Junks floating by majestically in Whampoa, Shanghai. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The junk has been the classic Chinese ship design since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), and is still in use today. With a flexible, usually flat-bottomed design that allows it to navigate both rivers and the open sea, the junk has been put to many uses over the years, from warfare to commerce.

The junk is the basic traditional Chinese ship design, flexible enough to be used for river and oceangoing vessels of various sizes. The junk’s predecessor apparently was a bamboo raft with flat ends and many internal compartments separated by bulkheads. That design was adapted into a variety of easily maneuvered vessels. The junk originated during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and by the ninth century was plying international waters in Southern and Southeastern Asia.

Multiple internal bulkheads created a series of water-tight compartments that gave the junk further stability and seaworthiness. Older junks lacked a keel and instead relied on thick wales (planks) that ran along the sides of the vessel to provide rigidity. River junks normally had only one mast, although space was provided for oars in the forward section, with cabins and other kinds of superstructures always placed aft of the mast. These junks could reach 46 meters in length, although most were 11–30 meters long and were used for all kinds of transportation. In areas where rapids or narrow channels caused difficulties in navigation, articulated ships (ones with a hinge or pivot connection to allow greater maneuverability) were built, although the basic junk design was retained.

The Superior Chinese Junk

China scholar Joseph Needham explains why the Chinese junk was superior to vessels found outside of China.

This is clearly a much firmer method of construction than that found in the ships of other cilivisations. Fewer bulkheads were required than frames or ribs to give the same degree of strength and rigidity. It was obviously also possible for these bulkheads to be made watertight, and so to give compartments which would preserve most of the buoyancy of a vessel if a leak should occur, or damage below the waterline. In other ways also the bulkhead structure had various advantages, one example being the provision of the essential vertical support necessary for the appearance later of the hinged rudder. But we shall deal with such matters in due course.

Source: Ronan, C. A.. (1986). The shorter science & civilisation in China: An abridgement by Colin A. Ronan of Joseph Needham’s originsal text, vol 3. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 66.

Articulated ships could also be adapted for use in warfare: Incendiary devices were placed in the forward portion of a vessel that was then brought up to an enemy position, uncoupled, and left to explode. Oceangoing junks had a design similar to that of river junks but could reach 52 meters or more in length. The design of both types of junk provides for the greatest width of the ship to be at the rear, in imitation of aquatic birds. Many ships were built without the use of metal, the artisans instead preferring to use wooden pins. The flat-bottomed design also allowed comparatively large ships to dock in shallow waters or to navigate relatively small rivers or canals. Propulsion could be by sails or oars or a combination of both. Evidence of the first true rudder, connected to the ship by a post and balanced on an axis, is found on tomb models of Chinese ships from the first century CE. Today junks are still commonly used.

Further Reading

Spencer, J. E. (1976). Junks of central China: The Spencer Collection of models at Texas A & M University. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

Van Tilburg, H. K. (2007). Chinese junks on the Pacific: Views from a different deck (New perspectives on maritime history and nautical archaeology series). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Source: Forage, Paul (2009). Junk. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1228–1229. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Junk (Píngd? f?nchuán ????)|Píngd? f?nchuán ???? (Junk)

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