Feeble Silkworms and Flightless Moths

Female moths of the Bombyx mori (left) and Bombyx mandarina (right).
Credit: Markus Knaden, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology.

The Bombyx mori moth is well-known as producer of the silk cultivated in China for thousands of years whose technology — including the breeding of the caterpillars (silkworms) and the source of their preferred food, white mulberry trees — spread across Eurasia during the period of the Silk Road. Both moth and mulberry were native to China and the former was domesticated, so enabling silk to be efficiently produced in a cottage industry. But it was only when I came to be interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 programme on the moth that I understood fully what domestication means for the moth itself.

The wild cousin of the Bombyx mori, the Bombyx mandarina lives for several weeks. After breeding, the female lays hundreds of tiny eggs on the white mulberry (Morus alba). The moths die but their eggs soon hatch. The caterpillars/larva — silkworms — move around the tree to find new leaves to satisfy their voracious appetites. Inevitably many are eaten, die of disease or fail to find sufficient food. Those that survive shed their skins several times and develop new ones to accommodate their rapidly expanding bodies, each new stage called an instar.

The caterpillars of the Bombyx mandarina (left) and Bombyx mori (right) showing the lack of skin pigment in the domesticated breed.

Once fully grown, the silkworm finds a suitable place where it can spin a cocoon around itself and enter its pupa stage. Often it will remain there over the winter, transforming into a moth as the spring set in and the new buds formed on the mulberries. When ready, it breaks out of the cocoon, pumping fluid into its wrinkly wings to make then expand and, when able, fly off to eat and find a mate.

After so many years of being cultivated, the domesticated Bombyx mori — moth, silkworm and pupae — might be larger than its wild cousin, but it is rather feeble in comparison. It has lost its skin pigments — a state called leucistic — as it has no need of camouflage being protected from predators by its human rearers. Used to being brought food, the caterpillar/silkworm does not travel far and might die if it is not regularly brought new leaves. It digests more efficiently and grows more quickly but, like its wild cousin, after several instars it spins a cocoon — also larger and whiter.

Comparison of the cocoons from the domesticated and wild moths.

Most of the domesticated pupae do not develop into moths as they are killed before they can break the precious cocoons. The cocoons are usually boiled, as this enables the 300-900 metres of silk to be unwound. The moths that do hatch have a very short life. Unable to fly or eat, they are placed together for mating. The males might get the chance to mate two or three times but they have then used up their usefulness and die. The females live to lay their eggs, like their wild ancestors, but unable to eat or move from their confined space.

Further images and information:
On Bombyx mandarina in Spain.
On Bombyx mandarina in Japan.

On the bombyx mori lifecycle.
On its lack of smell compared to its wild cousin

And a blog post on modern domestic sericulture and its challenges today.

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Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein: Part 1: 1910

This is the first of a series of posts to list twentieth century exhibitions which have included Central Asian manuscripts, paintings, coins and other artefacts from the collections of the archaeologist M. Aurel Stein (1862–1943). These collections are now largely divided between The British Museum, The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museum of India, with small collections elsewhere. They are all included in the scope of the International Dunhuang Project and further details on them and on Aurel Stein and his contemporaries can be found on its web site.

As research in progress it may well have omissions. If you know of any other exhibitions of Stein material during this period I would be very grateful if you could leave a comment.

Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia was in 1900-01 and his excavations uncovered over a thousand artefacts, including manuscripts and coins. The preliminary sorting and identification of the artefacts was largely completed within a few years and many were acquisitioned into the British Museum collections in 1907, indicated by the registration number of the artefacts — prefixed by this date. The manuscripts and coins were assigned to different departments, that of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books and Department of Coins and Medals respectively. Most of the former were sent to specialists in the various languages and scripts across Europe to complete catalogues and their acquisition into the British Museum collections did not take place until several years later.

The fact that much of this material was fragmentary probably meant that it was not considered suitable for display: and, in any case, and much had been sent elsewhere for cataloguing. I have not been able to find any record of its display in this early period but it was included in the exhibition of 1914 (see later post).

Stein’s second expedition, 1906–08, yielded many more finds, including the hundreds of paintings — many in good condition — from the Library Cave at Dunhuang Mogao. The British Museum had made two significant other purchases of Chinese paintings: the Admonitions scroll (1903,0408,0.1), and close on one hundred and fifty paintings from a German collector, Olga-Julia Wegener.1 These new acquisitions were an impetus for an exhibition alongside the fine collection of Japanese paintings previously exhibited over two decades previously in 1888.

The paintings from Dunhuang became part of the Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings. Sidney Colvin (1845–1927), the Keeper, wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue, and Laurence Binyon (1868–1943), Assistant Keeper, curated the exhibition. Binyon had already discussed paintings found by Stein on his first expedition at Khotan in his 1908 publication, Painting in the Far East: An Introduction to the History of Pictorial Art in Asia, Especially China and Japan (London: E. Arnold 1908). But he only discussed the Dunhuang material in the 1913 revised edition after working on this exhibition. In this year he also became Keeper of the Sub-Department formed in 1913 to deal specifically with Chinese, Japanese and other ‘oriental’ works.

The exhibition was held in the Prints and Drawings Gallery of the Museum. It was opened in June 1910 and remained on display until April 1912. The catalogue was on sale for threepence.The exhibition showed twenty-five paintings from Dunhuang.

1910: An Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings (Fourth to Nineteenth Century AD)

Prints and Drawings Gallery, The British Museum.

Catalogue: A Guide to an Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings (Fourth to Nineteenth Century AD) in the Prints and Drawing Gallery. London: British Museum 1910.

‘The Admonitions Scroll’ (1903,0408,0.1) was the first item in the Chinese section of the exhibition while exhibits 2-26 were items from the Stein Collection. These were only acquisitioned into the Museum’s collections in 1919 (indicated by their Museum registration number) while some were sent to India for acquisition in the National Museum collections. Sydney Colvin (1845–1927), Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, notes in his preface to the catalogue that:
‘The work of unpacking and repairing these is still in progress, but we are able to include in our Exhibition enough specimens to show their extraordinary interest.'(4)

The works displayed are listed below with, in some cases, their current British Museum or National Museum of India registration numbers as well as their original Stein site id. (Ch.001 etc). They are linked to online records and images where these are available. The brevity of the captions and lack of illustrations in the original catalogue makes it difficult to identify all of the works. Any uncertainty is indicated by ‘?’.


[Slope 1: see plan above]
2: Miraculous Birth in Heaven with female divinities

This is probably Ch.lv.0015, the female divinities being in fact bodisattavas. The piece is now probably the National Museum of India, re. no. unknown and not yet online. It was published in Plate LXXXIII in Serindia.

3: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum, ?1919,0101,0.96 (Ch.iv.009, Stein Painting 96)

4: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.91 (Ch.0039, Stein Painting 91) and 1919,0101,0.89 (Ch.xxii.0035, Stein Painting 89)

5: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The National Museum of India NM 2003-17-312 (Ch.xlvi., Stein 492)

6: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.97 (detail below).

7: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.95 (Ch.lxi.002, Stein Painting 95)

[location not specified: assume on walls of the gallery]
8: Vajrapāṇi, 1919,0101,0.134 (Ch.004, Stein painting 134)

9: Bodhisattva.

10: Buddha with rice bowl, The National Museum of India reg. no. not known (Ch.i.001)

11: Mañjuśrī, Possibly that in The National Museum of India 99-17-93 (Ch.0023, Stein Painting 290)

12: Vajrapāṇi.

13: Avalokiteśvara.

14: One of Four Lords (?Vaiśravaṇa) The British Museum 1919,0101,0.138 (Stein Painting 138, Ch.lv.0018)

15: Virūpākṣa

16: Vaiśravaṇa

17: Maitreya

18: Kṣititgarbha, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.19 (Stein Painting 19, Ch.lviii.003)

19: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.100 (Ch.xxvii.001)

20: Vaiśravaṇa

21: Avalokiteśvara, Possibly that in The National Museum of India 99-17019 (Ch.00108)

22: Kṣititgarbha

23: Avalokiteśvara

24: Vajrapāṇi

25: Avalokiteśvara

26: Paradise of West, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.67 (Stein Painting 67, 68, Ch.lii.004)


1910-11: Display of the embroidery of ‘Sakyamuni Preaching on the Vulture Peak’

Department of British and Medieval Antiquities.

In his preface to the 1910 catalogue (above), Colvin notes that this work ‘will shortly be placed on view’ in this location. I have not yet found any further evidence to suggest whether this exhibit went ahead or not.


1. Although Sidney Colvin described this as a ‘fine acquisition’ in his preface to the exhibition guide, many of the paintings are now accepted as either misattributions to earlier artists or forgeries. See Michelle Ying-Ling Huang, ‘The Olga-Julia Wegener and Arthur Morrison Collections of Chinese Paintings in the British Museum.’ In Susan Bracken at al., eds. Collecting East and West: 147-166. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2013.


The next post in this series will continue with details of the items from the Stein collection displayed at the Festival of Empire in 1911.

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