Silk Princess Painting

Votive panel, circa 500-700 CE, The British Museum. Rectangular votive panel illustrating the legend of the introduction of sericulture to the regions of Khotan. The central figure is a Chinese princess who smuggled mulberry seeds and silk moth eggs, hiding them in her head.

Princesses are known to follow the rules, wait for the prince, and live happily ever after. This votive panel from the sixth century, however, shows this isn’t always the case. The illustration tells the story of smuggling, secret silkworms, and definitely breaking the rules.

The votive panel isn’t a beautiful piece of art. Compared to the rest of the British Museum’s collection, it certainly wouldn’t stand out. But it was never intended to be a beautiful art piece. The votive panel was intended to tell a story, and the story it tells is a fascinating and daring one.

From a Buddhist shrine in Khotan in Central Asia, and at just 12 centimetres high and 46 centimetres wide, the votive panel fits into a bigger story, a story that rivals the typical Disney tale. Khotan, an ancient kingdom in China, had an embargo on importing goods. However, the Chinese princess saw a way around this. She smuggled mulberry seeds and eggs of the silk moth, hiding them in her headdress. When arriving at the border, officials wouldn’t check the Princess’s headdress, so as seen in the votive panel, she is holding the cocoons of the silk moths in a basket, proud of her daring deed.

Acquired by the British Museum in 1907, the votive panel has had quite the travels around the world. First displayed at the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo in 1990, and most recently displayed in the Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum in 2004, the votive panel is also featured in the book and podcast A History of The World in 100 Objects. With such an impressive profile, the Princess in the silk votive panel shows so many girls a different side to what it means to be a princess.

From 1907 to today, the ideal of what a princess is, or should be, is still changing. Merida, the Disney princess in the film Brave, continues to challenge the Rapunzel and Cinderella template. Merida is determined to make her own path in life outside her strict family expectations, and isn’t scared to challenge the rules to get what she wants. With wild red hair and less than tidy clothes, Merida is a role model for girls that don’t fit the Rapunzel and Cinderella template. What both Merida and  princess in the silk votive panel show is that a clear path might be set out before you, but it might not always be the right one.

Girlhood is often set in prettiness and passivity, but the princess depicted in the silk votive panel shows that girls can be, and are, so much more.

-Chloe Turner
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

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