War Junks

There are many types of sea-going Chinese Junks. They usually have a high stern and overhanging bow, square on deck but fine at the waterline. They have no keels but a deep rudder lowered in a trunk, and from two to five masts and lug sails stiffened with battens which can be quickly reefed. The hold is divided into water right compartments and let out to merchants. The inland river trade of China is also carried by junks of many varieties. In 1851 the Great exhibition was visited by the Keying, a junk of 400 tons sailing from Canton to Landon via New York.

Asia and the Indian Ocean, had their own traditions of naval warfare. Most of this took place in coastal or inland waters and was a direct adjunct to land warfare. By the time a permanent Chinese navy was founded by the Song dynasty in 1132, China had an array of diverse vessels including paddlewheel ships, galleys, and sailing ships. Exploiting the resources of a prosperous and populous state, China became the world’s greatest naval power, although Europeans knew little or nothing about it. In the early 15th century the Ming dynasty embarked on naval power-projection on a vast scale with the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who took a fleet of massive war junks around southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean as far as east Africa. The decision of the Ming to withdraw from such maritime adventures after the 1430s was one of the turning points of world history.

The Pagoda, Whampoa, China. Whampoa is located to the south of Canton. The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, one of the treaties forced on China at the end of the First Opium war (1839-1842) conceded Treaty Ports to European powers, including Canton. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Chinese developed a range of warship types with different tactical roles. These included large multi-deck war junks and “tower ships” with portholes through which crossbows could be fired and lances thrust, and often carrying varieties of catapult. Smaller vessels included “covered swoopers,” fast assault ships covered with thick hides to protect against missiles and incendiary devices, which were designed for aggressive “swoops” on the enemy. “Flying barques” were fast moving galleys with more oarsmen than usual and a smaller-complement of soldiers-comparable to the Greek trireme in concept. Paddle-wheel craft, initially introduced in the 8th century, became of paramount importance under the Song dynasty. The wheels were driven by treadmills inside the hull typically operated by the leg-power of crews of 28 to 42 men. Large vessels might have 23 wheels-11 on each side and one at the stern-and measure up to 360 feet (110 m) in length. One type, known as a “seahawk” ship, had a low bow and a high stern, a ram at the prow and iron plates for armored protection. Used on rivers and lakes, the paddlewheel craft were extremely maneuverable, capable of traveling forward or backward with equal ease. On-board weaponry ranged from crossbows and lances to catapults and, later, primitive cannon. Gunpowder became a common element in missile warfare in the Song period. It could be wrapped in small packages around arrowheads to make fire-arrows, or used to fuel a fire-lance-a kind of protoflamethrower-or made into explosive grenades or bombs. Many Chinese naval battles were decided by ships being set on fire.

A Chinese War Junk exploding under fire from the East India Company British iron steam warship HEIC Nemesis in Anson-‘s Bay-, near Canton-, 8 January 1841. Steamers with shell-firing guns enabled the British to take their power close inshore-, opening rivers and harbours to the full weight of naval firepower. In this war the object was to increase trade.

As early as the 8th and 9th centuries CE, China was using massive multi-deck ships for river and canal trade. With hundreds of crewmen (and women), who often were born, lived, and died on board these massive vessels, these ships plied the inland waters of the empire. Other, foreign ships would travel as far as Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) from their ports in south China. Soon, the Chinese themselves began using similar large ships to ferry grain from south to north China, and by the 9th century the Chinese began building their own huge ocean-going ships, designed to extend the reach of the empire’s commercial and military power. Great battles soon followed, between rival Chinese factions and other Asian powers; in 1161, for instance, the Sung Dynasty defeated the Jin Empire in a massive naval battle off the Shandong Peninsula, gaining control of the East China Sea. The Sung themselves fell to the Mongols under Kubilai Khan in 1279, in a campaign where Mongol sea power played a large role.

The Mongol warships of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries had four masts, more than sixty individual cabins, and crews of over 300 men. These ships were trading, transport, and war vessels rolled into one. The Ming Dynasty which came into power in the later 14th century continued this maritime tradition at first. Around 1405, Admiral Zheng He led an expedition of some 37,000 men into the Indian Ocean, with a huge fleet of Chinese warships. The largest of these vessels were 500 feet long, up to five times the size of comparable Western ships of the era, and had watertight compartments, not introduced in West until four centuries later. This mighty fleet sailed unopposed throughout the Indian Ocean and southwestern Asian waters until 1433, a tribute to the might of China. Though the Chinese navy would thereafter begin to decline, at it apex its fleet of “Flying Tigers,” large warships that carried the spirit of the empire in their fore-and-aft rigged sails and large crews, was a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese battleships, those ocean-going junks of immense size and power, carried troops, traders, and diplomats, and sported cannon and soldiers for attack and defense. Powerful in battle, they were also most useful as spearheads of diplomatic forays or military invasions. Able to defend themselves, attack other fleets, and deposit troops onto unfriendly shores, the Flying Tiger Warships were a versatile and powerful addition to the Empire’s military system. Cresting the horizon in distant seas, a force of dozens or even hundreds of these vessels no doubt created fear and confusion in China’s enemies, and impressed China’s friends.

In Qi’s [16th century] system a war junk had 55 troops divided into five units. Two units used arquebuses, two used cannon, flame-throwers and rockets, and one unit used other types of gunpowder weapons. Naval combat required firearms by this point, a marked change in warfare.

Old China developed over the centuries a rich naval history with an entirely different technology from that used by the European West. Whole cities, whose citizens lived afloat on moored boats, were founded in the ocean. Most coastal warlords raised navies. Fleets of buccaneers banned from all ports roved the China seas. These dreaded raiders, knowing they would receive no mercy if taken, fought with a fanatic skill and courage. As the colonial period opened in the Far East, intrepid captains from the Western powers came to China’s exotic ports, lured by fabulous trade opportunities. In their wake came the adventurers, warships, and more pirates. China’s coast soon swarmed with all manner of shipping, and East met West with occasional violence. The struggle for dominance eventually climaxed in the “Opium War”.

Chinese Ships

The most obvious difference between Chinese and Western ships is that of size. Even ocean-going war junks were small compared to European ships of the line. Chinese captains insisted that their craft be able to operate in the many rivers, canals, and shallow bays that lined China’s coast. After all, some of the most important water trade took place a thousand miles from the ocean, up the broad Yangtze to the port of Ichang. Ships needed to be small and have shallow draft to navigate these waterways, especially during the winter drought.

Chinese ships evolved with unique means of propulsion. The Chinese shipwrights used square lugsails battened with bamboo and hung from a yardarm roughly two-thirds of the way up the ship’s mast. The bamboo battens held the sails rigid and flat even in high winds, which allowed the ships to tack at angles that amazed European sailors. These battened sails continued to function even when perforated and torn. Sailors climbed the battens without the use of ratlines found on Western ships. And Chinese sails could be raised and lowered rapidly because they simply folded, rather like huge Venetian blinds. Most ships could also be poled in shallow water or driven with sculling oars.

A lorca had the body of a Western frigate, brig, or corvette, but with a reinforced hull and Chinese sails. The Kiangsu and Pechilli traders were common merchant ships and also were in common use by Chinese pirates. River junks carried no sails and, despite their label, were often used on the ocean near the coast. The crooked junk was scarcely bigger than a gunboat and was limited to oared movement; its stern was designed to allow for the use of an oar sweep in rapids. Opium clippers are Western-built ships specially designed to smuggle the drug past Chinese government warships. They combined the best of both worlds, being able to out-sail most European vessels and outgun most Chinese in the South China Sea.

The Chinese never developed naval artillery, weaponry, or tactics to any great extent. Most of their combat took place in rivers, where the enemy would lie straight ahead or behind where a “broadside” could not reach. Most Chinese ships that carried cannon had only a few, and these were typically haphazardly placed on the main deck. Instead of cannons, the Orientals developed their own weapons, mostly intended to aid in the boarding actions that usually decided the fight. Stink bombs, fireships and torches, anti-boarding spikes, and mines were common. These devices, which are described in detail below, can be used by any Chinese ship.

Stink Bombs: Chinese sailors made small bombs by packing clay pots with gunpowder, nails, sulfur dust, and any malodorous substance they had available. These were to be thrown onto the decks of enemy ships. Sailors in a boarding action hurled their bombs by hand, making stink bombs.

Mines: These were small gunpowder charges designed to be floated downstream with time fuses.

Fireships: The Chinese devised a special form of fireship. Two small boats were tethered to one another by a long length of chain. When an enemy ship struck the chain, the fireships swung in to lay along her hull.

Spikes: Some Oriental ships mounted sharp stakes along the hull to discourage ramming and boarding. The Koreans refined this practice and continued it even after they developed ironclads.

The Opium War

The most dramatic encounters between European and Chinese wooden warships happened during the Opium War of 1839-1842. European naval technology had advanced in the interim, but the Royal Navy was slow to adopt these changes, and even then did not dispatch its newest ships to China. The primary British squadron in Chinese water during the war consisted of Alligator (26-gun frigate), Blenheim (74-gun common SQL), Blonde (42-gun frigate), Conway (26-gun frigate), Druid (44-gun frigate), Hellas (an opium clipper chartered by the Royal Navy), Volage (26-gun frigate), and Wellesley (74-gun SOL).

In defense of the right of British smugglers to operate, these ships blockaded the Chinese coast and also made forays upriver. The blockade intensified in June 1840 when Captain Smith outlawed all native Chinese navigation and ordered his fleet to seize all Chinese vessels. In reaction, the Chinese government offered bounties on Englishmen. One could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor ($20 for just his head), $5,000 for an imprisoned ship captain, and up to $10,000 for burning a European ship. Despite this incentive, the English almost always overwhelmed their opponents. Most of the action was confined to desperate, single-ship fighting. The only true battle occurred when Hellas was sweeping the mouth of the Yangtze. Chinese locals had cleverly placed underwater stakes to prevent her from turning. Eight Pechilli [trade] junks sallied from the river to attack her with stink bombs and boarding actions. They were driven off, but Hellas also withdrew to replenish her crew.

For more technical information on Chinese vessels, consult The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze by G.R.G. Wocester (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1971). For information on the Opium War, I suggest The Chinese Opium War by Jack Beeching (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

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