Naval warfare and operations were crucial to the creation and unification of the Chinese empire for over two thousand years, yet this fact has usually been overlooked in the military history of China. China has generally been seen as a continental power that failed to develop an effective navy. This orientation is frequently contrasted with Europe’s seafaring, outward-looking attitude, which drove it to explore, exploit, and dominate the rest of the world. Defenders of Chinese culture often bring up the six voyages of the Muslim eunuch-admiral Zheng He to the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, or even Khubilai Khan’s attempted invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, to argue that China was not exclusively inwardly focused. Yet these adventures were exceptions that neither demonstrate the general importance of naval operations in China nor explain the specific roles that navies usually played in warfare.
China is divided by several large rivers running roughly east-west that had to be crossed by any would-be conqueror attempting to assemble a unified Chinese empire. It is thus not surprising to find that every history of the creation of a major Chinese dynasty is laced with accounts of naval operations and warfare. Without a strong navy, no unification of China was possible. While the Mongols were off conquering much of Eurasia, the Southern Song navy blocked their southward progress for nearly half a century. But a conqueror’s naval needs were not limited to river crossing. Rivers were also the most efficient means of transporting men and supplies for campaigns. Hence, control of the rivers was a prerequisite for conquest and control of the empire, but the sea was of limited military importance.
That is not to say that the sea was completely unimportant. A fair amount of sea trade was transacted at various times in Chinese ports, which greatly profited the imperial treasury through customs duties. But the government’s interest in profits from seaborne trade did not mirror a similar interest in spreading its influence through a fleet of warships. This was not due to an inward focus by Chinese statesmen so much as to practical considerations of costs and benefits. An oceangoing navy was expensive and served no apparent function, since China was seldom menaced from the sea. Ironically, it was the Mongols, a nomadic steppe people, who made the most use of the Chinese and Korean navies in their campaigns of conquest. The offensive and defensive naval needs of Chinese emperors were usually limited to the rivers and canals of their own territory, not the sea coast. There were some exceptions to this, such as the Tang invasions of Korea by sea in the seventh century, but the government was content, for the most part, to leave the ocean to the merchants and let the merchants take care of themselves.
Naval operations encompasses a much broader range of activities than ship-to-ship combat. As mentioned, control of waterways was crucial to army logistics. Spanning a river with a pontoon bridge is as much a naval operation as an engineering one, and frequently involved the navy in defending the bridge once constructed. In many cases, the success or failure of a naval operation to take control of a waterway or protect a bridge determined the outcome of the land campaign. Large armies could be effectively tied to rivers by their logistical dependency, and the strategy of many campaigns was dictated by the floods and droughts that could ruin an army’s riverine supply lines. Operations were not limited to the natural river system; the earliest canals in China were immediately exploited for their military potential.
It is almost impossible to separate the technological, logistical, and purely military aspects of naval operations, and no attempt will be made to do so here. Chinese navies were quick to take advantage of any effective innovation in weaponry or sailing. Fire weapons and true cannon appeared on Chinese ships soon after they appeared on land, and seaworthiness improved dramatically over the centuries. But what is more important to remember in the history of this vast continental power is that it was how ships were used—their vital role in empire building—that is most remarkable. Far from being ignored, naval operations were involved in creating Chinese empires from the very beginning to the very end.
The first recorded use of ships in a military operation occurred circa 1045 B.C.E., when King Wu of Zhou ferried 300 chariots, 3,000 men of his personal guard, and 45,000 infantrymen across the Yellow River at Mengjin in forty-seven ships to attack the Shang capital. These were not specialized warships, but vessels commandeered for the operation. Even so, the importance of this operation is clear: A naval contingent of some kind was necessary to span a geographic feature that would otherwise have protected a strategic goal. King Wu’s use of ships for military purposes was probably not the first instance of this sort of operation in China. By the first millennium B.C.E. Chinese (to use a somewhat anachronistic term) had been transporting themselves on the water for thousands of years. An oar for a small boat was unearthed in 1978 at a Neolithic site at Hemudu (on the coast of Zhejiang) and dated to 5000 B.C.E. But the pattern set by King Wu was to be repeated throughout Chinese history as dynasty succeeded dynasty and states warred with each other.
Over the succeeding centuries, ships became more specialized. The ships that ferried King Wu’s army across the Yellow River were gradually replaced with transport vessels and warships purpose-built for their tasks. Warships were first constructed in the states of Wu, Yue, and Chu in southern China during the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 B.C.E.), as well as in the state of Qi in the northeast. The first recorded naval engagement took place in 549 B.C.E., although no details are available beyond the fact that Chu launched an unsuccessful naval expedition against Wu. It was reported that King Kang of Chu, who launched the attack, was the first Chu ruler to carry out naval expeditions, beginning in 559 B.C.E. when he first took the throne. Some transport vessels at that time could carry fifty men with three months’ supply of food and make the thousand-plus-mile trip from Sichuan in the west down the Yangzi River to Chu in less than ten days, covering more than a hundred miles a day.
The development of ships in general, and warships in particular, was aided by advances in woodworking that were themselves a by-product of improved iron tools. Yet the means of naval warfare were still limited to galleys carrying troops of men armed with bows and hand-to-hand weapons. There were several kinds of warships available to the state of Wu: Large Wings, Medium Wings, Small Wings, Tower Ships, and Bridge Boats. Large Wings (the name perhaps coming from the motion of the oars) were 3.5 meters wide and 23 meters long, bearing a crew of ninety-one men (of whom fifty were rowers). These two-decked vessels were supplied with four long hooks, four spears, four axes, thirty-two crossbows, and 3,200 arrows. The high number of oarsmen indicates that speed was particularly important. Medium Wings were 3.1 meters wide and 22 meters long, Small Wings were 2.8 meters wide and 20.7 meters long. All of these vessels had ramming beaks. Tower Ships were used for assaulting the walls of fortifications adjacent to rivers or other bodies of water. They were used in the same way as siege towers on land, to enable the attackers to shoot down at a wall’s defenders. Bridge Boats were fast galleys that served the same function as light infantry and cavalry, and they may well have also had ramming beaks.
These ships were first explained by Wu Yuan, also known as Wu Zixu, who came to serve the king of Wu after the king of Chu killed his father and elder brother. In 506 B.C.E. Wu was ordered to construct a canal running from Suzhou through to Lake Tai and then on to the Yangzi River. Shortly after this more than 100-kilometer canal was completed, the king of Wu used the canal to launch a successful attack on Chu. The utility of canal building for military operations was clear, so the next king of Wu ordered another canal dug, this time connecting to the Huai River in the north. Upon its completion in 484 B.C.E., a successful attack was launched against the state of Qi using the 185-kilometer canal. This new canal now allowed the Wu army to travel all the way to the Central Plains of northern China by ship, transiting from the Huai River to the Si River and then on to the Ji River. These canals were constructed in order to allow the north–south transfer of troops for military campaigns. By connecting the major east–west rivers, these manmade water routes spanned the natural geographic divisions that separated many of the individual states of early China.
The state of Wu was also an innovator in launching China’s first recorded use of oceangoing ships in a campaign, resulting in the first naval battle at sea in 485 B.C.E. Yet Wu’s advances in naval warfare were also to prove its undoing. The rival state of Yue carefully trained its own navy, and in a series of naval engagements combined with land operations destroyed the state of Wu in 475.
Naval warfare was now a regular part of Chinese warfare, and it continued to develop as a result of its increasing frequency. By the early part of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), Chinese ships had added several layers of superstructure and moved from clinker-built to carvel-built construction. In addition, anchors, rudders, sweeps, and sails had all come into common use. The Han navy, the first independently established navy in Chinese history, was actually called the “Tower Ship Navy,” an indication of the central place of the tower ship. This incarnation of the earlier tower ship would continue in use through the thirteenth century, its multiple levels of superstructure serving to protect and provide firing platforms for a substantial complement of soldiers or marines. A variety of smaller ships supplemented the tower ships.
When the Han dynasty was first founded the navy was not powerful enough to suppress the independent kingdoms in the southeast that had broken away from the collapsing Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.E.). The southeast was and has remained the center of China’s maritime culture. Not only does it include an extensive coastline, but inland the area is laced with a vast network of rivers and streams. Three southeastern kingdoms escaped the initial Han consolidation: Dongou, Nanyue, and Minyue. In 138 B.C.E. Minyue attacked Dongou, and the king of Dongou sought Han help. The Minyue navy withdrew without engaging the Han navy, but Dongou was promptly incorporated into the Han empire.
In the fall of 112 B.C.E., having settled the northern border seven years before, the Han emperor sent a larger naval force of 100,000 men to attack Nanyue. The kingdom fell the following year. When the Han navy originally set out to attack Nanyue, Minyue was asked to send a naval force to aid the effort. Although Minyue agreed to the request, the force it sent halted well short of Nanyue, claiming that unfavorable winds prevented it from advancing. Having destroyed Nanyue, the Han commander proposed attacking Minyue on the way home. The Han emperor rejected this idea, and ordered his navy to return to base to refit and await further orders. The Minyue ruler in turn went into open rebellion, and a combined land and naval campaign destroyed the kingdom in 110 B.C.E.
Even before the last shreds of Han sovereignty disintegrated in 220 C.E., the empire had already effectively split into three kingdoms: Wei in the north, Wu in the southeast, and Shu in Sichuan. The balance between them was maintained by geography and naval power. Shu was protected by a ring of mountains, but, despite its position upstream on the Yangzi, could not strike out at Wu because it was unable to develop an effective navy. Wu, on the other hand, had an extremely powerful navy that allowed it to fend off the well-developed land forces of Wei. Yet because its own land forces were considerably weaker than Wei’s, Wu was limited in its ability to project power northward.
In the spring of 208 Wei began to build a navy that would allow it to project power southward. This buildup, and the campaign that followed, led to perhaps the most famous battle in all of Chinese history: the Battle of Red Cliff. In mid-year, more than 100,000 infantry and cavalry boarded ship to begin Wei’s drive to unify the empire. The Wei force was successful in its drive down the Han River and into the Yangzi. Once on the Yangzi, however, the navies of Shu and Wu united to defeat Wei’s large but not particularly skillful fleet. Wei’s fleet, now swelled to a force of some 150,000 men (here we should note the proclivity of Chinese sources for giving the number of men rather than the number of ships), anchored beneath Red Cliff chained stem to stern in a continuous wall. The combined Wu-Shu fleet opened its attack on this static formation by launching ten fire ships into the Wei lines. In the ensuing battle, Wei’s fleet was entirely destroyed, thus temporarily putting an end to its unification attempts.
Naval operations played an important role in the centuries that followed, as the back-and-forth warfare of the third through sixth centuries kept the political divisions of China in flux. In 581 the Sui dynasty started to bring this period to a close and constructed a large empire like that of the Han. Late in 588 the Sui emperor sent a vast force across the Yangzi to extinguish the southern kingdom of Chen. The construction of more than one thousand Yellow Dragon ships, in addition to a wide variety of other vessels, had begun in 584. Some 100,000 Chen soldiers waited on the south bank of the Yangzi. This was more in the nature of a vast amphibious landing than a naval battle. Five hundred thousand Sui troops invaded Chen along eight routes, seven of them crossing the Yangzi and one approaching from the sea. Despite some spirited resistance by the Chen army on the upper reaches of the river, the kingdom fell early in 589.
The Sui dynasty itself proved short-lived. It was succeeded by the Tang dynasty (618–907). The Tang emperors made extensive use of naval forces in their campaigns against the Korean kingdoms of Koguryo and Paekche in the middle decades of the seventh century. In 663, the Tang navy defeated a Japanese fleet in a great battle fought on the southwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. Although it does not appear that Tang was a period of dramatic innovation in naval technology or practice, this was nevertheless a time of cultural and commercial developments that laid much of the groundwork for naval advances under the Song dynasty. Many of the innovations first attested during the Song (960–1279) may have been of earlier design. It was during the Song, for example, that the use of the compass for navigating is first mentioned (at the very end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth century). There were several other Song improvements in maritime technology. Ships were considerably strengthened by the addition of crossbeams bracing their ribs. Rudders that could be raised or lowered allowed ships to operate in a broader range of water depths, and the teeth of anchors were arranged circularly instead of in one direction, making them more reliable.
The most significant naval development during the Song was the widespread use of a Tang invention: the man-powered paddle-wheel boat. By the early twelfth century paddle-wheeled warships were being manufactured by the dozen. Not only were the numbers of these vessels increasing, their size and the number of paddle wheels was also growing. Ships were built with as many as thirty-two wheels, and some could carry a thousand soldiers. Oceangoing vessels also began to proliferate. Tang developments in this area were built upon to create still larger and more seaworthy vessels armed with a variety of early gunpowder weapons.
Naval warfare in the Song was both more extensive and more sophisticated than in Tang times. It also provides a good example of the way that a navy was vital to continental conquest. In 974 the Song undertook to conquer the Southern Tang, a kingdom based on the Yangzi River. Although conceived in territorial terms, the entire campaign turned on the ability of the Song navy first to span the Yangzi with a pontoon bridge and then to protect that link from repeated attacks by the powerful Southern Tang navy. Every attack on the pontoon bridge jeopardized the army’s success on land. The Southern Tang ruler only surrendered after the last of his navy was destroyed or captured, despite the fact that the Song navy had surrounded his capital for some ten months. With the conquest of the Southern Tang, the Song navy faded in importance for nearly a century and a half.