18 April 2015

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, as it is actually the Chinese copy of Mediterranean galley, which they learned from the Portuguese. The ship derived 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 a eight catties cannonball, which is roughly comparable to a 10-pounder gun. This is in contrast to contemporary Mediterranean war galleys, which were frequently 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.


  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?

  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.

  3. Good day, Sir
    That portuguese galley was probably built in malacca, the sino-portuguese conflicts in the 16th century were all about the portuguese conquest of malacca, unlike many other late European colonial empires, the Portuguese came first as "medieval" when the tenological gap was much smaller and portugal is a sparsely populated country, which meant recruiting local natives to achieve high jobs, it is important to say that portugal was not really involved in the European conflicts (that was spain trying to conquer portugal/iberian union, france, southeast europe, italy, netherlands, england, mediterranean sea and everything else, the so-called "habsburg empire"), actually more involved in conflicts with oriental and african peoples (which greatly benefited European colonial imperialism in terms of navy by weakening, christian spread and cartographic knowledge) until the war of the spanish succession.
    the Portuguese empire at its height (Manuel I of Portugal) should not be compared with the British, portugal always tried to be as neutral as possible to continue selling in the North Sea through the english channel as in 1506, about 65% of the state income was produced by taxes on overseas activity, those northern seas and lands bathed by them were a barrel of gunpowder for geopolitical interests involving france, england, dutch republic, spain, holy german empire, sweden and denmark. With all that said, basically the Portuguese navy was all about the India Armadas, about 1/2 of portuguese shipbuilding in the 16th and 17th centuries (Dutch–Portuguese War) was manufactured in india and malacca

    this is a fine example:

  4. by that portuguese galley i meant those ones used by portugal in the clash against the ming dynasty

  5. Why would a galley be superior to existing Chinese paddle wheel ships? I was under the impression that paddle wheel ships were more seaworthy, not needing a low freeboard for oars, and didn't require skilled oarsmen.

    1. I don't know the full answer, but paddle-wheel ships were being largely phased out during Ming period in favour of oared/sailed/hybrid junks.

      My guess is that the advantages it offers probably do not justify the cost, complexity and/or drawbacks.

  6. Hi admin (I'm not sure what name should I use to call you), do you have any information about the ships used during Zheng He's exploration era? Although your writing is mostly about the post-1500s Ming dynasty, I think it's not out-of-topic to ask here. Is it true that they are armed with cannons? If yes, what pounder is it? What tactics do they use, prioritize boarding or bombarding from afar?

    1. I have some idea, as there are a few surviving records.

      Yes, they were armed with cannons, although those were relatively small, stone-throwing bombards (caliber ~11cm), not later era age-of-sail cannons.

    2. As for tactics, not much survived, although we can infer from the relatively weak firearms of the era that boarding was likely still the primary naval tactic of the time.


< > Home

Random Quotes & Trivia

GREAT MING MILITARY © , All Rights Reserved. BLOG DESIGN BY Sadaf F K.