Silk, Feng Shui, gunpowder... As a birthplace of many of the achievements of civilisation, China is proud of a discovery whose value exceeds that of gold. This is the fine silk thread, which started its world tour around the 27th century BC and which continues its journey to this day.
The Silk Queen
In “Records of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian, the father of Chinese historiography, he writes that after defeating an opponent, the future Yellow Emperor married a lady named Leizu. The writer did not report anything about her discovery, but the story about it was preserved in legends. The narratives, which have remained in the folk memory, related to the discovery of the silkworms and the creation of the shining fabric of their threads, are several, but with few exceptions in the details, their storyline is the same, and the Empress's personality comes to life in the mythological image of Leizu.
Silk was discovered on the day when it was announced in the palace that the mulberry trees in the imperial garden were afflicted by an unknown disease. While looking carefully at the withered plants, the Emperor's wife found that small white caterpillars were feeding on their crown leaves, and white balls were shining on the branches of the trees. Leizu took several cocoons, and while she was carrying them to the palace, she accidentally dropped one in the water of a fountain she was passing by. Surprised, the Empress saw how the silk thread wrapped around the cocoon began to separate and she invented a loom through which she turned it into cloth. Impressed by the discovery of his wife, the Yellow Emperor ordered immediately the start of silkworm cultivation and the production of silk fabric. The Empress personally handled the weaving of the precious fabric, and taught other women from her inner circle how to do it. Thus, Leizu remained in history as “The Silk Queen”.
The process of silk production was a state secret, preserved for three millennia. In addition to becoming a currency unit, silk also turned into one of the most secretive products of our civilisation.
The Silk Road
Confucius’ wise words: “If you want to be rich, build a road first” were fundamental during the rule of China by the Song dynasty – rulers who turned the country into a key factor of the world economy for their time. During this golden age, they used all resources to ensure that Chinese goods were available to a maximum number of consumers. Together with spices, silk started its journey around the globe. In order to reach Byzantium, Europe, Africa and other Asian countries, routes were made through mountains, forests and deserts. And the main trade channels between Asia and Europe remained in history as The Silk Road. Sea routes were also created at a later stage. The first Chinese port, from where the silk departed on water, was Guangzhou. Located on the southeast coast of China, the city was connected to nearly a hundred other ports, including Madras in India, Siraf in Iran, Muscat in Oman and Zanzibar.
The New Road
Recently, at an international forum, China gathered participants from over 30 countries and 70 organisations. The reason was the announcement of the largest project in our modern history – “One Belt, One Road”. Or in other words – building the New Silk Road. One could say that the One Belt, One Road initiative covers all economic and non-economic areas not only in China. It is implemented in practice, not just in government offices or in economic zones around the world. This is an economic and diplomatic programme whose ultimate goal is to transform the world trade. By overcoming geopolitical barriers and economic obstacles, China’s long-term goal is to become a first-class economic power on a global scale. Or in other words – a time will come when “all roads will lead to Beijing”.
Connecting China to the rest of Asia and Europe through a grand-scale land and sea infrastructure is a project worth USD 8 trillion. The Chinese State Conglomerate CITIC Ltd. announced that it will fund 300 projects from Singapore to Turkmenistan, including ports, highways, railways, logistics and duty-free zones. Chinese companies manage 77 sea terminals in dozens of countries around the world, build high-speed railway corridors in Southeast Asia, engage in the construction of power plants and dams in Africa and build free economic zones in Sri Lanka, Oman, Myanmar, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. With Chinese investments, oil and gas pipelines are being constructed in Central and Southeast Asia and Russia.
A network of direct railways and air corridors connecting the industrial centres of Western and Central China with European capitals and cities has already been built. China has joined the Customs Convention on International Transport of Goods, which includes 70 countries. There are special agreements, concluded with the European Union and the UK. Following the path of its ancestors, China has been skilfully negotiating with a maximum number of countries, which guarantees a maximum number of agreements and deals and a minimum number of barriers and obstacles to trading. The idea is that the Silk Road in the 21st century will meet the needs of 65% of the world’s population and a quarter of all goods and services around the world.
This is how the discovery of silk thousands of years ago became the foundation for building trade hegemony nowadays. And the New Silk Road has the potential to be the largest platform for regional cooperation on the planet.