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)

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