An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Can Nü 蠶女

Aug 15, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Can Nü 蠶女 is a girl figuring in local tales of Sichuan where she is connected with the invention of silkworm breeding. According to legend, Can Nü lived in the region of Shu 蜀 (Sichuan) during the age of the mythical emperor Gao Xin 高辛 (Di Ku 帝嚳).

At that time there was still no government and administration in Shu. The girl's father had been killed, and the only thing he had left over to his child was a horse. She missed her father so much that her mother promised to give her into marriage with that person who would be able to bring back her father. In the end it was the horse which brought back alive her father.

Yet her father, enraged about the horse's interference into human business, killed the beast and dried its skin. The animal's skin thereupon claimed its right and abducted the girl and set her down on the top of a mulberry tree where she transformed into a silkworm. Later on she was allowed to enter the nine celestial palaces, where she rode the "silkworm horse" (canma 蠶馬). This story is to be found in the encyclopaedia Taiping guangji 太平廣記.

In a story told in the book Soushenji 搜神記, the girl directly entrusts the horse with the rescue of her father and promised to marry it if if would bring back her father. The Chinese name for the mulberry tree, sang 桑, is homophonous to the word for "burial" (sang 喪).

Another version of the story is mentioned in the book Xunzi 荀子, where it is said that the girl had the head of a horse and was therefore called "Horse-head girl" (matouniang 馬頭娘). A figure of her was presented in the annual offerings at her tomb in the region around Shifang 什邡, Mianzhu 綿竹 and Deyang 德陽. There was a Temple of the Silkworm Maid (Cangu miao 蠶姑廟) in Deyang which was ornated with wall paintings showing the story of this silk deity.

Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 37, 317.