Project Description

Xi’an, Shaanxi: Silk


Can you imagine Italian politicians today attacking the Chinese for inspiring Italian women to wear scanty and daring outfits?

Over 2000 years ago, silk started to be traded along the famous Silk Road, which stretched from China’s former capital Xi’an to Italy. While the Silk Road saw trade in everything from porcelain and spices to new technologies, religions, philosophies, and even diseases, Chinese silk was most in demand. Brave Chinese traders traveling across the borders can be seen as predecessors to the Chinese merchants going overseas more than a millennium later.

roman-women2The Romans valued Chinese silk so much that they ran a significant trade imbalance with China, spurring heated debates in the Roman senate that were probably not unlike today’s debates in the American Senate. Grumbling about the trade deficit, legendary Roman philosopher and army commander Pliny the Elder said: “India, China, and the Arabian Peninsula take from our Empire 100 million sesterces [Roman currency] a year – such is the sum that our luxuries and our women cost us…”

Silk not only raised economic objections, but also moral ones. Statesman and dramatist Seneca the Younger lamented: “I can see clothes of silk; if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes”. He continued: “The adulteress [is] visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body”.

The Senate tried to issue several laws to prohibit the wearing of silk. However, the lawmakers were no match for the mighty Roman people and their insatiable demand for thin dresses.

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