Blog post

Chinese junk: designed for adventure

These iconic ships have long been one of the defining symbols of Chinese naval warfare, travel and trade

Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

In some of these vessels there will be employed a thousand men, six hundred sailors and four hundred soldiers.

    Ibn Battuta, The travel stories of Ibn Battuta translated from Arabic, p 172.

The magnificent junks described in the travel report of Ibn Battuta (1304–1377) evoke a grandeur befitting the most iconic among Chinese naval inventions. As Battuta’s account suggests, junks were used as warfare ships. But they served other purposes as well, including trading, fishing, housing, recreation and… exploring the world. Chinese junks have been known to set out for Indonesian and Indian territories as early as the Middle Ages.

The dimensions and first-rate equipment of the junks is what seems to have impressed Battuta the most, as he goes on to state that “every vessel… is like an independent city”. Centuries later, the junks still astonished travellers from the West, as is shown in the writings of John Barrow (1764-1848). The linguist-geographer included in his Travels in China (1804) a description of a “clumsy looking junk” that astonished the crew of a British ship by sailing ever so fast and smoothly.

Although the junk comes in a wide range of sizes and with historically and geographically varying specifications, it is indeed true that its basic construction allows for it to be scaled up to a massive size. Among the junk’s most important characteristics is the massive rudder functioning as a centreboard.

The hull of the junk is partitioned into vertical and horizontal compartments. This counts as an important innovation in naval design that significantly added to the ship’s strength.

The ultimate eye-catchers of any junk are its sails, attached to up to five masts. Shaped like a square, the sails are usually made of linen or matting, articulated by strips of bamboo.

A roll-up system allows for the sails to be closed or spread in the blink of an eye, lending the junk a versatility and agility that vessels of this size often lack. As a whole, the design features of the junk amount to a ship that is easy to navigate and resilient enough to conquer the roughest of seas.

The mighty potential of the junk was definitely demonstrated by the Keying: one of the most famous ships of its type. Around 1850, it was the first junk to reach the Cape of Good Hope, continuing towards the United States and Britain.

Captains Charles Alfred Kellett and So Yin Sang Hsi managed to steer the three-master, weighing over 800 tons, through a hurricane. Yet they weren’t prepared for the storm of visitors that wanted to explore the majestic ship upon its arrival in New York. For the Americans, this was a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in Chinese culture. As a result, over 7.000 people a day were reported visiting the Keying’s lavish Grand Saloon in Chinese style and its many art treasures.

After having left America over half a year later, the Keying weathered a storm that disabled the rudder, tore one of the sails, and left a crew member killed. Yet at its next destination, it again drew in the crowds. “One step across the entrance and you are in the Chinese world; you have quitted the Thames for the vicinity of Canton”, The Times jubilated. In the Illustrated London News (1848), the craftsmanship of the Chinese shipbuilders and the heroic adventures of the Keying were applauded in no uncertain terms: “She proved herself an excellent sea-boat; and her powers of weathering a storm equal, if not surpass, those of vessels of British build.”

More honour was bestowed upon the Keying by means of a commemorative medal that was issued upon its arrival in London harbour.

Despite its glorious reception, the Keying suffered an innocuous ending: in 1853 the ship was sold and towed out of London harbour only to be abandoned a few years later. Its memory, however, is still cherished in China, where a model of the Keying on a 1:12 scale is on show at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

Some naval enthusiasts consider the Hong Kong Keying’s proportions, dimensions and shape to be faulty and unhistorical. Yet it is thought by specialists to be a more accurate rendition of the original than the overly curved, titanesque contemporary depictions. Seen in this light, the paintings and drawings of the illustrious junk go to show that Chinese culture reflected through Western eyes, is a complex (hi)story in and of itself.

From humble fisher boat to illustrious vessel: a plenitude of Chinese junks is on display in our hand-picked gallery. Welcome aboard!

This blog is part of ‘PAGODE: Europeana China’, a CEF-project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on Chinese cultural heritage preserved in Europe.