qualities of the fibre that emerged, she convinced her husband, the Yellow Emperor, to gift her with a grove of mulberry trees so she could cultivate the threads for weaving. This is one account of the mythological origins of silk in China, a legend which is remembered today in folk customs that celebrate the Silkworm Mother as a goddess. While this account is legendary, 5000-year-old archaeological evidence of silk production has been found along the banks of the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. China had a monopoly on silk for at least a millennium and a half, and silk looms so large in Chinese cultural history that during the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE) it functioned as a form of unofficial currency. Some civil servants even received their salaries in silk. In 2009 ‘Sericulture and Silk Craftsmanship in China’ was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in East China has been a centre of sericulture for centuries and is home to the China National Silk Museum. One of the largest museums of dress and textiles in the world, it is also home to the Key Scientific Research Base of Textile Conservation as well as a number of initiatives that focus on the study of Silk Road material culture. Hangzhou itself was the capital city during part of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) and has long been considered a site of natural beauty and contemplation. Steeped in folklore, the city is the setting for fables such as the Legend of the White Snake, one of China’s four great folktales. Its landscape is dominated by the tranquility of the West Lake and its islands, surrounded by undulating hills and dotted with temples and pagodas. Since the 9th century CE it has been celebrated by poets and artists, and the lake’s features were imitated for Kunming lake at Beijing’s Summer Palace, the retreat for the last imperial family, the Qing Dynasty. An old Chinese proverb celebrates the wonders of the scenery, 'In Heaven there is Paradise, on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou.'
Silk is woven into Hangzhou’s economic and artistic history, from the Hangzhou Weaving Bureau which ran the imperial silk workshops during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE), to the ‘Hall of Sericulture Studies’, the first institution dedicated to modern sericulture education in 1897. In the 1920s, factories in Zhejiang province were at the forefront of the mechanization of silk production as the process moved from handcraft to industrial. Yet Hangzhou’s fortunes are not all based in the past. It is also the home to Alibaba, China’s e-commerce and finance behemoth which established the city as a tech centre that has been likened to Silicon Valley in the US. Brands based in the town are becoming aware of the economic power of monetizing heritage. Hangzhou-based silk company Wensli have been operating for more than 40 years, and chairwoman Tu Hongyan claims a family connection in Hangzhou’s silk industry dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279CE). Wensli silk scarves are a favourite of politicians and statespeople looking to include a touch of diplomacy in their dress. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, wore a Wensli scarf during the G20 Hangzhou summit in 2016. Looking to compete in an international market, in 2013 the Wensli Group acquired Marc Rozier, a French silk scarf factory with a 120-year history of manufacturing for brands such as Hermes. This move illuminates broader histories concerning shifts in taste and production: if silk’s origins are in China and cities like Hangzhou, Paris remains the home of couture and the symbolic production of luxury.
It is the concept of luxury that President Xi Jinping’s government is looking to readdress. The Silk Road, a series of interconnecting routes of trade and cultural exchange that joined the Far East to the Mediterranean, was the key to China’s fortune throughout antiquity until the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire in the 14thcentury CE. Chinese products were synonymous with luxury – even reaching Roman emperors – and the creation of products such as silk and porcelain remained closely guarded secrets. Conceptually, the fortunes of the Silk Road remain a bedrock of Chinese policy – the Great Wall of China was extended to protect it. Launched in 2013, the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative aims to revive those ancient freight networks and establish new ones between Asia, Europe and East Africa, and while critics remain divided on the impact of the network on the global fashion industry, the Yiwu-London train route has already opened. Likewise, the ‘Made in China 2025’ programme is a government-backed project to shift the economy towards advanced manufacturing sectors including robotics, ocean engineering, satellites and high-tech transportation, among others, speaking to the desire to reclaim the ‘Made in China’ tag and have it stand for quality and innovation rather than budget mass production. It has ruffled enough feathers to have been criticized by Donald Trumpand cited in his threats of a trade war between the US and China.
Historically, viewing fashion as a form of soft power can help to unpick the cross-cultural impact of Chinese aesthetics on European design and vice versa, as well as the shifting cultural influence of nations. China is the world’s second largest economy (by nominal GDP), and remains a leading producer and exporter of silk. Recognition can be found in blockbuster museum shows such as ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’, a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2015. The exhibition was the Met's fifth most-visited show ever, topping 2011’s ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ which was the Costume Institute’s previous bestseller. ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ focused on China as a source of inspiration to the West and had to negotiate a fine line between celebrating and perpetuating reductive notions of Orientalism, a thread which was woven through the documentary by Andrew Rossi about the show’s curation, The First Monday in May (2016). A previous show at the V&A in 2011, ‘Imperial Chinese Robes from the Forbidden City’, saw many Qing Dynasty garments on display in Europe for the first time. Within China, an interest in rebuilding museum collections developed in the wake of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which saw unprecedented destruction of historical sites in an attempt to eliminate the ‘Four Olds’ – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas – in the name of progress. The 1990s saw an acceleration of attempts to rebuild and re-prioritize heritage (Hangzhou’s China National Silk Museum opened in 1992), and museum collaborations now form part of the OBOR initiative.
Concurrently, a new generation of designers and brands such as Awaylee, C.J. Yao, Ms Min and Alexander T. Zhao are repositioning attitudes towards Chinese design and luxury on both a domestic and international stage. Established couturier Guo Pei is known for celebrating the handwork element of her craft, regularly clocking up thousands of hours to create a single dress (including the one Rihanna wore to the Met Gala). Taking inspiration from Chinese material culture such as blue and white porcelain, she is redefining luxury using concepts from both China and Europe and in 2016 was invited to become a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, the governing body of French couture. As with Hangzhou, fashion in China points towards a fusion of celebrating the past and a future-focused embrace of the present. A reappraisal of the ‘Made in China’ label might just be the beginning.
Main image: First Monday in May, 2015, film still. Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures
Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She is a former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, and a regular public lecturer at institutions ranging from the Tate to the V&A. She researches and presents documentaries, including BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.