Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feeding the Hungry Masters.

Unlike the towns with their hundreds and thousands of inhabitants, the Chinese village is small, consisting of just a few houses, maybe twenty in all.

The streets are narrow and look as though they follow ancient plans before the time of motor car or bike. The people seem to live close and communally, one building merging into another with no dividing walls or grounds. The doors and windows seem permanently open and welcoming, and yet in other places are guarded with grilles. There are no carpets or soft furnishings, and the only wall covering is paint - but this, like the rendering beneath, is sparingly applied. It feels raw, uncomfortable, but also genuine.

It was in one of these concrete floored rooms that I came across the young silkworms. The mulberry leaves, stored in baskets

are placed on top of the newly hatched and growing silkworms.

For this first part of their lives (the first few instars) they are kept in baskets lined with polythene to prevent the droppings falling through

and stored on racks.

Here they grow, stop and sniff the air, sleep and moult three times, feeding ever more voraciously until, at last, they have reached their final instar and they are the size of my fingers.

In southern China, these large silkworm larvae are stored on the floors of outhouses.

Each room is filled with their shuffling, constantly chewing bodies. I stood still and listened.

On warmer days, I was told, they eat more quickly and the noise of their masticating mouths is louder still. It is a gentle rustling, purposeful and oddly comforting.

Building after building.

Room after room.

Wang Zhong Lin uses every space that he can find.

Each room brings in 3000-4000 Yuan, he told me and his main problem is that he does not have enough space.

Wang stooped suddenly to pluck out a diseased, dead larvae. After throwing it away in the yard he washed his hands under water from a nearby stand pipe. I looked again at one of the rooms crowded with caterpillars and wondered how he kept everything clean. In some places paths were kept clear, but in others there were just stepping stones.

I asked him if he ever had trouble with diseases, and he said that yes he was once affected by pebrine, and after throwing all the silkworms out had to be careful to clean everything before he started again. Each season the eggs are new, bought in from the local government, so there is no trouble due to the disease being passed from one generation to the next. He inspects frequently and needs to be constantly vigilant.

We watched again. Wang's silkworms, he reported, sleep together. For two days they are motionless before they shed their skins that final time. And then, a few days later they are ready to climb and that is the next part of the story.


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