Silk princess painting

Contributed by British Museum

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This painting on a wooden panel shows scenes from the Central Asian story of the Silk Princess. According to this legend, a Chinese princess smuggled the secret of how to make silk out of China and into the country of her new husband, the king of Khotan. As she was a princess the border guards did not dare search her. In this painting her elaborate headdress conceals the cocoons of the silk moth and the seeds of the mulberry tree.

What was the Silk Road?

The painting comes from a Buddhist shrine in Khotan in Central Asia. This was just one of many oasis cities along the Silk Road. Silk and other goods were traded along this route from China to India, western Asia and the Mediterranean. Monks, merchants and other Silk Road travellers, stimulated the spread of Buddhism from India to China, Korea and Japan and many Buddhist monasteries and shrines were created along the route.

A silkworm multiplies its weight 10,000 times from when it hatches until it is ready to start spinning its cocoon

In search of the silk princess

When handling the wooden panel with the depiction of the Silk Princess, one is surprised about its weight. Having been buried under the desert sands for well over a thousand years, any humidity has evaporated from the wooden panel and it has become extremely light. Apart from the loss of some colour pigments on its surface though, the lively and linear brushstrokes of the painter are still clear. Because wood was so precious along the Silk Road, most of the painted panels of this kind were painted on both sides with different scenes, although not this one.

What is interesting about this object panel is perhaps that it found its place in a Buddhist shrine and therefore had its place in a religious context. It is evidence for the close interaction between religion, ritual and daily life of Ancient Khotan along the Silk Road.

Furthermore, written sources and archaeological evidence prove that the production of silk and silk manufacture technology was invented in China about 4,000 years ago. Around the second millenium BC the precious material was produced for the Chinese aristocracy and must have had a similar status as ritual bronzes. Historians agree that the knowledge and technology of silk production gradually travelled westwards from China via the Silk Road to Byzantium and then to northern Europe. This happened around the sixth century, approximately at the time, when this panel was painted.

Clarissa von Spee, curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 3 comments
  • 1. At 14:46 on 11 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    With the truth behind so many stories being hidden through embellishments of a later date I had, after listening to the story, initially wondered whether it could be possible that the princess?s hair was used without her knowing, and, in fact it was only later that she was accredited with bringing the technology. A story cover up?
    In the radio story we are told that it is a servant girl who is pointing at the princess's hair. I reasoned that if this were depicted on the tablet by the artist another and equal interpretation would be that it was the servant girl who having been sent to accompany a princess from the imperial court who was in fact the bringer of secrets? A more likely truth? One which could so easily be hidden in a story that lays both the blame and the credit at the feet of a real princess. A real princess who may well have not survived the journey. After all why would an imperial daughter want to betray her father?
    Now, looking closely at the picture on the tablet itself it is clear that the figure pointing at the hair is in fact one and the same in facial feature as the central 'princes' figure. It is clear to me, from his work on the tablet, that the artist, had he wanted, had sufficient proficiency to make clear any number of differences between a vassal servant girl and a princess. And so clearly we must assume he has chosen not to. So the conclusion I come to is that the story on the tablet only depicts one person.
    So now that it is clear that the story is about one person I am wondering how the mention of a servant girl in the radio broadcast can be fitted to the picture when she is not painted into the story. Is it a nineteenth, twentieth or twenty first century Anglo-Saxon embellishment? Quite possibly. It would come as no surprise. There are after all plenty of those aren't there. And it would have undoubtedly have suited an Anglo-Saxon supremacist to denigrate on all occasions.
    But what if it is not an Anglo-Saxon embellishment and the mention of a servant in the story is part of an accurately recorded lingual tradition? Is it possible that the bringer of the silk secret was at the time of the theft no princes at all? There was after all bound to be a reward for anyone who could steal the secret, possibly even 'unto half my kingdom' and so a servant girl returning home after performing duties at the imperial court might have made good her escape just as the princess in the story is said to have done with the secrets. It is hard to tell from the tablet whether it is a princess depicted on it or not. But would not such a clever girl be rewarded with a prince? Thus becoming a princess! I don't suppose I'll ever know whether it was benefactress princess telling a story of which parts are missing or a servant girl thief and possibly murderess rewarded with a principality. But is has been fun thinking about it. Thank you.

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  • 2. At 00:49 on 18 June 2010, redthing wrote:

    I raise my eyebrows to Miles. his acute deductions is a compelling one. the sameness of princess and servant girl is uncanny, even down to the neck lines, all except the eyes, which appear a little longer on the princess. ultimately: he is right. why would a princess betray her father and a nation? a Khotan prince charming hypnotist? or teen princess angst betting on getting dad's attention? doubtful. Crouching silkmoth, hidden servant sounds about right. a good holmes and watson serial is never so simple. and neither is this.

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  • 3. At 21:04 on 17 August 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Indeed El Redthing this is a dirty business we have caught the tail of here. But,I rather fancy the emperor has beaten us to the culprit, avenged his daughter and laid waste to the entire princedom.
    Only this fragment of a folk tale survived the bloody suppression (shades of Ashoka) to be kept as a keep sake by the priests of the newly imposed Greco-Mahayana styled state sponsored Buddhism. For Om Mani Padme Hum should we read Amun Peraa Dimenes Hu? Or some such? What say you?

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About this object

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Location

Xinjiang province, China

Culture
Period

7th - 8th century AD

Theme
Size
H:
12cm
W:
46cm
Colour
Material

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