From sometime in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and over a long period of time in ancient China, plain silk of various descriptions joined bamboo and wood slips as the material for writing or painting on. Silk had advantages over the slips in that it was much lighter and could be cut in desired shapes and sizes and folded, the better to be kept and carried. But owing to its much greater cost, silk was never so popularly used as the slips.
The most valuable find of ancient silk writings was made in 1973 from an ancient tomb known as the No.3 Han Tomb at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan Province. It is in the form of 30-odd pieces of silk, bearing more than 120,000 characters. They consist largely of ancient works that had long been lost. For instance, Wuxingzhan describes the orbits of five planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn) and gives the cycles of their alignment, all with a precision far more remarkable than similar works which appeared later. Also found were three maps drawn on silk, showing the topography, the stationing of troops and the cities and towns of certain regions of China. They are the earliest maps in China, and in the world as well, that have been made on the basis of field surveys. Contrary to their modern counterparts, they show south on top and north at the bottom. The topographic map is at a scale of 1 : 180,000, and the troop distribution map at about 1:80,000/100,000. Their historical value may be easily imagined when one remembers that they are at least 2,100 years old.
Silk was considered in old China an exquisite material for writing on; some were pre-marked with lines in vermilion. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was the fashion to weave the lines into plain white silk to be used exclusively for writing.
Many artists of today have carried on the ancient practice of painting and writing on silk.