Episode 15: The Silk Mother

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When we talk about Chinese traditional materials for clothing, we have to mention silk. Everybody likes silk. I am not sure if everybody knows where the silk from? Yes, from silkworms. I don’t know if you know what silkworms look like. They might seem gross for some people because they are basically a kind of white caterpillar. In Chinese, we call them can. In Chinese mythology, of course, there are stories about the goddess of silkworms 蚕女. Since ancient times, rulers in China have been respectful for the worship of the goddess of silkworms and there are temples and palaces for her too. Who is this goddess that gives us the softest silk? There are two main versions.

The first one is more close to the reality. Her name is Leizu 嫘祖, also known as XilingShi 西陵氏, who was the wife of the Yellow Emperor 黄帝. Yellow Emperor is one of the earliest legendary Chinese ruler among the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors 三皇五帝. Leizu invented the silk loom in the 27th century BC, almost 5000 years ago. We call her Canmu 蚕母, Silkworm Mother.


The other version can be found in the book SouShenJi搜神记, it says, during the ruling by Emperor Gaoxin高辛, in the place Shu, this lady’s father left home to fight. After years, he still didn’t return. The daughter missed his father so much and started a conversation with her father’s horse left at home. She said, “if you can find my father and bring him back, I will marry you.” After she finished the sentence, the horse ran out of the barn and guess what– the horse found the place her father stayed. The father saw the horse and was worried maybe something went wrong at home. So he rushed onto the horse and returned home. The daughter saw her father and told her father how much she missed him. But she never mentioned the marriage until the father found the horse refused to eat and screamed every time the daughter passed by. The father’s face grew hot with fury and shame and would not allow the marriage. How can I let my daughter marry a horse! He shot the horse with an arrow and peeled the hide to end this whole ridiculous deal. What a poor horse! Maybe he just wanted to help and really fell in love with the girl. The father hung the horse hide in the yard. After he left home again, one day, the daughter was playing with girls from the neighborhood in the yard, the horse hide began to fly towards the girl and wrapped around her so tight and flew away. After days, the girl was found in the horse hide on a tree. She turned into a silkworm and wove a cocoon. People call the tree Sang in Chinese桑树, cause sangsounds like sang, which means lost or death. Sangshu桑树are mulberry trees where silkworms live. The goddess of silkworms in temples nowadays is usually a lady with horse hide on her body or rides a white horse and is also known as MaTouNiang马头娘, the girl with the Horse’s head. It is interesting people think silkworms have similarities with horses. Maybe they are both white and the heads look alike.


Actually in the book Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, earlier than the book SouShenJi,it already mentioned a creature looking like a girl producing silk on a tree. This horse hide wrapping story is a little bit horror to hear. Some people say the idea of hide wrapping a girl probably was from the marriage tradition among different tribes that the bride would wear a hide in the ancient time.

To make myself better about the poor horse, I guess he can be with the girl finally in the end forever. That turns a horror story into a love story.


山海经Classic of Mountains and Seas

嫘祖Leizu 西陵氏 XilingShi

黄帝Yellow Emperor

三皇五帝 Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

搜神记 SouShenJi

马头娘 MaTouNiang /the girl with the Horse’s head

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