Imperial Roman Senators had long complained about the allure of silk upon their citizens.
Seneca the Younger, the stoic philosopher, who had advised the Emperor Nero, had decried the transparency of fine silk—in claiming that it was a cause of adultery. He asserted without proof:
I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes. ... Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.
(Declamations Vol. I.)
The proclaimed “sage” wasn’t joking—but at least Roman sumptuary laws were not discriminatory: in the age of Petronius’ Satyricon, men were also condemned for wearing silk.
The Roman Senate, with their thoughts stewing in their lead-polluted brains, accordingly issued an edict that prohibited their picaresque menfolk from robing themselves in silk as well.
Hence the equality of the sexes was assured— at least for the moment!
Silken sensuality/sexuality was not the only concern of the Romans. Roman Senators were just as much, or perhaps even more, upset about the loss of hard currency from their Silk Road trade with the distant and inscrutable Celestial Kingdom.
According to Pliny the Elder, Roman Senators were outraged about how much Chinese luxury goods—which of course, included the silk—were costing the Roman coffers!
At the lowest computation, India and Seres and the [Arabian] Peninsula together drain our empire of one hundred million sesterces every year. That is the price that our luxuries and our womankind cost us.
Chinese myths claimed it was the legendary Empress, Leizu or Xi Ling-shi, the 14-year old bride of the mythical Yellow Emperor, who was the first to discover silkworms eating the mulberry leaves and spinning cocoons.
Leizu was later worshipped as the Silkworm Mother and credited with the discovery of the cocoon and with the invention of the first silk loom—as if to rub salt deep into the wounds of those unknown individuals who worked loyally for their royal masters, and who actually designed the looms and implemented the spinning process.
The Romans, even if they had known the real story of such exploitation, could care less. What concerned the Senate was that one-sided trade between the Roman Eagle Aquila and the Yellow Celestial Dragon had augmented significantly at least since the warhorses of the Martial Emperor, Wu Di, linked the Gansu Corridor between barren Tibetan Plateau and the sands of Gobi desert to Lop Nur and the Taklamatan Desert.
That was where the desiccated remains of the apricot-headed Beauty of Kiruran were discovered mummified in a hat, silken stockings, and long robes woven with a diagonal twill―a fashion statement of the year 500 BC.
With the costs of Wu Di’s battles mounting—the Chinese people suffered under the yoke of heavy taxes. Wu Di realized that he had to do something very soon if he was going to able to dress his troops in leather jerkins and arm them with the sharpest spears and crossbows and horse-drawn chariots. This is not to forget pleasing those brave warriors, at least once in a while, with women sporting silken gowns.
In adopting Confucian wisdom as the state religion, Wu Di finally realized that he must not overstretch the state’s capabilities in expansionary wars—or else the Celestial Kingdom would rot in misery.
In short, to paraphrase General Ma Yuan’s observation that “horses are the foundation of military power, yet should these great resources of the state falter, so too will the state,” Wu Di realized that he needed jīn (gold)—and a lot of it.
It was not long before the Martial Emperor understood that there was phenomenal wealth to be won without conquest—once China’s forces reached the Tigris and thereby set up the exchange between the Yellow Dragon and the great Persian Peacock along the Silk Road.
It was a revelation: by bearing gifts of silk, cattle, gold, among other Chinoiserie, the Chinese envoys, who were sent deep into western lands, could reap huge rewards from those big nose diplomats from the western barbarian countries. All they had to do was reach out to Roman contacts through Persian intermediaries, even if they did fight among themselves for the spoils, but never meeting eye-to-eye with the Italians: “The traffic on the Silk Road began to flourish as never before.”
In the meantime, another 14-year old ascended to the Roman throne. This individual liked to call himself/herself Heliogabalus, after the Syrian sun god. Heliogabalus was (in)famous for wearing nothing but the finest silk—that is, when he was not indulging in some of the most decadent orgies imaginable, where, it was said depending upon one’s optical perspective, the naked bodies of his drunken guests were either covered or choked by millions of silken rose petals. It seems the sumptuary laws previously enacted under Tiberius and Nero were of “little or no avail in checking the increasing love of luxury in dress and food.”
The tenure of such Carpe Diem leadership living in the extreme was brief, however. After just 4 years, the head of the Emperor/ Empress and that of her/his mother were decapitated, their bodies dragged over the dirt roads of the Roman Civitas for the unforgivable crime of rolling in the silken petals of wild roses.
Nevertheless, despite the horrid fate of some of the most illustrious, but not always the most astute, Roman leadership, or then again, perhaps precisely because those tales of wild orgies, true or not true, fake or not fake, enhanced desire, silk fashion began to extend onward and upward in popularity. Just a century after Heliogabalus and mother were beheaded, “The use of silk which was once confined to the nobility has now spread to all classes without distinction, even to the lowest” according to the historian Marcellinus Ammanius.
By wearing silk, all Romans in the Empire without class distinction could claim they had finally climbed to the top of the social ladder—that is before Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, besieged the once powerful city. His ransom for sparing the starving Romans: 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 3,000 hides dyed with scarlet, 3,000 pounds of pepper and 4,000 tunics of silk.
Jumping just a few centuries, much like the Roman Eagle Aquila, the Byzantine double-headed Eagle had a similar silken bone to pick with the Yellow Dragon.
So upset about their excessive balance of trade and payments with the Celestial Kingdom, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian dispatched three CIA (Christian Intelligence Agents) to travel over the treacherous Silk Road to China in 551 AD—in an ultimate attempt to get even with Celestial Empire.
Their secret mission: To smuggle silkworm eggs out of the country at a time when China’s Northern and Southern dynasties were clashing in acrimony... In the eternal game of dividing to better rule, Byzantium could take advantage of intra-mural Chinese conflict without needing to batter down the Great Wall. These Christian Intelligence Agents (probably Nestorians) stealthily carried out the dastardly deed by packing stolen silkworm eggs in a walking cane stuffed with manure and taking them out of the country.
It was a crime of historic dimensions that would forever alter the balance of economic and social and political power along the Silk Road!
In the aftermath, with bootleg silk industries spreading far outside of the Celestial Empire, Byzantium would never again need to buy silk from their enemies the Persians, who were the intermediaries of the inscrutable Chinese. For now on, Byzantium could produce the materials for refined silk themselves without middlemen.
From Byzantium, the Silkworm Secret would spread to Italy, Sicily and Spain—along with the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, which in turn was spread by the fleas of the Mongol Golden Horde, and by the blood and vomit of seasick Genoese traders on the Black Sea...
The Silkworm craze did not stop in Europe, however, but eventually reached the American colonies as well. In pursuing his own quest for silkworm secrets, the American diplomat, revolutionary, and scientist, Ben Franklin, was heavily inspired by Confucius, Chinese stoves, Chinese shipbuilding—and Yellow Dragon Silk.
The man who invented the Lightning Rod had studied the “ingenious” heating technology used by “the northern Chinese” (Mongols). But most of all, Franklin wanted to obtain a total understanding of the Celestial Empire. He then sought to uncover China’s silkworm secrets so as to enlighten the fledgling American silk industry.
The discovery: it was the leaves of the smallest and youngest mulberry trees that made the best silk when fed to the silkworm. And after learning this precious Silkworm Secret, Franklin believed Philadelphia silk could eventually imitate Yellow Dragon techniques. And that Philadelphia Silk could, on the balance, hold up to Carolina and Georgia silk as well as to Indian and Italian—and even to its Chinese competitors.
Just another thief stealing the Yellow Dragon’s silkworm secrets!
And knowing her dad’s efforts to push American products based on Chinese ingenuity, and knowing her father’s gratitude to France for graciously spilling the blood of young French soldiers for the American cause, Franklin’s daughter Sally sent her father local Philadelphia silk as a gift from her to Queen Marie Antoinette.
“What got into your head that you with scarcely shoes on your feet know what to give a Queen?” Franklin sarcastically queried. In no way was he about to give such knowingly low-quality American silks to the overly refined l’Autrichienne…
Yet not really wanting to embarrass or upset his daughter, Franklin then promised he would dye the silk and make it into suits. At least Franklin knew American silk products were not of a high enough quality to be fit for the Queen of France—even if the silk materials had not been stained on the long transatlantic voyage… which they were.
Like the Chinese Empress, Leizu (Xi Ling-shi), and as the Roman Emperor/Empress Heliogabalus, Marie-Antoinette was also 14-years old when she becomes dauphine of France upon her forced marriage to Louis-Auguste, heir apparent.
Not so thrilled to be there, but nevertheless engaged in her aristocratic duty, Marie nevertheless loved her voluminous gowns and ornamental brocades and her yellow silk shoes that she wore almost daily.
Then one day she surprised the world. By wearing a fluffy cotton Chemise dress, she caused an international scandal. The elites sneered: It was as if she had exposed herself in common underwear!
With her loyalty to France already suspect, it was believed that she had betrayed her class. Silk would no longer be in fashion; the French silk trade was doomed!
And in truth, not long after the Austro-French fashion Queen met pretty much the same decapitated fate as Heliogabalus, Cotton would become King.
Not really keen on bestowing gifts of American silk to the Queen, and not that overly concerned with material things, Franklin looked for other more spiritual ways for the world to recognize the new Yankee Doodle Dandy country and its society.
Much like Wu Di, the Chinese martial Emperor, Franklin realized the wisdom of adopting Confucianism as the state religion for the newly independent American colonies. Some 12 out of 13 of Franklin’s 13 virtues (except perhaps for tranquility) listed in his Autobiography were largely purloined from The Morals of Confucius.
These included: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity, Humility.
And with the American psyche stimulated by such heavenly Confucian moralizing, it would not be long before Silk—that substance created by the entrails of worms—would once again be denounced by American fundamentalist preachers as encouraging lustful acts…
And as immoral and decadent silk costumes began to lose their luster and sex appeal, slavery would soon boom with the invention of the Cotton Gin…
In short, the whole process of capitalism and globalization—of the West meeting with the East—had started with the quest by Romulus and Remus, the Byzantine Double-Headed Eagle and Venetian Lion of Saint Marco Polo for Cathay Silk along the Silk Road.
That was long before the squirmy worm voyaged across the Atlantic, to the Beautiful Land of Rice (Měiguó)—at the very roots of its Revolution and efforts to escape the clutches of the King George dictatorship.
Today—Americans and Europeans are making similar complaints about cheap Chinese imports, undervalued currency, and other Chinoiserie, including silk, as did previous empires in history—although the American Empire and European Union make for very poor imitations of Rome and Byzantium… while the Chinese Dragon (transmuting colors from Red to Brown and Black) is engaging in new and very risky ventures upon a global Silk Road.
(Excerpts and redactions from a novel in progress, Year of the Earth Serpent Changing Colors…).