Women in Science on the Air
3:52 pm
Mon January 15, 2007

Her-Story, Then: Si Ling-Chi

c. 2640 BCE – ALMOST 5000 YEARS AGO SHE INVENTED A FABRIC AS TRANSLUCENT AS ICE AND AS LIGHT AS A CLOUD. REVEALING THE SECRET OF ITS CREATION BECAME PUNISHABLE BY DEATH
Si Ling-Chi sat in the shade of her court garden, sipping tea beneath gracious mulberry trees. She heard a tiny rustle in the leaves above her, and the breeze suddenly dropped a white cocoon into her teacup. Instead of picking it out of her drink, she watched as the hot water began to dissolve it. Soon her tea was laced with shimmering filaments. And Si Ling-Chi imagined the luminous gown she might weave for her husband, Hoang-ti, the mythic Yellow Emperor.
That is how Chinese tradition recounts the discovery of silk in the year 2700 BC. Si Ling-Chi went on to develop sericulture - the science of silk production. She learned to cultivate silkworms, to reel the fibers, to test it for strength and reliability, and how to weave it into garments.
Sericulture became a state secret in China, and remained a mystery for thousands of years. It was the most important commodity on the ancient Silk Road. The fabric literally became worth its weight in gold to the Roman Emperors. Silk smuggling - even smuggling worms and cocoons - became the stuff of intrigue and deception. Anyone caught divulging the source or process of silk making was put to death. China kept its secret for 3000 years. But in 300 AD a Chinese princess about to be married to an Indian man hid a cocoon in her hair ornament, and smuggled it into India.
But it was Si Ling-Chi who forever gave her name to the luxurious fabric she invented. The word silk is a phonetic approximation of the way her name is pronounced in the Chinese language. China became known as Seres, Ser, or Serica - meaning The Kingdom of Silk . And Si Ling-Chi herself not only founded an industry, but she became honored as the Goddess of Silk , and is still worshipped today.<
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HER-STORY: THEN & NOW was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation.