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It was not too long a ride to Suzhou, pronounced su-jo, but it as an easy trip with Arnold informing us about the sights along the way. He explained about enormous construction that had been undertaken over the recent years. High rise buildings were evident all along the horizon. He discussed population of various cities and it seemed that a small city was one of about 250,000 people. I fail to recall how long the drive was from Shanghai to Suzhou — 1-1/2 or 2 hours.
Suzhou means “Plentiful Water.” It is the eastern end of the famed Silk Road traveled by the early Europeans seeking this fine material. It is the city of sensuous silks, lush gardens and elegant canals that said to have so captivated Marco Polo. Passing through the city is the 2,400 year-old Grand Canal crowded with strings of barges carrying fruits and vegetables. Along its course are tile-roofed whitewashed houses with its shores linked by delicate bridges. This canal was begun during the Sui Dynasty in 604 A.D. and is consider, after the Great Wall, ancient China's most amazing engineering feat. It is almost 1,200 miles long and connects the Yangtze with the Yellow River and other lesser rivers. Most rivers in China flow west-east, so the canal with its north-south path provides an important connection.
There are two types of gardens in China, the royal garden (like the Beijing's Summer Palaces) and the private gardens like those in Suzhou. Our tour of Suzhou would take us to the private garden of Zhouzheng (Humble Administrator's) Garden the largest and most open of Suzhou's gardens. This garden was built in 1513 when a Ming Dynasty official retired to Suzhou. It was his statement that gave the garden its name and character. “To cultivate my garden and sell my vegetable crop is the policy of a humble man.” More than half of this garden consists of water features filled with lotus flowers, spanned with graceful bridges, and surrounded by pavilions and serene halls. Getting to the garden was through winding narrow streets no more than paths in parts through a quite neighborhood of homes and a few shops.
From the Garden, we went to a silk factory or silk mill. This was most interesting. I had always considered the Turkish and Persian and other Middle-Eastern country's rugs to be superior to the Chinese rugs, but what we saw was very, very nice. Very nice also carries a very nice price. And, the detail that is woven into the rugs is simply amazing. The first photograph is of the silk worm cocoon. The next several photos are of two young ladies weaving together this very delicate rug. The blue paper overhead to their work is a “blue print” of that which they are working. I tried to look at it in detail and could not make heads or tails out of it.
The next to last photography above is the front side of the rug. The last photograph above is the backside. The detail on the backside is almost as nice as the front side. Below is a rather close up of this rug. Weaving a rug of this fine detail, we were told, took about 10 months!
Archeological evidence supports the belief that silk production in China could date back to 3,000 B.C. Silk thread and the fabric woven from it remained unknown to the rest of the world until the opening of the Silk Road under the Han Dynasty. Although many goods and ideas passed along this trade route, it was named for this most important commodity. The secret of silk production was so zealously guarded in China that revealing it was punishable by death. However, the rewards were great, and silkworms were eventually smuggled out. The secret reached Japan in the early third century A.D. and traveled west to the Roman Empire in the sixth century.
Although there are several varieties of wild silk moth around the world, it is the sightless, flightless Bombyx mori that is the source of China's wealth of silk. Centuries of breeding and cultivation created this very specialized silk producer, which lays hundreds of eggs in a few days and then dies. As many as 30,000 worms hatch from an ounce of eggs and proceed to munch mulberry leaves at a tremendous rate. They then secrete pounds of raw silk thread that is spun into a cocoon for growth into the moth to start life over again. Silk is the strongest known natural fiber, with a tensile strength greater than a filament of steelmaking, it the fabric of choice for parachutes. At Suzhou's Silk Spinning Factory, we saw how silk is made from mulberry-munching silkworms to thread to fine cloth. The Embroidery Institute displayed the work of artisans who create works of art from silk thread.
The following show the cocoons in their place of growth and some that erupt with their moth before being sent to unwind the silk strand. There are two methods of obtaining the strand. Both involve the use of hot water to soften the cocoon. Then the end of the strand, there only two ends — the beginning and the end, is lifted with a brush. Once found, it is gathered with seven more cocoons to be wound onto a reel. Look closely at the photographs with the cocoons and it is possible to count the eight cocoons. In the last one of this group, the eight individual strands can be seen.
The second method of gathering the silk is automatic by machine. It does require an attendant but notice the numerous brushes that are employed to find the end of the strand. I could not see how it was that eight cocoons were selected for each reel.
In addition to rugs this mill wove silk brocade. This was done in a room only viewable through glass, probably to assure cleanliness.
Suddenly we walked into a showroom of rugs, all for purchase. This time we refrained from buying, but there were some very beautiful rugs on display. The last one presented here took 50 months to create. It is 1 by 1.7 meters in size and carries a price of US$12,000! It was behind a protective cover, glass or plastic, to keep off dirty little fingers.
There was also a room full of embroidery silk designs. Some I would put in the class of being museum pieces. The following seven photograph are of embroidery pieces. The second one and the last one were quite large.
Going on through we came to a room where silk comforters were were made. For this they use cocoons that are not suitable for the single strand harvest. Here the silk is pulled over a frame to make it into a shape where it can be pulled to the size of the comforter. I participated in pulling one and found the silk to be very strong. It was hard to pull. Afterwards, I had several strands of silk that I could not see but could feel on my arms.
We were off for lunch where we came upon this table display and bird of paradise flower. It was on to Nanjing where we would find our boat.