Our host takes us on a 2-hour car journey to the place that is believed to be the origin of all silk making.
The archeological site of QuinShanYang was dug out 50 years ago. A scholar, on his return from his study in America discovered ancient potteries on the site, and pushed for a dig to be carried out. There, they found a small piece of silk, no bigger than a coin, which had been estimated to be from 4000BC. If this is true, this could be one of the earlier relics of silk ever found.
Trying to follow the sat nav, and asking many locals which way to go, we arrive right there, where the stone has been erected to mark the place where the relic was found. There, we find the happiest man I have ever met, the director and keeper of the piece of land where the archeological site now rests asleep, hidden under fields of grass and mulberry trees. He shows us mulberry leaves, and explains that the silk worms where first found wild in the mountains, all the way from China to India. There are many species of silk worms but the biggest ones are called Tussar.
A local community museum has been created near the site to showcase some of the potteries found there and an enlarged replica of the ancient piece of silk (the real one is preciously kept by Zhejiang Provincial Museum). A tall carved stone sculpture marks the village nearby as an ancient silk village. In the distance, I can see flakey grey walls, making a beautiful backdrop for the contrasting colourful clothes hung outside windows. I wish I could spend more time here…
Nearby shines the brand new Culture Exchange Centre – also called Hughou Ling Silk Institute. It stands proudly in a perfectly beautifully tamed landscape similar to a postcard and opens up on the Tai Lake. It is so peacefull, and feels very remote, but it is only a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Hughou with its busy traffic and tall tower blocks. Obviously well supported by the government, the museum has a luxurious and hyper polished feel about it, with many members of staff looking greatly smart. The beautifully crafted exhibition, with a bunch of cocoons carefully placed on a nest of weaved silk, and breath taking displays, makes my footsteps echo as no visitors are to be seen – yet.
We have a seminar with the Director of the museum, Ms Zhu, and the director of the Silk Research Institute. Referring to a Chinese book about ancient silk, Ms Zhu explains that silk was first created not for practical needs but for spiritual needs, as people had already found ways to dress and stay warm with animal skins. She believes people thought that metamorphosis was a metaphor for the process of life. Silk weaving was more of a philosophy, thinking about where we come from and where we are going as human beings. Silk was first only used for the bodies of the dead. They were wrapped up like cocoons, ready to metamorphose into their spiritual after life. But only the wealthiest people could afford this after life…
The lands where mulberry trees grew were also thought to be sacred, with magical and fertile powers. People held ceremonies there, for example for women who could not conceive. The Chinese written representation of silk consists in two symbols, one represents a worm, and above it the other one represents the sky, as if the silk worm had been brought to life on earth underneath the heavens.
Later on, silk became used for religious ceremonies and was then made more and more popular across the layers of society.
Hughou is named the lake city, with many rivers running through it that are now hidden underneath the growing urban landscape. People believe it is situated right underneath the heavens, that this place is very special. Situated between Hangzhou, Shangai and Nanjing, in a wetland surrounded by a lake, a river leading to the nearby sea and a grand canal, it seems like the perfect place for the origin of silk production to rise. And maybe it is true that it is the happiest place on earth… I have not stayed long enough to check if this is true. But if this is paradise, what a beautiful coincidence to realise that the mill in Macclesfield containing a grand collection of working looms happens to be called Paradise Mill. This trip is strangely becoming more and more meaningful and mystical…
The Exchange Cultural Centre is welcoming us like queens (Dorothy strangely looks like the queen A LOT, especially here). Luggage are carried, mulberry tea is served, and a deliciously weird banquet is displayed on a large round table with spinning tray. I bravely try the wonderful dishes traveling past my eyes, but I am not feeling courageous enough to put any of the mini shrimps, tales flickering in their bowl as if calling for a last attempt to freedom, anywhere near my plate or my mouth! At least the food is definitely fresh!
I am loving the watermelon juice. My glass is magically refilled every time I drink any. Its feels like I have drunk a gallon and my glass is still full to the top.