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0546 Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1
Notes on Marco Polo : vol.1 / Page 546 (Grayscale High Resolution Image)

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doi: 10.20676/00000246
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530   183. COTTON

foot of the Pinna and other bivalve molluscs. From these filaments, textiles can be obtainea they are mendioned in Greek texts from the 2nd cent. A. D. (perhaps already at the end of the 1st cent., if 7rtvtx6v of the Periplus Maris Erythraei really refers to them); but they are never

called «byssus ». These pinna textiles were famous in hellenistic times; as late as the 10th cent., Iota}ri and Maqdisi attribute the pinna wool, « of silken hue and golden colour », to an animal which, at a certain period of the year, runs out of the sea and leaves the wool on stones against which he rubs himself (cf. TP, 1907, 183; LAUFER, The Story of the Pinna, 111). So there is a solid foundation for LAUFER'S conclusion that the « water sheep » of the Wei lio is no other than the Pinna shell. I may add that the Pinna wool of the Mediterranean seems to have come again to the knowledge of the Chinese, but to have then been connected with a purely Chinese legend. Tso Ssû's « Ode on the Wu capital », Wu to fu (second half of the 3rd cent.), already alludes to the mermaid who weaves silk (i'' hsiao) in the depth of the sea. In the Shu-i chi

(6, 13 a; cf. supra, p. 518), the mermaid is called   J. chiao jên (see « Ambergris »), and the

silk woven by her is   chiao-hsiao, « mermaid silk ». Now, the Ling-wai tai-ta (3, 3 b) and

Chao Ju-kua mention chiao-hsiao as one of the typical products of the Mediterranean (cf. HR,

141, 142; in fact, the Han hai ed. of Chao Ju-kua gives   '' chiao-hsiao, a form which also
occurs in Yeh-lü Ch'u-ts'ai's Chan-jan chü-ship chi, Ssû pu ts'ung-k'an ed., 5, 5 a); apart from the inaccurate use of « byssus » as the designation of the textile meant, HIRTH and ROCKHILL seem

to have been right in regarding this « mermaid silk » as a textile made from the byssi of the Pinna.

Yet I wonder whether this solution covers all the facts of the case. As we have seen, Chinese mediaeval accounts of the «sowed iamb» undoubtedly refer to cotton. Passage from an animal to a plant or a mineral, or vice-versa, is of common occurrence in hellenistic and mediaeval science. Even our modern nomenclature would favour such confusions. If we had no knowledge of the subject beyond the names, what legends could not arise from such modern terms as

itt yang-mao shu, « sheep wool tree », now adopted in Chinese for an Eriodendron, or srinbal, lit. « worm wool », one of the names of cotton in Tibetan (cf. for instance, Mahâvyutpatti, No. 5870), or « vegetable sheep », which is the English name of a white woolly plant of New Zealand ! LAUFER thought that it took several centuries for the legend to develop from the « water sheep » to the « full-fledged ovine species equipped with phenomena of plant-growth ». But, as a matter of fact, the western counterpart of the « water sheep » has not been traced, so far, to a text earlier than the Arabic accounts of the 10th cent.; while, on the other hand, the term «earth-born sheep » seems to occur in Chinese texts just as early as the « water sheep », i. e. in the 3rd cent. My impression is that both the « water sheep » and the « earth-born sheep » belong to a composite legend, the western prototype of which still escapes us, and for which the Pinna textiles furnish only some of the elements (but there is no reason to bring in also the legends concerning the big-tailed sheep, as was done by DE GOEJE in TP, y [1894], Supplement, 63). Another consideration makes me hesitate to follow LAUFER. If the famous « West of the Sea cloth » of Ta-Ch'in were merely a Pinna textile, « byssus », as the designation of a textile, ought to be left out of account entirely. Now, it is a striking fact that it is precisely byssus which has given the usual names of cotton stuff throughout northern Asia (cf. supra, p. 427). I have no authority to express a personal opinion on the true value of ßvorQos or to decide