Chinese history

Setting Sail

Chinese history


Nautical terms

The Chinese word for 'Boat' Boat This is the ancient Chinese character for 'boat'. Later this evolved into Zhou pronounced zhou (roughly joe). Nowadays, this character is just part (the radical) of the modern word for boat Chuan it is pronounced chuan (roughly chwahn), and it is from a mispronunciation of this we get our word 'junk'.

A well-known saying : yi fan feng shan yi fan feng shan'Whole sail wind favourable' = Have a pleasant journey

River boats
© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Some nautical terms :

chuan boat
fan a sail
fan chuan a junk (sailing vessel)
shanban sampan (small boat propelled by sweeps)
lu scull, sweep
hai sea
hua to row

Chinese Seafarers

China's lengthy seaboard has bred generations of sailors, the greatest concentration of them being from the hot south-eastern coastal provinces.

Chinese seafarers have manned British merchant ships from the mid-nineteenth century. This was usually the result of force or deceit. Whether straightforward kidnap or the lure of an agent's tale of riches, hapless Chinese were literally 'Shanghaied' to work in the galley, to clean officer's clothes. Later, on liners and tankers they led an uncomfortable life down in the engine room.

From the early 1900s Chinese seafarers have been arriving in British ports on British ships. Employed by a particular shipping line and sailing on a regular run between the UK and ports maybe in Australia, the United States or somewhere on the coast of Africa, these men often lost contact with home. 'Home' to them became their home port here in Britain, especially in Liverpool or East London. Some of them married and settled here, and our Chinatowns grew and diversified.

During the Second World War about 20,000 Chinese seafarers helped man the ships of the Allied merchant navy. After Hong Kong and Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941-42 the home port for all of these men was in Britain. They came into port from all over the World : South Africa, Egypt, Canada, Greece, Antwerp and Normandy. Some of them ran the same risks and suffered the same fates as the allied seamen they were sailing with. About ten percent of these Chinese seafarers became war casualties.

Voyages and Discoveries

Zheng He is as famous in China as Columbus is in the West. He was born in Yunnan, SW China in about 1371, and led naval expeditions to India, Arabia and Africa. His first expedition took 28,000 men on 317 ships: the ships were huge junks, with rudders mounted in collapsible jaws (so that impact on rocks would cause little damage) and the hulls were divided into watertight compartments. Zheng He grew vegetables and herbs in large pots on board, so that his sailors would keep healthy.

© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Junks in British Museums

Chinese boats in the Science Museum, South Kensington

The Chinese boats are in Sections 48 and 48B on Level 2. The main items are listed below. [Scale in brackets.]

Hainan trading junk [1:9] has mat sails a drop keel (to help it keep its course when sailing into the wind); and a rectangular rudder, drilled with holes to. enable the leverage to act further aft. Inflated sheepskin raft [1:14] from the Yellow River. Each raft is about 2 metres square, buoyed up by 12 skins. Multiple rafts are as long as 12 metres. Fujian style junk [1:12] has a painted stern. Hongkong sampan [1:5] with its scull and covered sleeping quarters. Crooked stern junk [1:5] from the Gaotan River in Sichuan, 60 km below Chongqing. It is controlled by two stem sweeps (sculls). Drop-net fishing-craft from Xiamen (Amoy).

The above are just a selection from over a dozen different vessels on display. Whilst you are in the Science Museum, don't miss the model of Zhang Heng's seismograph (Level 3) and of Su Son 's clock on Level 1. The Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine on Level 5 includes many Chinese items, including a medicine temple and a model pharmacy.

Chinese boats in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, South Parks Road, Oxford

The Pitt-Rivers Museum has a small but very interesting display of model Chinese boats amid its huge and varied collection. Particularly fascinating are the bamboo root models of floating homes which are carved in relief. Coiled ropes, baskets and lines of homely washing form a patterned tapestry which could be happily reproduced on a classroom wall. Also offered to the visitor is the Chinese Trail, which leads younger children through the intricate maze of objects in the museum.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Queen's Street, Exeter

This museum has a full-sized Chinese junk.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 by David Wright, reprinted from SACU's China Now 127, Page 36

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