Interesting comparison between different warships of the Far East in the sixteenth and seventeenth century

I came across this interesting comparison at Baidu Tieba (百度贴吧). The original comparison is a simple table in Chinese, so I tried to translate the table and add some elaborations.

The original comparison can be found here, buried under lots and lots of replies.

Weight of Cannon (lbs)*
Sixteenth Century Portuguese Galley

Ming Dynasty Feng Zhou (early)

Ming Dynasty Feng Zhou (late)

Mark 1 Warship of Qi Ji Guang's fleet (early)

Mark 1 Warship of Qi Ji Guang's fleet (late)

48 – 70


20 – 30+

Advanced Ming Dynasty War Junk
30+14 – 22

6 – 8
Kingdom of Tungning Gong Chuan
100 – 200+20+

Dutch Hired Vessel 'Graaf Hendrik'
Mông Đồng

1 – 2
* Although weight of shot is a more reliable measure of firepower, Chinese records seldom mention them. Chinese troops also frequently loaded their guns with multiple smaller shots in addition to the main shot (which made them less powerful), making measurement purely by weight of shot very misleading.
** This assume a late variant of Geobukseon/Turtle ship with significantly improved armaments, due to the fact that very little is known about the early, Imjin War-era Geobukseon.

Feng Zhou (封舟, lit. 'Investiture ship')
Chinese Feng Zhou
A Qing Dynasty Feng Zhou, from 'Ce Feng Liu Qiu Tu (《冊封琉球圖》)'.
Feng Zhou, known as Ukwanshin (おかんせん or 御冠船, lit. 'Crown ship') in Japanese, is the largest non-treasure ship vessel built by the Ming Dynasty that serves as the primary vessel of the Coronation missions to Ryukyu Kingdom (the notions that Ming Dynasty stop building large ocean-going ships after the treasure voyages, or that their naval technologies regressed, are just myths). It is purposely overbuilt as a display of power and wealth, but underarmed as far as warship goes. Although ponderous and unmaneuverable, it is still a force to be reckoned with.

Some Feng Zhou are partially armoured in iron plating.

Fu Chuan (福船, lit. 'Ship of Fujian')
Chinese War Junk Fu Chuan
Drawing of a Fu Chuan, from 'Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)'.
The quintessential Chinese junk and the largest warship in Qi Ji Guang's fleet, Fu Chuan is actually only one of the four main types of Chinese junk — the other three being Guang Chuan (廣船, lit. 'Ship of Guangdong'), Sha Chuan (沙船, lit. 'Sand ship') and Niao Chuan (鳥船, lit. 'Bird ship'). Most Ming Dynasty warships were derived from Fu Chuan model.

Fu Chuan is sturdy and well-armed (by East Asian standard), but can be unmaneuverable at times. With two thousand-pound cannons mounted as bow chasers, Fu Chuan primarily employ the so-called "galley tactic" — fleet of warships formed into line abreast formation, discharge their cannons several times, then proceed to ram into enemy ships and engage in boarding combat.

Several Fu Chuan were built in anticipation of the naval battles during the closing phase of Imjin War, but the war ended before any of these ships could be completed.

Tekkōsen (てっこうせん or 鉄甲船, lit. 'Ironclad ship')
Japanese Tekkousen
Nipponmaru (日本丸), flagship of Kuki Yoshitaka (九鬼嘉隆), from '文禄癸巳六月於釜山海征韓水軍総督九鬼大隅守船柵之図'. Nipponmaru is believed to be one of the several Atakebune that was upgraded with iron plating.
Japanese warships of this period were generally smaller and weaker than their Korean or Chinese counterparts, but there was one exception to this rule.

Largest and most powerful of the pre-modern Japanese warships, tekkōsen, also known as ō-atakebune (大安宅船), is the souped-up and up-armoured version of atakebune (安宅船) warship. Although the size and durability of tekkōsen can rival, and in some cases even surpass, that of the Korean and Chinese warships (in no small part thanks to its iron plating), it is woefully underarmed, with only three cannons — one mounted at the bow and two at the broadsides. Nevertheless, what it lacks in numbers of cannons, it more than makes up for with firepower. The breech-loading ishibiya (いしびや or 石火矢, lit. 'Stone fire arrow') cannon, which is also based on Portuguese design, is more advanced than Korean cannons, and arguably more powerful than its Chinese analogue, the Wu Di Shen Fei Pao (無敵神飛砲). While tekkōsen lacks other heavy armaments, its crews often carry numerous ō-deppo (大鉄砲), which are basically handheld matchlock cannons, to compensate for this shortcoming. These matchlock cannons also account for the large number of small cannons in the table above.

Although impressive on paper, tekkōsen has several terrible weaknesses: It has limited mobility and is extremely unstable (due to high centre of gravity), and functions more like a floating fortress rather than a true warship. It is also very costly for what it offers.

Geobukseon (거북선 or 龜船, lit. 'Turtle ship')
Geobukseon from an eighteenth century drawing.
The national pride of all Koreans and so-called first ironclad warship in the world (although this claim is contested by tekkōsen and several other European vessels), Geobukseon is a superbly designed warship, and serves its intended role as littoral combat ship very well.

Geobukseon (and Joseon warships in general) is uniquely suited to the relatively shallow but very rough Korean waters. Though not a fast ship (but capable for a short burst of speed), it is very agile, and has a near-zero turning radius. Geobukseon is reasonably durable thanks to its pine construction and possibly iron plating, while its iron-spiked roof also renders it largely boarding-proof. The use of wheeled gun carriage and broadside batteries is remarkably advanced.

Nevertheless, Geobukseon is an extremely specialised warship that excels at its intended role but bad at everything else. Being flat-bottomed, Geobukseon is terribly unseaworthy (it is arguably worse than Japanese warship in this regard). Besides, a bunch of small cannons do not a viable broadside warship make.

Advanced Ming Dynasty War Junk
Peter Mundy War Junk
Illustration of a late Ming Dynasty war junk encountered by British merchant-traveler Peter Mundy in 1637. Although this large war junk was built with two gun decks and gun ports, it was only equipped with very light (1-pounder) cannons. From 'Itinerarium Mundi'.
A type of unnamed warship recorded in the late Ming Dynasty military treatises Bing Lu (《兵錄》), this is one of the strongest Ming warship  one that actually pose a serious threat to smaller European warships. Unlike earlier Ming warships, this advanced war junk is designed for broadside-to-broadside engagement, and comes equipped with gun ports, numerous heavy cannons, wheeled gun carriages as well as enclosed gun deck, no doubt inspired by European design.

It is unknown how many warship of this type were built.

Kingdom of Tungning Gong Chuan (熕船, lit. 'Gun ship')
Tai Wan Chuan
A late seventeenth century Tai Wan Chuan (臺灣船, lit. 'Taiwan ship'), from 'Tōsen no zu (唐船之図)'. Warships of the Kingdom of Tungning might be derived from the same basic design as this merchant junk.
Although Tungning fleet had other warships, this is the only one with its detailed armaments laid out. Gong Chuan seems to be a slightly toned-down version of the Advanced Ming Dynasty War Junk. It has weaker broadside batteries (albeit still vastly superior to that of earlier warships) but exceedingly powerful bow chaser. 

Chinese did not seem to develop a mature line of battle tactic, instead Gong Chuan fought much like the rebuilt Mary Rose did in the sixteenth century: sailing towards the enemy, firing the bow chaser, before turning to present one broadside, the stern, another broadside, then making off to reload.

Portuguese Galley
Portuguese Galley Warship
Portuguese galley circa 1540, from 'Roteiro do Mar Roxo' by D. João de Castro.
The galley in this comparison is based on the Chinese description of Portuguese Wu Gong Chuan (蜈蚣船), which is probably intended as escort for the caravel fleet.

Galley is primarily built from oak, a superior shipbuilding material than pine wood in term of strength, sturdiness, hardness, and corrosion resistance. With its frame-first construction and carvel built, galley probably surpass even the Geobukseon in durability. Galley is also faster and nimbler than most East Asian warships, thanks to its slender build and massive amount of oars. For a ship with such shallow draft, galley is surprisingly stable and reasonably seaworthy (galley was used in the North Sea, Indian Ocean, Strait of Malacca and Philippines, to name but a few).

In term of armaments, nothing short of European sailing ship and late Ming Dynasty war junks can surpass this formidable war machine (keep in mind that this escort galley has nowhere near the firepower of a Mediterranean war galley). Among other things, galley is equipped with a metal-tipped naval ram (although Renaissance period spiron is not designed to sink ship) that no East Asian warships have any equivalent for.

Dutch Hired Vessel 'Graaf Hendrik'
Dutch Sailing Ship
VOC East Indiaman Mauritius, from 'Het uitzeilen van een aantal Oost-Indiëvaarders' by Hendrik Cornelisz.
Graaf Hendrik is a 36-gun Dutch warship that participated in the second Anglo-Dutch war. Although it did not actually set sail to Asia, it is reasonably representative of the few better armed VOC East Indiamen that operated in East Asian waters.

The formidable power of European sailing ship need not to be further elaborated here — to some extent it can be considered invulnerable to everything East Asian warships can throw at it. Overwhelming numerical advantage and liberal use of fire ships were required in order to defeat even one East Indiaman or Jacht, thankfully Chinese had no lack of either.

By seventeenth century, European naval tactics had evolved to the point that cannons lighter than five hundred pounds were considered inconsequential to the outcome of a naval engagement (hence the question marks in the above table, as no one bothered to count them). 

EXTRA: Mông Đồng (艨艟)
Although not included in the original comparison, I personally think that Vietnamese Mông Đồng merits a special mention in this blog post. 
Giovanni Filippo de Marini
Seventeenth century drawing of a Mông Đồng, from 'Historia Et Relatione Del Tvnchino E Del Giappone' by Giovanni Filippo de Marini.
Mông Đồng can trace its origin to a type of ancient Chinese warship called Meng Chong (艨艟 or 蒙衝, translated as 'Covered swooper' by Sinologist Joseph Needham), although Vietnamese Mông Đồng probably stem from Southeast Asian shipbuilding tradition, as it has little in common with Chinese Meng Chong except sharing the same name.

Mông Đồng is an oared warship suitable for riverine and near-shore warfare. It has a characteristic roof-like structure that protects its crew from enemy fire, although it is not completely enclosed like that of the Geobukseon. The design of Mông Đồng limits its effectiveness in ramming and boarding combat, as much of the ship's space is taken up by rowers that are at least partially exposed. Nevertheless, some variants of Mông Đồng are armed with disproportionately powerful cannons. This firepower combined with the fast speed of the nimble warship turn the Mông Đồng into a formidable weapon of war capable of punching above its class.


  1. Might I ask where you got the info on the ships of Tungning and the advanced ming warship?
    Terribly facinating!
    Seems like its hard to get access on the Bing Lu.

  2. @alex cheng
    Good day and welcome to my blog!

    I have an incomplete soft copy scans of Bing Lu (《兵錄》) in terrible quality, but the textual description of that warship isn't very hard to find on the web.

    Details of Tungning warship came from a victory report written by ex-Tungning naval commander that defect to the Qing side, Shi Lang (he later lead the Qing navy to destroy Tungning for good), known as 'Fei Bao Da Jie Shu《飛報大捷疏》'.

  3. Thank you for the response! This blog has become my favorite source of information for Chinese military history.
    Do you know what I should search for in Chinese or English for into on the Bing Lu ship?
    And thank you for the info on 飛報大捷疏!

  4. @alex cheng
    I will post the original text here, since it is not very long.

    銃共五六十門,多多益善。」 (from 《兵錄》)

    重七千餘斤,用炮子三十餘斤。」(from 《飛報大捷疏》)

    Great pic of a model of an "Atakemaru", possibly a Tekkosen!

    1. Yes, that is one of the Tekkosen. The Atakemaru is actually the name of that particular ship.

  6. Thank you very much for all the information! I've been writing a dissertation/book on Chinese naval history for a while now, and I've found your blog to be very helpful!
    I would like to ask how I can give you credit for your work: as a translator, writer, blogger, or interpreter?
    You can contact me with my google account, and I can give you my other email if you need.
    Thank you again!

  7. @Alex cheng
    You're welcome.

    Since I hardly ever used Google+, I would like to get in touch via email.

  8. Sad that you did not include the Panokseon, the main Korean naval vessel. It contains 50 cannon and can rotate on the spot after a broadside in order to utilize all 50 cannons.

    1. It's not me. The original source did not include Panokseon.