A visit to a silk exhibition sparks a writer’s journey of discovery

20th century Chinese silk dress and skirts
Gallery View
A silk merchants export permit during the Qing dynasty
A scroll painting of an imperial lady in formal robe with jewels and accessories
A generals uniform
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Chinese silk and poet Li Shangyin

When I think of silk, I think of classic Chinese literature. Both are Chinese cultural gems. As a literature lover, I feel an intimate connection to silk. A couplet by Li Shangyin (813-858) links these two traditions, “The silkworm stops weaving when it is dead. The candle stops weeping when it burns out”.  

The Passion for Silk exhibition at City University inspired this creative link between these Chinese traditions. The intimate exhibition provides the ambience necessary for unhurried meditation and an occasion for new inspiration.

Silk as ancient dynasty currency

Recalling the tenacity described in Li’s poem, a silk-producing caterpillar makes a cocoon, which is also its tomb. This thought sparks a new poem in me… words can be as delicate as silk threads. As these thoughts coalesce, I wandered into the next section to learn about the historical significance of silk. The fabric was valued as equivalent to gold between the Zhou (1046-256 BCE) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Even tax bills could be paid with silk, which required standards. From the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) onward, the government regulated the quality of silk by establishing set standards for weight, colour and type of weave.

Nomadic does not mean barbarian

Growing up as a Han Chinese, I held the misconception that nomadic ethnic groups were barbaric and poor, drifting around without a permanent home. It was a revelation to learn that these very groups were pioneers in wearing silk; this admission not only shattered my cocooned perspective but also moved me to better consider the poetic links between words and silk. 

Royal Qing dynasty silk robes

The ceremonial robes of the Qing dynasty take the show’s central stage. Two robes stand out in terms of richness. One is a heavily brocaded yellow with shoulder flaps for a first consort or empress, and the other is a light black gauze with a skirt and top. The wearers of these two would be of the highest political status.

Sumptuary laws forbidding the wearing of silk

Only the wealthiest could afford a silk robe. But others might have been able to buy a ribbon or purse made of silk. Intriguingly, it is precisely for this reason that the emperors instituted rigid sumptuary laws and clothing rules to separate the true aristocracy from the newcomers who had money but were not part of the system. This still happens today when those with privileged backgrounds restrain the up-and-coming from elite status with hidden and discriminatory fashion rules.

A Vivienne Tam qipao

Fortunately, sumptuary laws about wearing silk have long been forgotten, and poetry is accessible to anyone. Arriving in Hong Kong at the age of twelve, I lived with my family in a slum that was ironically called Diamond Hill. Now, I wear designer gowns without fear of reprisal. My favourite is a Vivienne Tam silk qipao-style gown. Wearing these luxury garments makes me feel womanly, gorgeous and sensual. More importantly, it connects with my roots – the Chinese culture.

Weight for weight, catty for catty, silk is stronger than steel. Letter by letter, breath by breath, words are stronger than sticks, stones and swords.

Tenacious spirits

While exploring A Passion for Silk, I found inspiration in the tenacious spirit of the silkworm and the evocative imagery in Li Shangyin’s poem. Contemplating the parallels between silk production and the creative process led to the following poem…

Be a Silkworm

a caterpillar that produces silk threads,
finer than any human hair,
insignificant to the eye,
has tremendous power,
resilience and elasticity.
A writer works with words
like silk threads,
delicate, slight, flimsy,
easily broken,
but listen, there are robust heartbeats.
Spun protein molecules,
silk threads tightly align
and show remarkable sturdiness.
Letters woven into words,
swirl like gossamer
catching the light.
Silk threads and words
can be woven and spun
and reassembled.
Weight for weight, catty for catty,
silk is stronger than steel.
Letter by letter, breath by breath,
words are stronger than sticks,
stones and swords.
Thread by thread, we get beautiful Qipao.
Word by word, we achieve masterpieces.
A caterpillar keeps producing
silk threads until its death.
A writer keeps writing until her last breath.

Text & photos Sonia Leung