On Silk | Sally Wen Mao | Granta

On Silk

Sally Wen Mao

In her garden, Empress Leizu watched the fat white worm
feasting on the mulberry leaves
its mouth a gutter,

a hole, a maw so consumed by consumption
it falls through a hole it has eaten

into her teacup, and once steeped in that bitterness
the silkworm unravels, retching spools and spools
of thread soft as magnolia, fragrant too,

and the Empress remembered a childhood hunger
so great it turned red like the mulberries

in summer between her fingers, how she picked them
in the woods one day, how her hunger turned her spit red

as she was sated, so she rescued the worm from drowning
and ordered a grove for its endless feast,

and that night all she dreamt of was harvest,
a grove for the mulberry trees
a loom for the threads to fuse, refuse,

a vat of dye for the white to soak in,
a factory full of girls, as this was women’s work

she knew something beautiful as silk required sacrifice
So she planted the seed, pulped the pupa, reaped the dream –

A garden full of maiden silkworms
growing fat but never growing


In Chang’an, the emperor wanted
to expel the nomads from the desert.
His weapon: warhorses – ‘heavenly horses’
from the desert. Parasites drank
from their muscles, so these horses
leaked red sweat. The blood on the silk
was theirs, spilled where the silk road began.



In my travels, I wore thrifted silk dresses.
The material grew damp with fishy sweat.
I wonder about the previous wearers, where they
went and what they did. I give my dresses to my
poet friends. Jane wears my green silk dress
gathering mussels in a tidepool. In my dream, the
silk jacket from my childhood tears
against the branches in the high winds,
then it floats, skeletal, like a body in a river

Nomads love silk. For lifetimes
they’ve walked the desert. The light material
exposed their skin to the kisses of a long
cool breeze. Easy resistance
to mirage.

Years ago, I visited Suzhou, world capital
of silk and wedding dresses. At the silk museum,
the silkworms crumpled themselves in baskets,
lazy and dazed in the spoils of mulberry.
                weft / weave / reeling / warp / dye
After the first molting, the second molting,
silk moths lay eggs. Then the weavers – at the
museum, these wax dolls – brought offerings
to the Gods of sericulture.

Before currency, before mint or coin
there were bolts of silk
spun by women and Bombyx Mori.
The loom, the threads, the hands, the cocoons,
the moon looming over the singing dunes. The moon eating
crepe myrtle and organza.

On Guanqian Street, the shops lined up
next to the canals – the Lingering Garden,
the Lion’s Grove Garden, where drunk poets
recited poems to amber carp eating dead
skin off their feet. That year, I was trying
to reconstruct myself with a thin,
lightweight, breathable material. I bought
a silk qipao patterned with moonflowers,
wondered where on earth I could wear it.

The Romans coveted silk, for it clung
to the body, left nothing
to imagine, scandalizing men.
Japan sent an envoy to steal cocoons
and kidnap two young silk-weavers
holding the secret of sericulture.
At night the two women looked
at the moon, tried to divulge the secret,
revealed not by tongue but hands,
which were roped to their backs
in case they attempted escape.

“Life is a magnificent gown infested with fleas.”
– Eileen Chang

I wore the qipao to the Eileen Chang-themed café in
the Jing’An District. Shanghai: 2018. Eileen’s
former residence, Changde Apartment, she lived in
the 1940s, wrote Romances and Love in a Fallen
My friend, visiting from Kunming, said
Eileen’s advice for wearing qipao is not to be afraid
of showing off the belly’s curve. I imagine Eileen
lounging on her sixth-floor balcony, her qipao taut
across her belly. Once, a man slipped a note under
her door, and in that apartment their romance began.
In that apartment, their affair also ended. She
moved out soon after. Life begins as a worm
spinning spools of spit-cocoon, ends as a flea-
infested gown. Embroidered in golden thread, a
bouquet of lilies – daily, in the same narrow room,
the sunlight begins, and always ends.

red coral, topaz, lapis lazuli / religion, contagion / spices, agate, copper

red sea pearls, apricots, jade / glassware, silver, indigo / frankincense

peaches from Samarkand / spider silks, wild silks / raw at every edge

I wore the qipao to the Fairmont Peace Hotel,
the first floor, a 1930s club where the world’s oldest
jazz band played every night. My friend the poet
Cathy Che, was visiting – she wore my qipao, the
one I found in Hangzhou, bright and turquoise with
red orchids. We watched a lovely

woman dance in front of the band – she smiled in
her white dress, her arms wildly swinging. ‘Would
you believe it? I am sixty-five,’ she said, waiting
for us to say: No! We don’t believe you! How can
you laugh and dance like that, having lived for all
these years?

rose agate / porcelain, high winds / mouth of a golden snake / minarets, musks and melons

Everywhere in Shanghai, I saw the painted
Shanghai ladies. In 1930s advertisements, they
smiled compulsively, dressed in qipao and furs, as if
they weren’t living through a civil war, an
occupation, the threat of war, an invasion.

Everything crackling, everything burning, but these
glamourous women kept smiling in these paintings,
even after time ran out, their smiles so charming
they sell osmanthus perfume oil,
which I bought at a cosmetics shop in Yuyuan
Garden, and wear on my neck to this very day.

At the mouth of the Silk Road,
In the desert outside Dunhuang,
A rumor of voices slurring in the sand.

Among the eroded land formations,
parched for silk and unspoiled girls,
cosmologies, maladies & gods,
merchants traveling all night, shelter.

What did the wanderer hear on her way
to a deathless house? West – an entryway.
Not a mirage but a ghost shrieking for water –

But real Shanghai ladies were melancholy. Ruan
Lingyu, the actress who died of melancholia at 23.
Zhou Xuan, the golden voice of the Seven Singing
Stars, whose fame propelled the number 1 hit song
‘The Wandering Songstress,’ died in a Shanghai
mental asylum at 37.

Unspooling a bolt of raw silk, a wandering
songstress lays across the threads, prays to Canmu,
Mother of Silkworms, before vanishing in the sand,
no longer prey to the desert’s vagaries.

For six months I stayed next to the Peace Hotel,
at another hotel, an artist’s residency. On the first
floor of the Peace Hotel, trompe l’oeil of storefronts
from the 30s. A silk shop, a shoe shop, a qipao on
display. These days, ordinary women posed for
photoshoots in red silk gowns, downstairs at the
entrance to the hotel – I recall the Langston Hughes
poem ‘red silk stockings’ –

‘When I first arrived in the desert, I desperately
wanted to be the first female explorer to cross
the Sahara.’

– Sanmao, ‘A Knife on a Desert Night’

1934: Langston Hughes visited Shanghai,
when the Peace Hotel went by another name, the
Cathay. He wrote: ‘I was more afraid of going into
the world-famous Cathay Hotel than I was of going
into any public place in the Chinese quarters.
Colored people were not welcome in the Cathay.’

At the exclusive clubs on the Bund, no Chinese
were allowed. According to Hughes: ‘I was
constantly amazed in Shanghai at the impudence of
white foreigners in drawing a color line against the
Chinese in China itself.’

When I found the water, I debated
drinking its mirage. In the desert,
everything grew wild. I expected
an expanse of death, but everything
sprouted before me, more alive
than I could ever hope to be.

Every evening in the Bund, the municipal buildings
bathed in orange light as I took a stroll. The
cameras captured every transgression – jaywalking
or loitering. On this side of the river, memories of
blood spilled. A luxury watch brand sells time to the
rivers of people walking down Nanjing East Road.

They’ve waited a lifetime to witness this skyline
across the Huangpu River. Pudong, sequined with
fishscale lights, projections on buildings – cherry
blossoms, ads for skin cream, and the words I love
my home,
in Chinese and English.
Junks rimmed with briny lights. Even the sky was a
bolt of silk torn in half by God.

How the splendor and squalor of our collective past
could transform overnight. A worm spitting and
spinning itself into a new luxury, a sensation,
finally, yes, a thing of value.


Image © J. E. Theriot

Sally Wen Mao

Sally Wen Mao is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection The Kingdom of Surfaces (Graywolf Press, August 2023), and the fiction collection Ninetails (Penguin Books). She is also the author of two previous poetry collections, Oculus (Graywolf Press, 2019), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014). The recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she was recently a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and a Shearing Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.

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