15 September 2022

Guang Chuan (廣船)

Jin Hua Xing (金華興), a one hundred years old Guangdong cargo-turned-fishing junk and last of its kind, which regrettably sunk in 2008. Although the shipwreck was quickly salvaged and supposedly sent for restoration, it was never heard from ever since.

Guang Chuan, also known as Guang Dong Chuan (廣東船, lit. 'Guangdong ship'), Wu Cao (烏艚, lit. 'Black junk') and several other names, is a type of sailing ship originated from Guangdong and commonly used across Lingnan region. It is one of the "Four Great Ancient Ships" of China.

Drawing of a Guang Chuan. Note the outrigger that extends beyond the width of the hull. From 'Deng Tan Bi Jiu (《登壇必究》)'.
Guang Chuan is an oceangoing sailing ship with a deep V-shaped hull with low sheer forward but high sheer aft, a sharply pointed prow with a highly visible straight stempost that appears as a T-shape when viewed directly from the front, as well as a rounded stern. It is typically equipped with a fenestrated rudder (a rudder perforated with arrays of diamond-shaped holes for easier handling, with minimal loss of function), which is unique among all Chinese junks, as well as extremely large, fan-shaped junk sails. Many Guang Chuan have large and stocky pinky sterns, some are also fitted with a daggerboard to reduce keeling and leeway. 

A regional variant of Guang Chuan from Xinhui District, known as Jian Wei Chuan (尖尾船, lit. 'Pointed-tail ship'). Note its wall-less shed. From 'Deng Tan Bi Jiu (《登壇必究》)'.
As shown in the illustrations, Ming period Guang Chuan were equipped with oars as an auxiliary means of propulsion, although these seem to disappear come the Qing period. 

Another regional variant of Guang Chuan from Dongguan, known as Da Tou Chuan (大頭船, lit. 'Big-headed ship'). Note its prominent fore- and aftercastle, and complete lack of hull superstructure. From 'San Cai Tu Hui (《三才圖會》)'.
As warship, Guang Chuan is generally larger and significantly tougher than Fu Chuan (福船), its closely-related cousin from Fujian, and will soundly pulverise the latter in a ramming attack. This is due to the fact that major structural components of Guang Chuan are made of tough and durable hardwood such as teak and Ceylon ironwood imported from Southeast Asia, whereas Fu Chuan is built from lighter, locally-sourced materials. Thanks to these durable materials, Guang Chuan is less maintenance intensive than Fu Chuan, although on the flip side it is more expensive to build and difficult to repair if damaged. 

Evolution into the ultimate war junk

For all its durability, Guang Chuan did have an oft-criticised flaw: lack of protective superstructure. In stark contrast to the fully enclosed and heavily reinforced superstructure of Fu Chuan, Guang Chuan was only fitted with a low, wall-less, bamboo-roofed shed that barely provided any protection to ship crew, not to mention vulnerable to fire and could even hinder crew mobility due to low height. Luckily, the flaw wasn't a serious one and was easy to remedy. 

Ironically, just when Fujianese shipwrights were building warships without superstructure to make space for heavier guns and broadside tactics, Guangdong shipwrights were busy incorporating Fu Chuan's sturdy superstructure into their own designs. Combining the best of both worlds, the improved Guang Chuan became a formidable warship second only to the great ships of the Europeans. Not only Guang Chuan's huge size allowed it to carry large numbers of combatants and be fitted with larger superstructures than Fu Chuan, making it supremely dangerous at close range and boarding action, its strong hull and additional maneuverability provided by oars also turned it into a potent ramming vessel. In addition, Guang Chuan's heavy build could withstand the weight and recoil of more powerful guns, allowing it to keep up with the newfound firepower of its Fujianese counterpart, at least for a time, although it too became obsolete around 1630-50s.

Wu Wei Chuan (烏尾船, lit. 'Black-tailed ship')

Drawing of a late Ming Wu Wei Chuan. Note its enclosed outrigger with additional fencing on top, as well as fore- and aftercastle. From 'Jing Guo Xiong Lue (《經國雄略》)'.
Wu Wei Chuan is a regional variant of Guang Chuan primarily built from the shipyard in Dongguan. A large vessel originally designed for civilian use, Wu Wei Chuan was adopted by the military to combat Wokou, although Ming commanders at the time had low opinion of the ship owing to its lack of protective superstructure, and generally preferred Fu Chuan over Guang Chuan.

Wu Wei Chuan's call to fame, ironically, came not from Ming navy, but from Chinese pirate Zeng Yi Ben (曾一本), who assembled a never-before-seen war fleet of captured Wu Wei Chuan and terrorised the coasts of Guangzhou unopposed. So fearsome was Zhen Yi Ben's fleet, that Ming navy had to muster a huge armada—the largest since Zheng He's treasure voyages—and even purpose-built twenty-four massive ironclad warships in order to put him down for good. Thereafter, Wu Wei Chuan became the most representative and ubiquitous Guang Chuan in military service, and by the twilight years of the Ming Dynasty it had become one of the two premier warships of Ming navy along with Niao Chuan (鳥船).

Other blog posts in my Four Great Ancient Ships series:
Guang Chuan (廣船)


  1. Hi Admin, while you mentioned that the Guang Chuan had a distinctive fan-shaped sail, Nick Burningham said that such type of sail is only possible after the 1800s, when the sail material is made of cloth. Before this, vegetal material assembled into matting was more common, creating a square-shaped sail. This is because the mat sail was formed from stiff panels. It means that this ship, if the sail type was the defining attribute of it (the hulls seem different on each drawing), is not that ancient. I have several questions regarding this:
    1. Is there any evidence that fan-shaped junk sail existed before 1800? Most European drawings of Chinese junk showed squarish-shaped junk sails. If you knew a native (Chinese) depiction/drawing that showed fan-shaped junk sail, let me know.
    2. When was the first time Guang Chuan was recorded?
    3. In the records mentioning Guang Chuan, is there an indication that they use fan-shaped sail?
    4. Why is it called one of the four great "ancient" ships of China? Who coined this term? As far as the evidence on this page suggests, the ship was only known in the early modern era (after 1500).
    5. When was the Chinese used the junk sail? Wikipedia stated that the oldest ship recorded using junk sail is probably Southeast Asian, not Chinese. Even the original "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" did not show junk sail. Only its recreation after the Song Dynasty depicted the boats with junk sails.
    6. When was the first time a Chinese ship was recorded using sailcloth as the material of the sail? Even if we don't have pictorial evidence that the junk rig of the earliest Guang Chuan was fan-shaped, the material of the sail could give a rough estimation of when the fan-shaped junk sail started to be used (although this also needs textual evidence).

    1. Good question. Due to scarcity of sources about ancient Chinese shipbuilding in general, and Guang Chuan in particular (on my end at least), it is indeed difficult to track down which feature was incorporated into the ship during what time, so what Nick Burningham said might indeed be correct.

      1. No idea.

      2. Ming period, as far as I can tell.

      3. There are records that they used different sail than Fu Chuan during Ming period, but no explicit description of the shape.

      4. No idea who coined this term, but it is just a common saying in the same vein as "Four Great Classics" or "Four Great Beauties" etc. There are also a "Three Great Ancient Ships" version with only three ship types.

      The western notion of ancient, classical, medieval, renaissance, early modern etc. really doesn't fit all that well into Chinese history or language. With China being a still-continuous ancient civilization, anything that isn't modern can be called "ancient".

      5. AFAIK the earliest archaeological evidence of junk rig dates to 13th century, from Quanzhou shipwreck, so it was probably around that time. I don't think there are earlier archaeological finds or written records from SEA that predate Quanzhou wreck, so uncertain how Wikipedia came to that conclusion.

      There are some that interpret a junk-rigged ship carving on Bayon Temple, Cambodia as a Southeast Asian ship, thus arguing that junk-rig came from SEA, although personally I am unconvinced. If anything, IMO the presence of single stempost rudder on the ship is a strong argument that the ship is a Chinese junk, or at least a hybrid design incorporating Chinese technology (Southeast Asian/Austronesian ships predominantly used double side rudder).

      6. Sailcloth type ships predates hard junk rig in China quite a bit. Around Han Dynasty I guess?

    2. Oh, I think Nanhai One shipwrek (sunk 1160s) might be an even earlier evidence of Junk Rig than Quanzhou shipwreck (sunk 1277), but I am not 100% certain.

      BTW I also think the prow-mounted and sharply pointed arrowhead anchor on the Bayon Temple ship is another evidence to support that it is an explicit depiction of a Chinese junk, given that the specific anchor design is a very East Asian one (widely used in China, Korea, and to a lesser extend Vietnam and Thailand)

    3. What indicated the wreck used a junk rig? AFAIK only the lower part of the ship survived, is there an artifact found in the wreck that indicated it's using a junk rig? By junk rig, it means that the artifact must have: 1. Vegetal matting, 2. Battens to divide the sail area. Are these criteria found in the wreck?

    4. There are fragments of sail found around Quanzhou wreck. Quanzhou ship was not sunk undersea, it was found buried in the mud near Quanzhou city in good state of preservation.


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