Industrial Espionage

©Trustees of the British Museum

The Chinese produced luxury silk fabrics for several thousand years before they began trading with the west. Scraps of dyed silk gauze found in a neolithic site in Zhejiang Province date from 3600 BCE. Silk fabrics woven in complex patterns were produced in the same region by 2600 BCE. By the time of the Zhou dynasty, which controlled China from the twelfth to the third centuries BCE, silk was an established industry in China.

Wild silk, spun from the short broken fibers found in the cocoons of already-emerged silk moths, was produced throughout Asia. Only the Chinese knew how to domesticate the silk moth, bombyx mori, and turn its long fibers into into thread. They kept close control over the secrets of how to raise the domestic silkworm and create silk from the long fibers in its cocoon. Exporting silkworms, silkworm eggs or mulberry seeds was punishable by death. It was more profitable to export the finished product than the means of production.

The Chinese monopoly on the secrets of silk production and manufacture was eventually broken. According to one story, a Chinese princess, sent to marry a Central Asian king, smuggled out what silk cultivators called the “little treasures” as an unofficial dowry. (In one cringe-inducing version of this story, the princess carried the silkworms in her chignon to escape detection at the border.* It was illegal for a commoner, like a border security agent, to touch the head of a member of the royal family.) A totally different tradition tells of two Nestorian monks who smuggled silkworm eggs out of China in hollow staffs and carried them all the way to Byzantium, traveling in winter so the eggs wouldn’t hatch.

However the “little treasures” traveled, the Chinese monopoly on silk production was over by the sixth century CE, when the Middle Eastern cities of Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo, Tyre, and Sidon became famous for their silks.

* Would you want these in your hair? Makes your scalp crawl doesn’t it?

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Steinbeck in Vietnam

Reading Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War, edited by literary scholar Thomas E. Barden, is a fascinating, and occasionally uncomfortable, experience.

In December, 1965, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, then 65, accepted an assignment from Harry F. Guggenheim to report on the war in Vietnam for Newsday.  A personal friend of Lyndon Johnson, with one son already in Vietnam and another in basic training, Steinbeck was not an unbiased observer–and made no pretense that he was.   He arrived in Vietnam a full-fledged supporter of the war.  He hated war protestors even more than he hated the Viet Cong.  He was fascinated by military hardware.  He treated American soldiers as heroes.

The columns were controversial at the time they were published.  Read more than forty years later, they are often shocking.  Written with the force that characterizes all of Steinbeck’s work, his Vietnam dispatches are a mixture of vitriolic attacks on war protestors, lyrical descriptions of the countryside, paeans to the American soldier, and moments of stunning insight.  What makes the columns more than a historical curiosity is Steinbeck’s effort to understand the war on its own terms.  That internal struggle, publicly shared in the pages of Newsday is as powerful an evocation of the Vietnam experience as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Barden’s editorial touch is light, and clearly defined.  His introduction and afterword place the letters clearly in the context of Steinbeck’s career, including his later doubts about the war.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

From Confucius to Air Traffic Control

In 130 BCE, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi came up with a new idea for how to choose government bureaucrats. He established a civil service of Confucian scholars, known in English as mandarins, who earned their positions by passing a standardized examination. The system still favored those from privileged families who could afford to give their sons* a formal education. But at least in theory, getting a government job in imperial China now depended on what you knew instead of who you knew or what family you were born in.

In Wudi’s day, the examinations tested candidates’ understanding of the tenets of Confucian moral and ethical thought on which Han dynasty government was based–the equivalent of asking candidates for jobs in the United States government to pass a test on the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers. Over time, the examinations became more and more divorced from the realities of government. By the Manchu dynasty of the seventeenth century, candidates were tested on their knowledge of Chinese history, their ability to compose poetry, and the quality of their calligraphy.

Wudi’s civil service exams controlled who got a government job in China from the seventh century CE through 1905, when the system was abolished in response to pressure from a new western-educated elite. The west didn’t adopt the concept until the nineteenth century. In 1853, the British East India Company was the first European power to use competitive examinations as a means of reforming an increasingly corrupt system in which positions were acquired through patronage and purchase. The East India Company consciously copied the Chinese exam system, creating a class of “new Mandarins”.

Other western governments, faced with the hazards of civil service based on “who you know”, thought Wudi’s idea that government employees should pass a test proving their fitness for government service was a good one. The United States entered the game in 1883, after a disgruntled would-be federal employee assassinated President James Garfield. Civil Service exams controlled who got a job in the United States civil service until 1978, when the general civil service examination was abolished. Today, civil service exams are still required for jobs requiring a specific set of skills, such as air traffic controllers and intelligence agency linguists.

* Just to put this in context: roughly 2000 years later Clara Barton was one of only FOUR women to work for the United States Federal government in the years just before the American Civil War. At the time, plenty of people thought the presence of women in government jobs was a sign that the system of patronage had gone awry.

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