10 October 2022

Fu Chuan (福船)

A replica Fu Chuan, claimed to be 1:1 in scale, recently launched in Quanzhou. Its flat V-shaped prow is visible in this photo.
Fu Chuan, also known as Fu Jian Chuan (福建船, lit. 'Fujian ship') and Bai Cao (白艚, lit. 'White junk'), is a type of sailing ship originated from Fujian. It is the most widely used and well-known of the "Four Great Ancient Ships" of China, and formed the backbone and workhorse of Ming navy.

Fu Chuan is an oceangoing sailing ship with a S-shaped hull with both high sheer forward and high sheer aft, a flat prow without a stempost that appears as a flat V-shape when viewed directly from the front, as well as a flat stern. It is equipped with a retractable unbalanced rudder shaped like a tall parallelogram, and has a deck that widens towards the stern. Fu Chuan's junk sails are typically rectangular in shape. Unique to the ship type, some large, oceangoing Fu Chuan are designed with the capability to quickly swap out primary rudder with a smaller secondary one in order to traverse shallow water, and many Fu Chuan are also fitted with mountings for additional Yuloh sculling oar-cum-auxiliary rudder for more maneuverability.

While not as tough as Guang Chuan (廣船), Fu Chuan is still sturdy enough to overpower most other types of warships it will likely encounter. It is also cheaper and far more suitable for offshore sailing than Guang Chuan (the deep V hull of Guang Chuan is less stable and susceptible to rolling and banking, especially at lower speed), making it a superior choice for a general purpose warship.

Classification of Fu Chuan

During Ming period military Fu Chuan were divided into six different classes based on their size. Mark 1 and Mark 2, known simply as Fu Chuan or Da Fu Chuan (大福船, lit. 'Great Fu Chuan'), were considered capital ships. Mark 3 Shao Chuan (哨船, lit. 'Sentry ship') or Cao Pie Chuan (草撇船, possible translation may be 'straw cushion ship'), Mark 4 Dong Chuan (冬船, lit. 'Winter ship') or Hai Cang Chuan (海滄船, lit. 'Haicang ship') were medium-sized ships and served as mainline combat vessels. Mark 5 Niao Chuan (鳥船, lit. 'Bird ship') and Mark 6 Kuai Chuan (快船, lit. 'Fast ship'), collectively known as Kai Lang Chuan (開浪船, lit. 'Wave-cutting ship'), were the smallest classes, and served in a scouting role. Nevertheless, this classification fell out of use by the tail end of Ming Dynasty as older designs were supplanted by new generation of Fu Chuan such as Gan Zeng Chuan (趕繒船, lit. 'Trawling net ship') and Tong An Suo Chuan (同安梭船, lit. 'Tong'an shuttle ship').

Da Fu Chuan (大福船)

Drawing of a Da Fu Chuan, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'. Note the prominent three-storey aftercastle, as well as superstructure built on top the hull.
A Mark 1 Fu Chuan is about 9 zhang (28.8 metre) in length, while the slightly smaller Mark 2 Fu Chuan is about 8 zhang (25.6 metre) in length. Though the largest of its class, Fu Chuan isn't a particularly huge ship, although it is formidable nonetheless.

A Fu Chuan has two decks and a superstructure built on its upper deck. The lowest level of the ship is used to store stones, bricks and roof tiles  (as ballast). Next above is the berth deck where the accommodation for ship crew is located. Above the berth deck is the upper deck (topmost deck of a ship), which is almost entirely covered by an enclosed superstructure made of wooden planks and reinforced by bamboo. The superstructure is the primary fighting compartment of Fu Chuan, allowing soldiers to fight from inside it or on its battlemented roof (battlement is not depicted in the illustration above), although it also houses the ship's galley (kitchen) and drinking water storage, and both sails and anchors are operated from here as well. 

At the Fu Chuan's stern, a three-storey tall aftercastle raises above the superstructure. The bridge is most likely located here, as this arrangement confers many advantages, namely it places the captain and the helmsman within shouting distance of each other, allows the captain to have a full view of the entire ship thus making tight turns much easier, and is sheltered from large waves washing over entire ship deck during adverse weather.

Cao Pie Chuan (草撇船)

Drawing of a Cao Pie Chuan, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'. The aftercastle of Cao Pie Chuan appears to be reduced to just one storey.
Mark 3 Fu Chuan, or Cao Pie Chuan, is a slightly downsized version of larger Fu Chuan, as well as a versatile warship that performs equally well in battle, escort, and pursuit role. Due to its smaller size and lighter weight, Cao Pie Chuan can traverse shallower water than its larger cousins, and retains mobility even with minimal winds, making it an excellent littoral warship.

Hai Cang Chuan (海滄船)

Drawing of a Hai Cang Chuan, from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'. Hai Cang Chuan appears to only have an open-topped fighting platform in place of the aftercastle of its larger cousins.
Mark 4 Fu Chuan, or Hai Cang Chuan, is simply a Cao Pie Chuan without protective bamboo fencing.

Kai Lang Chuan (開浪船)

Drawing of a Kai Lang Chuan, from 'San Cai Tu Hui (《三才圖會》)'.
Mark 5 Niao Chuan and Mark 6 Kuai Chuan, collectively known as Kai Lang Chuan, are the smallest of the Fu Chuan class. They can be distinguished from their larger cousins by their pointed (rather than flat) prow, hybrid sail-and-oar propulsion (although oars were eventually phased out), and use of steering oar. Too small to mount the protective superstructure of larger Fu Chuan, Niao Chuan and Kuai Chuan make poor frontline combat vessels, although their speed and maneuverability allow them to excel in harassing and scouting role. They are also used to collect enemy heads from floating dead bodies after the battle.

Transition to gun deck-based warship

For much of China's history, the principal Chinese warship design was the so-called "tower ship"—a warship which primary fighting compartment is a large and enclosed superstructure built on top of its hull. The design offers excellent protection to ship crew and fully capitalises on the superior projectile weapon technology (namely crossbow, trebuchet, and gunpowder bomb) employed by the Chinese, not to mention increased height of the ship also makes it difficult to board. 

Originally designed for riverine warfare between various Chinese warring states, tower ship was so successful that it saw continuous use even after more seaworthy hull designs were discovered and sails replaced oars as the primary means of propulsion. Ming period Fu Chuan was essentially the 16th century iteration of tower ship, and actually wouldn't look very different from contemporary tower ship-equivalents such as Japan's atakebune (安宅船) and Korea's panokseon (板屋船) save for the fact that it was smaller and more compact, lacked the banks of oars of the other two, and had aftercastle in place of a forward command tower. In fact, Ming tower ship was the direct inspiration that led to the the creation of panokseon, and likely influenced the development of Japanese warship as well.

Left: A classical oar-driven tower ship. Middle: A Fu Chuan circa 1540s, still retaining the tower ship design. Right: A Fu Chuan circa 1640s, now without superstructure. Ship images are taken from 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)' and 'Jing Guo Xiong Lue (《經國雄略》)', cleaned and merged together by myself.
Nevertheless, as the Chinese began to mount more and heavier guns onto their warships, the primary weakness of tower ship, namely instability caused by high centre of gravity, became increasingly intolerable. Echoing similar development in Europe, Chinese war junks also underwent drastic revamps and changed into a gun deck-based design. Gone was the tall superstructure, and the primary fighting compartment of the new warship—its gun deck—was now directly built into the hull. While it is difficult to pin down when the transition began (it most likely happened during very late 16th century or very early 17th century), the process certainly took off with with resounding speed, as by early Qing period virtually all Chinese war junks had changed into the quintessential form still recognisable today, while tower ships all but disappeared.

Other blog posts in my Four Great Ancient Ships series:
Fu Chuan (福船)


  1. So what about the replica fuchuan at the start, is it the late Ming era or Qing era fuchuan replica? Is there any other camera angle for that replica?

    1. Claimed to be Ming, but I have my doubt.
      This is a news page with the same ship during its WIP stage.

  2. Where does the dimension came from? According to Wikipedia, Zheng He-era Fuchuan is about 50 m long

    1. No idea.
      There is no consensus about the size of Zheng He's ship. 50m seems small though as there were Fengzhou larger than that.

    2. Will you discuss/post about Zheng He's fleet ships in the future? Such as baochuan, machuan, liangchuan, bingchuan, fuchuan (but those in the fleet), zuochuan and shuichuan?

    3. Not in the plan right now, but eventually I will cover it as I learn more about them...I guess.


< > Home

Random Quotes & Trivia

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