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.
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
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
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).