The Silk Road, Ancient China for Kids Illustration

The Silk Road
Ancient China for Kids

Silk is a strong fiber that silkworms produce to make their cocoons. It can be collected and woven into a soft fabric we call silk. Silk fabric is a very old discovery. It was invented in ancient China.

Legend says: Once upon a time, a long time ago in ancient China, there lived an emperor and his wife. The emperor built his wife a most beautiful garden. She spent much of her time there, sewing and chatting with her ladies in waiting. One day, while she was in her garden, a cocoon fell into her tea. She was just about to fling the tea away when she noticed something amazing. The cocoon was unraveling! It appeared to be a thread.  She carefully fished it out of her teacup and called for her imperial seamstress. Together, they discovered that the thread from a silkworm cocoon could be woven into soft, strong fabric. It took time to collect enough thread to make a jacket. It was a beautiful jacket. Everyone wanted silk to wear. But it took time for silkworms to spin their silky thread. To save the silkworms from too many people wanting their silk, the emperor's wife asked to the emperor to tell the people that silk fabric could only be worn by the royal family. She was not being greedy. She was being protective of the silkworms and their fabulous thread.

No one knows if the legend is true, but it is true that only the royal family could wear silk clothes for a very long time. But after a while, silk farms were started in ancient China. Mulberry trees were silkworms favorite food, so mulberry tree farms appeared all over ancient China. Once that happened, the nobles began wearing silk. Still, merchants and peasants were not allowed to wear silk. During some dynasties in ancient China, silk was even used as a form of money. Silk was used to make beautiful clothing. But it was also used to make silk canvas for painting and strong fishing line. It was even used to make the most expensive and sought after paper.

Silk became a valuable export for trade. Nobles and kings and princes and queens all wanted silk. They were willing to pay a very high price to get it. The ancient Chinese did their best to keep silk production a secret. It remained a secret for many years.

One day, the ancient Romans were introduced to ancient Chinese silk through a trader. This trader had heard of the silk people. But he did not know where they lived. The silk he traded had been passed from hand to hand and finally found its way to ancient Rome. Many Roman explorers began searching for the silk people. They never did find them. But they did find The Silk Road. Trading silk along the Silk Road was very (very!) dangerous. But the demand was high, and the profit even higher.

So, what was the Silk Road?