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Food for Thoughts - Are Archaic Jades Copies of Silk Weaving Implements?

During a literature search on jade in the local library, I came across the book “Archaic Chinese Script and Ritual Jades” by Leslie Williamson, Yi Publishing, 120 West St., Bridgewater, TA6 7 EU, UK. It has been published, as a revision of an earlier edition, in 1996 with ISBN 0 9514964 7 6.

In this book the author, a member of the Society for the Study of Early China (www.lib.uchicago.edu/earlychina), makes a case for the hypothesis that archaic Jade items such as cong’s, gui’s, t’ing’, bi’s etc. are all connected with the cultivation of silkworms and the weaving of silk.

Pieces of woven silk cloth have indeed been found in Liangzhu burial sites confirming that the culture making cong’s, bi’s and similar jade implements mastered already the sericulture.

The discovery of the product silk from the silkworm species occurred round 2700 BC. It was said that Demigod Leizu, a legendary figure of prehistoric China, started the planting of mulberry trees and raise of silkworms. According to archeological discoveries, silk and silk fabrics emerged at least 5,500 years ago. In the Zhou dynasty, special administration was set up to manage sericulture and silk production. Sericulture spread through China making silk a very valued commodity much sought after by other countries. In 139 BC the world's longest trade route was opened stretching from Eastern China to the Mediterranean Sea. It was named the Silk Road after its most valuable commodity. The famous Silk Road has made great contribution to the development of the human's civilization. By 300 AD the secret of silk production had reached India and Japan.

See also ( http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/clothing/11sericu.htm) and http://www.pclaunch.com/~kayton/Silkworms/lifecycle.htm

Silk manufacture eventually reached Europe and America. During the 18th and 19th centuries Europeans produced several major advancements in silk production. By the 18th century England led Europe in silk manufacturing because of English innovations in the textile industry. These innovations included improved silk-weaving looms, power looms and roller printing. In 1870 an epidemic called Pebrine disease, caused by a small parasite, raged through the industry. Much research was carried out on silkworms during this time ultimately setting the stage for a more scientific approach to silk production. Silk production today is a combination of old and modern techniques.

World silk production has roughly doubled during the last 30 years in spite of the availability of man-made fibers. China and Japan have been the main silk producers, together manufacturing more than half of the world production each year. Chinese silk is highly prized throughout the world. Silk is used for suits, coats, trousers, jackets, shirts, ties, lingerie, hosiery, gloves, lace, curtains, linings and handbags.

According to the different weaving skills and silk fabrics, silk goods are divided to many types, such as brocade, satin and so on. Historically, most of these silk goods served as clothing material and decorations. However, the common people, who once produced excellent silk skills and goods, could not afford this expensive material because of poverty.

The author makes the conjecture the silk played such an important role in these Neolithic societies …..that copies of artifacts used in sericulture and silk weaving were made in jade. These were deposited in the graves of important persons in order to ensure that sericulture could be continued also on resurrection

I do not want to judge the validity of this hypothesis by myself and therefore include selected portions of this book dealing with zhen gui (hu trapezoidal blade; see also Rawson, Jades p186 10:17 to 10:19) and the cong, as scanned photocopies (not optimal quality) for your own judgment hoping that some learned FOJ will comment on this matter for our education.


Woven silk cloth from the Liangzhu Qiansanyang site (≈2500 B.C)

The select text passages are shown below in thumbsized  images - Click on the image if you want to enlarge them.








































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Reader Comments (4)

Very interesting study. I have been pondering the cong's utility alot lately.The deciphering of the glyphs is excellent reasoning but there are still many fundamental attributes of the congs that (for me) do not seem compatible for this theory of a silk weaving instrument.

1. Is the sizes of the discovered congs.Most are small with less than five layers, or corner shamanic masks. These would seem unsuitable for the looming process. As it states in the above passages though these more likely represent icons for the departed person to take to the next world. Even the large congs over 3 feet tall when used as a guide for the silk threads could only produce a piece of cloth that would be far less that 3 feet wide. Maybe thats all they wanted, but I imagine not.

2. Most if not all congs have been found in tombs, even the big ones. If they were for looming I think there would have been more discovered outside of grave sites.

3. They could carve a more effective design in wood in a 100th of the time.

After saying all this though I wanted to search for images of silkworms thinking that the layered pre-taotic masks on the four corners of the congs might look like the face of a silkworm. Well they don't...but...have a look at this image.


I hope it is not just me able to see the resemblance. I just about fell over.

There is also a traditional turkish silk loom in action. Perhaps it is possible implement a cong in this process.

March 24, 2006 | Registered CommenterBrian Matheson
I skimmed this article looking for a specific archaic symbol on a (hopefully) archaic jade seal stamp in my collection. The mechanical drawing of the 'loom' is simple to understand, yet mind-blowing and worthy of consideration as a hypothesis. I have now expanded my thinking to consider that my 'pendant' seal is possibly a loom shuttle marker or weight. This 'silk' hypothesis is at least as plausible to me as an unknown, undefined and unproven religious ceremonial use. Additionally, perhaps jade is the material of choice for properties inherent such as smoothness and anti-static or polishing effects on the silk.

How are we to assume the religious intent or purpose for burial of jades in tombs thousands of years after the fact? Are we to believe archaic Chinese had so much time to spend making non-utility items that all these jades had no use other than religious ceremony or adornment? Perhaps the cultivation of the worm is THE religion tied to survival and trade in the same way maize is central to Native American prehistory with ceremony and utility often being one and the same.

With the paradigm this hypothesis presents perhaps some 'tombs' result from attempts to sequester disease in humans or silkworms by caused by a 'bad spirit' in the jade (microbe?) by burial of the 'tomb jades' with the affected or suspected human. Burning of some tomb jades also fits a purification hypothesis. 3 to 7 thousand years from now I wonder what hypothesis archaeologists will make about our culture?
May 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Moser
You are correct to not assume anything.

We are all just trying to further our understanding by having dialogue with each other and in this way perhaps we can bring a greater variety of experience and knowledge together to provide some better information so that we can guess at these interesting things a little better.

The reasons I have for questioning the theory of the cong for loom equipment is:

1. they were only found in male shamens graves
(jade by Kavern). I have not heard any found outside a burial site which could lead me to thinking they were involved in anything else but ceremony

2.although I have seen examples that are about 3- 4 feet long the far more common discoveries are small and single tiered.

3. The time it takes to make these items to me is the most astounding of all. so why they made them must have had an absolutely immense purpose, whether for daily life or faith.
May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
Sure I have read somewhere that as part of royal inauguration certain actions were performed that were a ritualized representation of the spinning of silk...
Certainly borne out by this theory
May 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

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