In the case of the Ming Indian Ocean expeditions, the Emperor Zhu Di chose as his agent and leader of the expeditions the eunuch Admiral Zheng He. Born 1372 into a Muslim family named Ma in Yunnan, he was taken at age ten into the Ming service, and subsequently castrated at age thirteen and placed into the household of the twenty-five year old Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, the fourth son of the first Ming emperor. Over the next ten years, from Yunnan to the northern frontier, Ma He (who was to be given the name Zheng He when the prince became emperor) served in the field doing frontier defense with Prince Zhu Di. The large, commanding and battle experienced eunuch distinguished himself during Prince Zhu Di’s bid for the throne, in both the 1399 defense of Beiping and the final campaign of 1402 to capture Nanjing.
In 1403 the new emperor Zhu Di issued orders to begin construction of an imperial fleet of warships and support ships to visit ports in the China seas and the Indian Ocean. The Ming Tong Jian, an unofficial history of the period, says: Regarding the Jianwen emperor’s escape, there are some who say he is abroad. The emperor ordered Zheng He to seek out traces of him. The fleet was larger than required to reopen trade with the southern and western regions, but such magnificence might well convince any foreign ruler harboring the deposed Chinese emperor of Zhu Di’s strength. And foreign trade, such as that which had occurred fifty years previously under the Yuan dynasty, might well help a treasury depleted by a long civil war. An imperial history compiled in 1767, the Li-Tai Thung Chien Chi Lan (Essentials of the Comprehensive Mirror of History), states: In the third year of the Yung-Lo reign-period [Zhi Di’s dynastic title, 1405], the Imperial Palace Eunuch Zheng He was sent on a mission to the Western Oceans. The emperor [Zhu Di], under the suspicion that (his nephew) the (previous) emperor might have fled beyond the seas, commissioned Zheng He, Wang Ching-Hung and others, to pursue his traces. Bearing vast amounts of gold and other treasures, and with a force of more than 37,000 officers and men under their command, they built great ships and set sail from…the prefecture of Suchow, whence they proceeded by way of Fukien to Chan-Chheng (Indo-China), and thence on voyages throughout the western seas….Every country became obedient to the imperial commands, and when Zheng He turned homewards, sent envoys in his train to offer tribute…..Zheng He was commissioned on no less than seven diplomatic expeditions, and thrice made prisoners of foreign chiefs…..At the same time, the different peoples, attracted to the profit of Chinese merchandise, enlarge their mutual intercourse for purposes of trade, and there was uninterrupted going to and fro.
At the time of the Ming Indian Ocean voyages, Chinese ocean-going technology was somewhat superior to the European, with the exception of navigation. In ship size, the Chinese had by far the larger ships. The largest ships of the Zheng He expeditions were about 500 feet long. The dimension of the ships given in Chinese histories was always subject to the accusation of exaggeration. However, in 1962, an actual rudder post of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships was discovered at the site of one of the Ming shipyards near Nanking. This timber was 36.2 feet long, and when reverse engineered to typical proportions, this yields a ship length of 480 to 536 feet, depending upon different assumptions about the draught. In comparison, the ocean-going European ships of this period were considerably smaller, more typically 100 feet long (i.e. 1500 tons for Zheng He and perhaps 300 tons for the Portuguese explorers). The Chinese had been using multi-masted ships for several centuries, while the Portuguese had just in the past century developed this innovation with their new, secret design caravel. In compartmentation, the Chinese had a clear advantage, with large ships of up to thirteen watertight compartments for centuries prior the period of examination. Western ships were not provided with watertight compartments until the middle of the 19th century, after reports of Chinese compartmentation illuminated the advantages in surviving a hole in the ship’s hull. In sail technology, the Europeans had long sufficed with square sail rigs on their ocean vessels (while with some lateen rigs on smaller ships since the 3rd century), which were good running before the wind but unhandy in beating upwind. The Chinese had been using fore-and-aft lugsails (more efficient in beating upwind) since the 3rd century AD, and since the 9th century in ocean-going ships, and were thus long able to steer closer to the wind.
However, in the 15th century, the western and eastern sail technology was comparable. The mariner’s compass, so crucial to navigation out of sight of land, was developed from the Chinese magnetized needle of the 8th century, and it traveled via land route to the Mediterranean where about the 12th century the Europeans or the Arabs developed the true mariner’s compass (floating), but China soon received the improved model. So both East and West had the mariner’s compass in the 15th century. Stern post rudders, which are a significant advantage over steering oars in steering larger ships in tumultuous seas, were utilized in China as early as the 1st century A. D. These were not developed until about the 14th century in Europe, but stern post rudders were available to both East and West in the 15th century. Knowledge of wind and sea currents was considerably more advanced in the West by the Portuguese and Dutch than by the Chinese in the 15th century. The West also had superior knowledge of celestial navigation, that advantage being shared by the Arabs; the Chinese were reduced to utilizing Islamic astronomers and mathematicians at the Imperial Observatory, but had not extended celestial work to the practical work of navigating as of yet. The Arab and the Portuguese cross-staff or balestilha developed in the 14th century, and the astrolabe for even better measurement of the angle of celestial objects in the early 15th century. In military technology, both East and West had cannon, armor and horses.
In summary, before the 15th century, the Chinese were ahead in oceangoing ship technology, with larger compartmented ships and efficient fore-and-aft lugsails on multiple masts. In the 15th century, the Chinese and the Europeans were in rough overall parity. The Chinese were ahead in ship size and hull construction, and the Portuguese were ahead in the arts of navigation, and there was parity in sail technology (the Chinese with battened lugsails, the Portuguese with lateen sails). Neither had a distinct overall advantage. Both were technologically capable of great voyages of discovery, mercantile enterprise, and colonization. In tracing the developments, what is distinctive is that the rate of progress in nautical technology of the West was considerably faster than that of the East. By the 16th century, the West was clearly superior in ocean-going maritime technology (especially considering the regression that occurred in China due to policy influences).
Chinese Naval Warfare
It is perhaps not surprising that the Chinese didn’t develop naval gunnery to the degree practised by the Western navies. The majority of the actions fought took place in restricted waters, often on rivers in head to head encounters. Few cannon were mounted, the Chinese instead relying largely on close quarter actions and boarding. Thus the weapons developed by the Chinese tended to support this style of fighting. Typical weapons included fireships, rafts and burning torches, stink bombs, anti-boarding spikes, and primitive mines.
Stink bombs – these were small grenades, clay pots filled with gunpowder, sulphur, nails and other shrapnel and any other unpleasant substances which the maker had to hand. They were used in boarding actions, hurled by the boarding parties just before they stormed their intended victim, or thrown onto an approaching warship’s decks to disrupt the boarders before they made their attack. Being hand thrown their range was severely limited.
Mines – These were made from wooden barrels filled with gunpowder and rigged with a fuse. These would be laid by a ship and set to drift down upon an enemy. Chinese ‘minelayers’ were quite adept at estimating the anticipated speed of drift and could set the fuse accordingly. Nevertheless this was quite a haphazard weapon to use.
Fireships – Not quite on the grandiose scale of Western fireships, the Chinese equivalent was often made up of two small boats filled with combustible material, connected by a stout hawser or chain. A ship passing between the two boats would foul the chain and bring one or both of the boats alongside.
Spikes – These were arranged around a ships hull to discourage enemy ships from closing and boarding.
War on the Rivers
For age-of-sail players used to actions on the high seas, or even in normal coastal waters, the confined waters in which many Oriental actions were fought present some interesting problems. That is not to say that actions in open water did not occur (even on the rivers – the Yangtse is, after all, one of the world’s widest rivers), but since the Chinese vessels were really restricted to rivers and the littorals this is where most of the action will take place.
As alluded to already, operating a sailing vessel on a twisting river presents some unusual problems for sailing vessels constrained by the wind to certain courses. In many cases the ships boats would be lowered and the vessel towed. This would not present too much of a problem, but would of course expose the boat crews to extreme danger in action.
As well as wind constraints there would be depth constraints, possibly with narrow and sometimes shifting channels known only to local pilots (who may or may not be trustworthy…). Then there is the river flow itself – a typical regional river current of 1-2 knots would be appropriate, but could increase to as much as 5 or 6 in restricted areas or during floods (as an aside the depth of the Yangtse river could easily treble to as much as 60 feet during the rainy season!)
Most rules include some sort of rules to cater for shallows, but in these sort of scenarios they become somewhat more relevant. Referees and others should be aware of this challenging environment when writing scenarios, as they add considerably to the enjoyment and ‘feel’ of the game, and stop the scenario degenerating into an ‘open sea with lots of coast’ action as can often happen.
The Opium War
Whilst coastal and trade protection actions took place in the China Seas throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the major period of interest to naval wargamers in the region during the age of sail (or rather towards its end) was the Opium War of 1839-42. Despite the advances in naval technology in Europe and the USA since the fall of Napoleon the ships involved in the war were generally sail driven.
The main purpose of the RN presence on the coast of China was to maintain a blockade in defence of the right of British traders to import opium to mainland China. Opium had been exported from India to China since the latter years of the Napoleonic wars. This was before the trade in tea from India took off and was an attempt (partly by the authorities in India) to maintain a balance against the goods being exported from China at the time. A permanent trading enclosure, known as “The Factory” was established at Canton, 40 miles up the Canton river from the sea. Communications with the outside world were maintained by ships coming up to canton, or to Wampoa, 12 miles downstream. In 1820 the Chinese government declared the trade in opium illegal, although this was largely ineffective as many of the coastal warlords and mandarins were heavily involved in the trade or were accepting bribes from the importers. This state of affairs continued until 1837 when a government crackdown, initiated by the Emperor, and overseen by Lin Tse-hsii, led to the expulsion of several merchants from Canton and the seizure of stocks and properties belonging to the opium importers. Tension increased until February 1839 when Chinese police executed a local merchant involved in the trade and travel restrictions were placed on foreign nationals. To safeguard the British merchants in the region a squadron of the Royal Navy was despatched to Canton under Captain Charles Elliot, RN. Elliot advised the merchants that Canton was no longer safe. He was right, as Lin besieged the Factory, confiscating 20,000 cases of opium (worth £5 million, or the equivalent of £500 million today) when the inevitable occurred and the enclosure fell to Government forces. A withdrawal was made to Hong Kong Island, a move beginning the process which led to the British possession of the colony.
The situation deteriorated as the British attempted to continue the trade, opposed by the Chinese government. Diplomatic efforts were frustrated by the distances over which official communications and information had to travel, personalities on the ground, and after a number of minor incidents which rapidly escalated a state of near general war existed on the coast of China. There were several expeditions upriver to engage and destroy Chinese naval forces and smuggling operations. The blockade intensified in 1840 when all Chinese navigation was forbidden and orders were issued for all Chinese ships to be seized. In reaction the Chinese government offered bounties for Englishmen killed or captured. An enterprising Chinese could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor (or $20 for his head), up to $5000 for a Captain, and $10,000 for capturing or burning an English ship. Despite these incentives the success rate of the Chinese against the British was not great, superior firepower usually winning the day. However, there were close calls. Whilst patrolling the mouth of the Yangtse the Hellas became ensnared in a system of underwater stakes which the local warlord had placed in the river to trap unwary ships. She was attacked by eight Pechili junks which closed in an attempt to board, but the Hellas outgunned her opponents and extricated herself from this otherwise unfortunate position and was able to withdraw.