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Iconic Images and Jade Textile Tools for Neolithic and Bronze Age China’s Silk Industry

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China’s Neolithic cultures were the originators of silk thread production. I propose that this development is represented by a ubiquitous iconic image, the silkworm‐silk moth life cycle motif, commonly called a taotie or “monster mask.” Silkworms are also portrayed in small Neolithic jade carvings. Subsequent Shang bronzes show that the “life cycle motif” had evolved. Increasingly abstract, decorative patterns, derived from intricate silk textiles, were often combined in this period with new images depicting silkworm egg and larvae motifs. These images are indicative of advances in sericulture and silk textile production. By the end of the Shang, China’s textile industry had a new iconic image: the Chinese Dragon, a chimera that I propose is a composite of the silkworm, silk moth, coiled Hongshan forms, and Shang tiger images. The silk textile industry was of such great importance, I contend that tools from its operations have survived in many jade artifacts. Because their original purpose has not been recognized, they are usually described as pieces of adornment or “ceremonial” objects. Many of the jades seem likely to have been tools that assisted in the chores of spinning, reeling, and twining thread for silk fabrics.

Keywords: dragon origins; life cycle; mechanical technology; textile tools

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: July 1, 2009

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  • Textile brings together research in textile studies in an innovative and distinctive academic forum for all those who share a multifaceted view of textiles within an expanded field. Peer-reviewed and in full-color throughout, it represents a dynamic and wide-ranging set of critical practices. It provides a platform for points of departure between art and craft; gender and identity; cloth, body and architecture; labor and technology; techno-design and practice— all situated within the broader contexts of material and visual culture.

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