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Quirk of history

The secrets we pinched from China

Top Secret: domesticated silk moths mating on a white mulberry branch. Science Photo Library/Getty

The West has long feared China stealing its industrial secrets, most recently for semiconductors, says Howard Chua-Eoan in Bloomberg. But it used to be the other way round. The Chinese developed techniques for making silk thousands of years ago, and for centuries, they kept it a secret. “Breaking the sanctions could lead to death.” As the luxurious material was traded across the “silk routes”, the Roman Empire ended up “spending the equivalent of 1% of its GDP on the cloth”. According to legend, the monopoly was finally broken in the 6th century, when Justinian I had two monks “smuggle back silkworm eggs in bamboo cases”.

China also used to have a monopoly on paper manufacturing, until the emperor’s army lost a battle against the Arabs. “Among the prisoners of war were military paper-makers who brought their secrets to the Middle East, from where it spread further west.” Then there was porcelain, much desired for sanitary purposes due to “the ease with which it could be cleaned”. It wasn’t until the 18th century that factories in Germany and France finally figured out the firing techniques “to create true porcelain”. With all that, it’s no surprise that Beijing “comes to the semiconductor contest with a lot of… uhm, chips on its shoulder”.