Gold embellishments. Bold trim. A majestically painted bird. Despite its classification as a Chinese junk, this model portrays an elegant vessel. Not made for just anyone, this junk would have been owned by one of the country’s elite. Those who could afford such a ride lounged in the cabin; those who could not propelled the craft along the Chinese waterways. Who exactly might have travelled on this junk? Where could it have gone? What ship does this model represent, if any? The model – originally misclassified as a barge – prompts more questions than it can answer. The careful detailing does, however, provide clues to its purpose as a leisurely passenger vessel that floated down the rivers during the Song or Ming dynasty.
Ship Model 52940: A Chinese Pleasure Junk
This junk would have offered slow but steady travel for a nobleman of ancient China. Its flat-bottom offers protection in shallow waters while its raised stern offers resistance against strong winds or unruly waves. The watertight bulkheads (compartments) provide ample storage space for noble passengers to store their valuables. The two-room deckhouse offers both privacy and comfort. The elaborate decorations signal the elevated social class of the ship’s owner.
This model does not offer a perfect likeness. Notice how the model lacks any obvious form of propulsion—no oars, no oarlocks, and no sails. The reason for this is unclear but it could be that the builder simply did not have enough space. The model has portable parts. The roof of the deckhouse is removable, allowing viewers to peer inside. It would have been difficult to have both sails and a detachable top.
This model depicts a passenger vessel that most likely operated during the Song or Ming Dynasty of China. The accessible flat stem and ornate superstructure combined with the lack of a mast or sail suggest that the ship was responsible for transporting people short distances along the rivers and canals of China. Golden adornment along the side of the superstructure and a painting on the back emblematic of the Flower-and-Bird art style popularized during this period imply that the people being transported were part of the upper echelons of Chinese society and wanted to display their wealth, power, and influence. During the middle of the Ming period, the ruling class suddenly stopped supporting overseas maritime expeditions and turned their attention towards the interior of China. When the Grand Canal was restored in 1411, pleasure barges such as this one were critical for transporting the ruling elite within cities and across regions.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.