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The interplay between aesthetics, silk, and trade.

1. Introduction

The theory that I shall seek to elaborate here puts considerable emphasis on the development of silk production in China, the rise of the Silk Road trade, cultural exchange based upon silk, and the production and consumption of silk in Thailand. The mainstay of the paper is formed by an analysis of the decline of the Thai silk industry, the Silk Road as a symbol for complex cultural exchange, traditional techniques of silk production in China, and the discontinuity in Silk Road trade. The results of the current study converge with prior research on the development of Japan's modern silk-reeling industry, the global stretch of the Silk Road, traditional work practices in the Thai silk industry, and the growth of silk as a trade item.

2. The Development of Silk Production

Kurin posits that the historical Silk Road teaches us the importance of connecting different peoples and cultures together (1) as a way of encouraging human creativity. The Silk Road represented a form of global economy when the known world was more difficult to traverse than nowadays (silk had an exceedingly long history and was among the most valuable of goods traded). Early in Chinese history, silk was used for clothing the Emperor. The Chinese closely guarded the method of silk production from outsiders. Silk became associated with wealth and power, Julius Caesar entering Rome in triumph under silk canopies. The Romans increasingly spent wealth on silk. In Byzantium, silk purchases accounted for a large drain on the treasury. Under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Constantinople became a center of silk production. Silk weavers energized the development of silk tapestry as Renaissance art. The trade in silk helped fuel the commercial transformation of Western Europe. Silk as a valuable traded commodity played a major role in the early development of global economy. (2)

Xu examines the reasons that allowed for handicraft silk to persist on its own merits. Filature silk displaced hand-reeled silk in export markets where uniformity was important for use with mechanical looms. From 1880 to 1930, more than half of all raw silk production in China continued to be hand-reeled. The 1930s marked the beginning of the end for the Chinese silk industry. Raw silk is the reeled silk strands that can be processed into threads suitable for weaving (raw silk was produced industrially in China). Industrial silk reeling surpassed traditional reeling in productivity. Handicraft silk benefited from the efficiency gap that existed between filature and hand reeled silks. The value of industrialization accounts for around fifteen to twenty percent of the total value of raw silk. The market share of filature silk increased rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In sum, there is considerable theoretical support for the notion that hand- reeled silk remained strong in its traditional markets as the raw material of choice for hand-loom weavers, benefiting from the dependence of traditional weavers. Xu points out that the strength of hand-reeled raw silk depended on the strength of the domestic market (3) for silk cloth. Power weaving was a compelling technology for a great variety of silk products. Merchants of handicraft silk products developed new markets in inexpensive silk cloth for export. Hand-reeled silk persisted in China because the technology of steam reeling failed to achieve absolute superiority in both efficiency and quality, whereas and a large market continued to hunger for lower priced silk. (4)

Ma remarks that the contrasting performance in China (5) and Japan's silk exports is directly linked to the differential rates of decline in barriers to learning and economy-wide transaction costs. The prototype of the foottreadle silk-reeling machine in Southern Europe was Chinese. Exports of handreeled silk in China and Japan rivaled that of the machine-reeled before 1900.

All of this can be taken as evidence of the recognition that the success of modern silk reeling industries hinges on the capacity of grass-root rural communities and agrarian structures. Ma argues that machine-reeled silk can be produced with higher total factor productivity and fetches a higher price than that of the hand-reeled silk. A reduction in price of machine-reel tool will lead to higher output of machine-reeled silk relative to that of hand-reeled. (6)

3. The Evolution of the Silk Industries

Rezakhani holds that the "Silk Road" describes the many trade routes (7) and points of contact that criss-crossed Central Asia: the Silk Road is a modern historiographical invention, serving to lump together individual histories and creating long-distance connections where they never existed. For a more productive study of Central Asian history, we must notice the realities, to consider individual socioeconomic systems and their peculiarities. (8)

Graham focuses on the ways in which sellers of silk describe the benefits of using the Internet to sell silk, and looks at some of the actual benefits of the Internet within the Thai silk industry (the Internet will allow more capital to reach the producers of silk). For centuries, the Thai silk industry has become a part of the northeast of Thailand's cultural heritage. Thai silk producers are in a worrying economic position. By altering commodity chain structures, the Internet may transform economic networks and power-geometries within the silk industry. A variety of discourses are present on the Web sites of producers and merchants selling silk. (9)

Graham maintains that the Internet is slowly becoming integrated into production networks of silk, asking whether silk-making traditions are being replaced as producers interact with distant customers through the internet: the most straightforward way to smoothly transmit codifiable knowledge about silk is to sell machine-made and standardizable fabrics. Demand for silk within Thailand is waning. Multimedia-rich websites may allow consumers to learn more about why Thai silks cost more than machine-made fabrics. Machine-made silk is far more likely to be sold by sellers that have websites than those that do not.

Research findings like the ones mentioned here constitute an important body of evidence in favor of the claim that the medium through which silk is sold is an influencing factor in the ways in which silk is produced and marketed. Graham writes that silk occupies a unique position as a signifier (10) of many aspects of Thai identity. Contemporary Thai silk is not a container of static, unchanging design elements. Buyers' non-traditional or non-local preferences and tastes may be filtering through nodes in silk production networks. "Not all foreign consumers of silk precipitate change in the production process through a combination of purchasing power and tastes that do not match the styles and methods of production that have been (until recently) reproduced by relatively isolated weavers. Differing tastes among generations of Thais are likely an equally powerful agent of change." (11)

4. The Growth of Silk as a Trade Item

Nakabayashi focuses on internalization process of branding from trading companies to cooperatives of silk-reeling manufacturers, and to individual manufacturers, introducing a simple example of modeling brand establishment, dealing with internal organizational changes of silk-reeling manufacturers during the internalization process, and comparing the Japanese combination of the market institution and firm organization with other types. The modern silk-reeling was the largest export industry of Japan from the 1880s to the 1920s. The American silk fabric industry developed after the late 1870s, a growth accelerating in the 1880s (power throwing machines and power-looms prevailed in the 1880s). Cooperative re-reeling was useful in producing the kind of uniform raw silk demanded in the United States. (12)

Oikonomides states that Persia and its merchants as intermediaries was a decisive factor (13) for the sixth-century silk trade. Byzantium remained the only potential customer for silk west of Persia (demand for silk in Byzantium was very strong). Legislation was introduced forbidding ordinary citizens to wear high-quality silk. Justinian tried to fix mandatory low prices for silk garments inside the empire. Byzantine silk production became one of the major elements of the economic force of the empire. A kommerkiarios was a person with authority over silk garments. The kommerkiarioi were dealing in silk (some of their seals with the imperial effigy were used for bales of merchandise). The sixth- and early seventh-century kommerkiarioi were concentrated at the end of the silk route (silk imports were essential for maintaining an adequate supply of luxury garments in the empire).

Based on the considerations above, it is not difficult to show that the seventh century was the period during which Byzantine silk production became a pillar of the empire's state economy. Oikonomides argues that Byzantine kommerkiarioi of the provinces appeared close to the places where silk traditionally originated (texts and seals of that period point toward the silk trade). The kommerkiarioi were mainly related to silk production inside "their" provinces. Silk production expanded in various degrees in all Asia Minor. The ninth- and tenth-century kommerkiarioi were divorced from silk trade and production. In the tenth century silk production functioned according to the principles of a free economy. (14)

Hansen assesses the impact of the Silk Road trade on Turfan, analyzing the oasis's residents in concentric rings. The Silk Road merchants drew their members from both the Chinese and non-Chinese residents of Turfan. Many rich merchants plied their wares along the Silk Road of the first millennium of the Christian Era. The Silk Road trade played a small role in Turfan's overall economy. "The people who lived in Turfan but worked full-time with Silk Road merchants included the officials who regulated the trade, either by issuing market certificates or travel passes, their interpreters, the inn-keepers, and Mazdean priests." (15)

Kim investigates the Silk Road trade from prehistoric times down to the third century, focusing on merchants as the agents of change: (16) the watershed in Silk Road trade dates back to Zhang Qian's journey in the second century. The safety of the route was secured by the escorts attached to envoys being exchanged between China and the West. Commodities and technology were transferred along the Silk Road from prehistoric times onward. "Merchants from the West got together and traded commodities, principally in Jiuquan commandery. Those merchants who entered the Han Empire sometimes stayed there for several months, while possibly trading in frontier areas. The situation was not, then, so very different from the way the Sogdian merchants did business after the fourth century. The introduction of trade in the form of tributes in the second century B.C. paved the way for the emergence of the Silk Road trade." (17)

5. Conclusions

This paper seeks to fill a gap in the current literature by examining the unique qualities of handmade Thai silks, the reproduction of traditional silk making practices, the network of trading routes known as the Silk Road, and the knowledge of silk production. The findings of this study have implications for the presence of international links in the production networks of silk, the organization of production in the silk-reeling industry in Japan, the silk trade in late antiquity, and the complex meanings and traditions woven into the silk.


(1.) Lazaroiu, George (2012), "Epistemic Ecologies of Knowledge," Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 4(2): 348-354.

(2.) Kurin, Richard (2002), "The Silk Road: The Making of a Global Cultural Economy," AnthroNotes 23(1): 1-10.

(3.) Nica, Elvira (2013), "Organizational Culture in the Public Sector," Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 8(2): 179-184.

(4.) Xu, Yingnan (2011), "Industrialization and the Chinese Hand-Reeled Silk Industry (1880-1930)," Penn History Review 19(1): 27-46.

(5.) Berna, Ioana-Bianca (2013), "Democracy and Gender Inequality in China," Journal of Research in Gender Studies 3(1): 119-124.

(6.) Ma, Debin (2005), "Between Cottage and Factory: The Evolution of Chinese and Japanese Silk-Reeling Industries in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century," Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy 10(2): 195-213.

(7.) Paraschiv, Elena (2012), "The Historical Foundations of European Private Law," Geopolitics, History, and International Relations 4(2): 113-118.

(8.) Rezakhani, Khodadad (2010), "The Road That Never Was: The Silk Road and Trans-Eurasian Exchange," Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30(3): 420-433.

(9.) Graham, Mark (2010), "Justifying Virtual Presence in the Thai Silk Industry: Links between Data and Discourse," Information Technologies & International Development 6(4): 57-70.

(10.) Paraschiv, Ramona-Gabriela (2012), "The Importance of Procedural Justice in Shaping Individuals' Perceptions of the Legal System," Geopolitics, History, and International Relations 4(2): 162-167.

(11.) Graham, Mark (2011), "'Perish or Globalize:' Network Integration and the Reproduction and Replacement of Weaving Traditions in the Thai Silk Industry," ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 10(3): 470.

(12.) Nakabayashi, Masaki (2003), Kindai Shihonshugi no Soshiki: Eeishigyo no Hatten ni Okeru Torihiki no Tochi to Seisan no Kozo (An Organization in Modern Capitalism: The Governance of Trade and the System of Production in the Development of the Silk Reeling Industry). Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press. See also Nakabayashi, Masaki (2006), "The Rise of a Factory Industry: Silk Reeling in Suwa, Nagano," in Masayuki Tanimoto (ed.), The Role of Traditional Factors in Japanese Industrialization: 1880-1920. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 183-216.

(13.) Paraschiv, Elena (2012), "Medieval Interpretations of Roman Law," Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 4(2): 361-366.

(14.) Oikonomides, Nicolas (1986), "Silk Trade and Production in Byzantium from the Sixth to the Ninth Century: The Seals of Kommerkiarioi," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 40: 33-53.

(15.) Hansen, Valerie (2005), "The Impact of the Silk Road Trade on a Local Community: The Turfan Oasis, 500-800," in Etienne de la Vaissiere and Eric Trombert (eds.), Les Sogdiens en Chine. Paris: EFEO, 229.

(16.) Nica, Elvira (2012), "Driving Forces for the Professionalisation of Human Resource Management in Europe," Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 7(4): 134-139.

(17.) Kim, Byung-Joon (2011), "Trade and Tribute along the Silk Road before the Third Century A.D.," Journal of Central Eurasian Studies 2(May): 22.


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Author:Vasile, Marian
Publication:Geopolitics, History, and International Relations
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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