Gilt bronze silkworm ornament

Cast in bronze and gilded, this is a rare representation of the silkworm. This creature was more commonly made in a different medium—nephrite. The worm is depicted here in its caterpillar state, in a stylised and stick-like manner, resulting from the grooves the artist chose to represent the segmented body. The worship of the silkworm spirit can be traced to the Shang period (circa 1600-1027 BCE), when it was also common to make human sacrifices during the silkworm ceremony. This spirit is associated with the domestication of the silkworm, and, hence, the science of silk-rearing and silk-reeling which was considered as primordial an activity as rice-planting. Eventually, during the 3rd century CE, the spirit of silkworm became personified the form of Empress Xiling, the wife of the Yellow Emperor. She was considered China’s first sericulturist, while her husband is China’s first agriculturist. These two activities symbolise the roots of Chinese civilisation. Subsequent rulers of China took the roles of the First Couple, and, as part of their duty as rulers, personally observed and carried out those early agricultural and sericultural rites. By then, the spirit of silkworm was worshipped in a special ceremony officiated by the Empress each year during the second half of the third lunar month, with offerings of mulberry leaves and woven silk at a special altar set up in the silkworm temple or palace.

Indigenous Name
Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)
Object size: L7 x H1 cm
Accession No.
Gilt Bronze
Collection of
Asian Civilisations Museum