What comes to mind when you hear the word “ship”? Do you think about pirate ships looting treasure out on the open sea? Or cruises? Or extensive trading voyages? Well, the “China Country Passage Boat”, otherwise known as a Chinese junk ship, had the versatility to achieve all of these things.
Originally developed in China during the Han Dynasty (220 B.C.E.–200 C.E.), junks were advanced and adapted vessels used for both military combat and trade; traveling far distances across the sea as well as through inland rivers. The junk eventually came to represent one of the most successful ship designs in history. Its design has been borrowed and experimented with by countries and civilizations throughout the world. As a matter of fact, the watertight bulkheads of English ships used during the Victorian Age resembled that of Chinese junks almost entirely.
The Chinese junk seen here is sporting the recognizable yin and yang symbol that represents opposites of perfect harmony and can be traced back to the third century BC. The enhancements in its construction features (hull shape and fasteners, rudder, bulkheads, and sail structure) are unique to the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). These improvements aided in its much needed flexibility, as the loss of the northern empire heavily increased the importance of overseas trade.
Chinese Junk Ship
Trade, transportation, and leisure: what do all of these activities have in common in the context of Chinese history? Throughout ancient Chinese maritime history, all of them have been carried out via the same medium: the Chinese junk ship. Crafted by hand with extreme care, the shallow drafted wooden junk navigated early Chinese waters as a means for transporting cargo as well as people. By means of the single mast, rudder, and additional rowing oars, the crew of the Chinese junk was capable of sailing the shallow waters, either with or against the wind, helping to develop the earliest forms of commerce and transit within China. In a time period when ports and docks were far less developed, the Chinese junk ship aided the actors in such industries by allowing for easy embarking and debarking, ultimately acting as the precursor for today’s intra-country transportation of goods and people.
Chinese junk boats are unique both in style and origin. Beyond the barren structure of this “passage” boat there lies an interesting history. The mighty Song Dynasty, which ruled China until the late 13th century until the infamous Mongols conquered it, commissioned junk boats in great numbers in response to prospering trade. This era of Chinese history saw a diversion from the traditional Silk Road, land-based trade and a move towards maritime and sea-based trade. Junk boats were an integral piece of this transition. From the keel, to the bamboo and fabric sails, to the yin-yang symbols, this particular junk boat offers insight into what the early junk boat construction looked like. Take a look at how the Song Dynasty and Chinese culture led to transformative innovations and changes in the ship construction techniques of its time.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.