Chinese Barge

Photo by AKN.
Photo by AKN.
Side view of Chinese barge model in Harvard Peabody Museum. Photo by Rebecca Gonzalez-Rivas.

Decorated Model of a Chinese River Vessel
This ornate model represents a river vessel that would have navigated the inland waterways of China, possibly dating to the Song (960 – 1279) or Ming (1368 – 1644) dynasties. The shallow draft of the vessel means that it would have sat high in the water, making the vessel ideal for shallow water navigation in rivers or canals. The ornate decoration of the vessel, which includes intricate paneling, floral designs, and a vibrant color palette, indicates that this boat was likely owned by a relatively wealthy patron. There is storage space for cargo near the bow of the boat, which hints that this vessel could have been used for trade along China’s inland waterways.  The blunt bow of the vessel is constructed for stability, and there is a large cabin over the stern of the vessel. These features indicate that this vessel could have been used for transporting people as well as goods. As an enormous empire, China has long been connected by its navigable rivers and canals, making river navigation an important aspect of Chinese economic and political history.



More Than Your Average Chinese Barge
Ships come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and have different functions, and not just for sailing purposes; how it fits into the culture where it came from can also help us understand its role. This Chinese River Barge is no exception. The construction of this particular vessel sacrifices speed for maneuverability through shallower waters, allowing it to access smaller ports and thus travel along rivers. The top of the deck has two deck houses/ gazebo-like structures with very intricate wood designs, which have bright floral patterns and delicate Chinese writings. This shows that it is not just an everyday vessel. It would have been used for important excursions, probably for very wealthy individuals or royalty. Because its construction exudes power and wealth, it would have been used in solidifying the individual owner’s power and showing it off to the rest of the populace as it sailed slowly and leisurely down rivers. Thus, the rest of the population would know to respect the owner and know their own place and status.  

Gianna Lowery


Life Along the River in Imperial China

China’s Song Dynasty, spanning from 960 to 1279 AD, oversaw a maritime renaissance. The country expanded maritime activity as a result of technological advancements in shipbuilding and increased access to parts of the country through wider canals and dredged harbors. River barges were the perfect vessel to take advantage of China’s growing need to send goods and people through its massive internal river network. The model depicts a barge used during the time period to ferry passengers. The shallow, round bottom of the boat makes it perfect for gliding along narrow, muddy channels. The passengers would have enjoyed a relaxing and comfortable cruise along the river thanks to a superstructure that enclosed and shaded the deck, surrounded by beautifully carved panels. A famous painting of the period, “Along the River during the Qingming Festival,” portrays many of these barges in Northern China. Together, the model and painting capture what life was like floating down the river on a spring day.

Rebecca Gonzalez-Rivas


Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.