My Personal Khotan on the Silk Road
The Bounty of Khotan
Khotan has been famous for a variety of beautiful things since ancient times, especially jade and silk. In the Shang dynasties (16th-11th century BCE), Khotan jade found its way to the royal courts in central China. According to Shanhaijing, a book from the second century BCE, in the tenth century BCE, a Zhou dynasty emperor Mu Wang traveled to the Kunlun Mountains to find white jade. Khotan jade has been the privileged royal and national jewel for China ever since.
Jade caught my attention in an unlikely manner. On a street corner a small, deformed Uyghur man had a little vendor’s stand. On Sundays, my father often took me to the bazaar (Uyghur people use the word for market) to buy our vegetables and fruits. The bazaar was a little down from the town center at the only intersection of two dusty roads. Uyghur vendors and farmers from far away sold vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, meat, live chicken, eggs, crafts, firewood, and local food like kaoyangrou, roasted mutton kabob; zhuafan, rice polo; nang, baked flatbread; and lamian, hand-pulled long noodles. At one corner of the intersection next to the bazaar, a man, shortened by polio, always kneeled or curled up beside a shawl about two feet square laid on the ground. On it were some pieces of jade: wine cups, tobacco pipes, rings, bracelets, cubes for seals, and raw pebbles. The beautiful shining colors of the jade – pale green, dark green, cream white and orange etc. made a dramatic contrast against his always-blackened all-weather chiapan (a kind of long robe) and his sheepskin hat. Very often, he was pushed and even buried in the Sunday crowds. Few people paid attention to him. As if never noticing anything around him, the little man always faced his “jewels,” never calling out to sell them, never moving. He sat like a black statue. My father and I were constant visitors to his two-foot stand. I remember over the years father bought a few cubes of jade for carving seals to stamp on his paintings. I liked to hold the cups or play with the bracelets, but father never bought any for me. We simply could not afford such luxury. I always felt, and still feel, guilty for not buying more jade from the poor man. He disappeared during the Cultural Revolution.
It was at this little jade stand that my father enthusiastically talked to his only audience, me, about Khotan jade. The Kunlun Mountains to the south of Khotan are home to the largest deposit of the best quality jade in the world. The two kinds of jade are both produced here: nephrite and jadeite. Jadeite is a hard stone, mostly in green colors, which exists in many places all over the world. Nephrite is softer and occurs mostly in white colors. There are only three or four places in the world where nephrite deposits are known, and Khotan happens to produce a very rare type, called “sheep-grease,” which is creamy white and partially translucent. In the spring, when the snow in the mountains melts, the flood pours down with rocks, and jade pebbles appear on the riverbed. Interestingly, the two different jades are always found separately in two separate rivers, the two main rivers running through Khotan, one on the east side, the other the west. So it is not a surprise to find that one river is named yurung kash in Uyghur language, meaning white jade, the other is kara kash, black jade.
Since ancient times, people have made a living picking up the stones in the river. But almost every person living in Khotan has had the experience of looking for jade. Each winter the town government would organize people to go to the rivers to repair the banks and dams. School kids from the fourth grade up always went. We often heard that someone we knew had found a piece of jade while digging the riverbed. Or a farm worker heading to market had randomly picked up a stone from the river to put on one side of the load on his little donkey to balance the weight, and the rock only later was recognized by prospectors in the market to be a valuable chunk of jade. Everybody in Khotan can tell you one or two stories like that.
The two jade rivers, like two living dragons, yield their most precious treasures, water and jade to Khotan’s people. But sadly, for the last ten years, under the greed of the new commercial wave, the rivers have been turned upside-down as deep as several meters. The businessmen from developed areas brought in the most powerful modern machinery to dig, screen, and to destroy the riverbed for money.
Another famous product of the region is silk. Nobody is really sure exactly when sericulture reached Khotan. It seems it has been there all along. In the Tang Dynasty, Xuanzang visited the town and recorded their legend of the Silk Princess who had first brought silk to Khotan. The Princess from the East Kingdom married the prince of Khotan. Before leaving for her new home, she was advised to bring some silkworm eggs and to raise the worms and make silk of her own so she would not feel homesick. However, there were strict rules forbidding anyone to take the secret of silk making out of her home kingdom. So the princess hid the eggs in her fancy hairdo and carried out the eggs to Khotan. From then on, Khotan had its own silk. More than a thousand years after Xuanzang’s visit, Aurel Stein excavated a wooden board from the Tang period with a painting identified as the Silk Princess.
The kids in Khotan were all completely familiar with silk and silk production. We almost all raised silkworms as pets. We normally started with some nearly invisible tiny black dots fixed on a slip of bark paper – one egg is smaller than a dot from a ballpoint pen. The kids would tear the piece of paper into even smaller pieces to share among themselves. When the weather gets warmer in the spring, the worms come out of their shells, as tiny as the tiniest ants in a brownish color. They have to be put on white paper for the first few days so people can see them, or they could be easily wiped off without being noticed at all. As they grow they become white and fat, and two inches long. It was fun to go out of town after school to pick mulberry tree leaves for the worms. It usually took us thirty minutes to an hour one way to get to the outskirts where poplar, sand-date, and mulberry trees lined the road on both sides. Imagine how happy we were to walk under the trees with friends after a long school day, not just picking the leaves but also eating the berries! The mulberries were always so irresistibly sweet and juicy, like all the other fruits grown there, that we could not resist eating and eating until we had no more room in our stomachs. We were experts on picking the right leaves and processing them. The leaves have to be young and tender and must be washed and dried before you feed the worms. The chewing noise of the creatures is pleasant like music, but could be annoying as well, especially when you tried to sleep at night. Some of us were also good at forcing the worms to spin their silk into cocoons of whatever shape we desired, either normal or into a neat flat sheet. Many of us used the flat sheets that came as stuffing in the containers for calligraphy ink. You could fold one into a small square and fit it back into the little brass box. Sometimes, we could get special worms that would produce colored silk. I once had silkworms that produced bright yellow and pale green silk. I never figured out how they could make colors out of their bodies.
There was a silk reeling factory in town. The local farm workers bred silk worms and grew mulberry trees on their own, and then sold silk cocoons to the factory to be processed. The master workers in the factory had come from “the capitals of silk,” Suzhou and Hangzhou, near Shanghai. The factory recruited many Uyghur girls and sent them to Suzhou for training. The local factory helped revive the fame of the old silk town on the Silk Road, and the parents of many of my classmates worked in the factory. Once, a story came to my mother’s attention at the Khotan Daily. A young man on a farm in Yutian County was looking for a Uyghur girl who his mother had nursed almost fifteen years before in Suzhou while her mother was in training there. He hoped that newspaper reporters could help him find her. He had no address or names, but my mother asked a reporter friend to work with her to find the whole story. After going to many places and interviewing many people, they found out that the girl’s mother had moved to Kashgar and left the daughter with a grandmother. It took my mother and her colleague more than a year to finally locate the girl. To my mother’s surprise and delight, the girl happened to be my classmate sitting right next to me. Her name is Bahargul in Uyghur, meaning Spring Flower. My mother drew a picture book about the story and published it. From then on, we thought of Bahargul as a modern silk princess.
The above is my persoanl narrative written for an analogy on Teaching the Silk Road by SUNY Publication.