Wu Gong Chuan (蜈蚣船)

Ming Dynasty Galley
Drawing of a Wu Gong Chuan, from 'Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)'.
Wu Gong Chuan (蜈蚣船, lit. 'Centipede ship') is one of the more interesting equipment in the Ming arsenal. It is actually the Chinese copy of Mediterranean galley, which they learned from the Portuguese. The ship get its name from the massive amount of oars it employs.

A Chinese Wu Gong Chuan is more or less equivalent to a sixteenth century Mediterranean galia sottil. It has more than forty oars and three hundred sailors (including oarsmen and marines). Its deck length range from seven zhang five chi to ten zhang.

Wu Gong Chuan is armed with thirty-four Fo Lang Ji (佛狼機), which are categorised into light, medium and heavy cannons. Light cannon only weigh one hundred and fifty catties, medium cannon weigh five hundred catties and heavy cannon weigh one thousand catties. The heavy Fo Lang Ji is capable of shooting eight catties cannonball, roughly equivalent to a 10-pounder gun. This is in contrast to contemporary Mediterranean war galley, which is often armed much heavier (50-pounder or more) ordnance.

Mediterranean war galley was superior to Chinese war junk of the time, as evidenced by Ming defeat suffered at the hand of the Portuguese. The Chinese had to resort to long siege, fire ships and divers in order to finally defeat the Portuguese at the Battle of Tãmão (even then, three out of four Portuguese ships escaped). After Chinese reverse-engineered the Wu Gong Chuan and Fo Lang Ji, they were able to defeat the Portuguese much more easily at the Second Battle of Tãmão.

Chinese Pirate Junk
Engraving of a Chinese pirate galley with junk rig and Chinese-style rudder, known as Kuai Xie Chuan (快蟹船, lit. 'Fast crab ship') during the Qing Dynasty. Illustrated London News, c1857.

2 comments:

  1. Did Portuguese galleys make the voyage to China? I thought they were rather unseaworthy?
    Also, were these ships composed of two decks? A bank of oars and a gun deck?

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  2. @alex cheng
    Galley is actually more seaworthy than commonly perceived, but not to the extent of capable of sailing from Europe to China (galley needs lots of oarsmen, but has little space for food/water, so it is unsuitable for long distance voyage).

    The Portuguese simply build these galleys on the spot, sometimes even hiring local craftsmen to assist them. That's why the Chinese were able to copy the ship design - they simply asked local craftsmen to switch side.

    Yes. Galley only mounts cannons on its upper deck, but has separate deck (or decks) for its oars. Its deck is not completely enclosed like the sailing ship though.

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