30 October 2022

Niao Chuan (鳥船)

A replica Zhejiang Niao Chuan built in 2003. Although seaworthy, the replica's sails appear much smaller than historical ships.
The last of the "Four Great Ancient Ships" of China, Niao Chuan is perhaps the least known of the four, owing to its confusing history and relatively short (but no less crucial) period of military significance. 

Niao Chuan first came into prominence in the early 17th century, during a period when a beleaguered Ming Dynasty was facing unprecedented threats from the sea due to the rise of powerful Chinese pirate lords and arrival of Dutch East India Company with their powerful great ships. Being one of the few ship types capable of meeting the new challenge, Niao Chuan quickly displaced older types of war junks and became the premier warship favoured by Ming navy and pirate lords alike, and later also adopted by the ascending Qing Dynasty. Unfortunately, its heyday ended almost as quickly as it came. After the downfall of Ming Dynasty, the Dutch were evicted from Formosa by Ming loyalist Koxinga, whose kingdom he founded was in turn defeated by the Qing. With the naval threats subsiding, Niao Chuan was also retired from military service, although it continued to play an important role as an armed merchant ship long after.

Confusing origin   

The ship known as Niao Chuan first showed up in historical texts in the mid-16th century as one of the smaller class of Fu Chuan (福船), although it gradually increased in size in the following decades, eventually outgrew even the largest Fu Chuan. Ming period Niao Chuan was described as having a "swollen" (i.e. tumblehome) yet slender hull with low sheer, small and pointed prow, as well as using sails, rowing, and Yuloh stern sculling for propulsion (although rowing was later retired). It was known to be a fast and nimble ship capable of remaining mobile regardless of wind and sea conditions, and even said to be able to keep up with small speedy ships like Sha Chuan (沙船) despite being significantly larger.

Despite Niao Chuan's early appearance in recorded history, there are still many confusing and often conflicting theories regarding its origin and form (probably due to the fact that there clearly exists a distinct shipbuilding tradition from Zhejiang, with archaeological finds predating Ming period). Many believe Niao Chuan evolved/branched out from Fu Chuan into a distinct ship type, while others maintain that Niao Chuan actually descended from Guang Chuan (廣船), believing that Guang Chuan's other name, Wu Cao (烏槽, lit. 'Black junk'), is actually a typo of Niao Cao (鳥艚, lit. 'Bird junk') caused by Qing-era misprint of Ming treatises due to high similarity between Chinese character Wu (烏) and Niao (鳥). It is also varyingly seen as an "in-between" form of the northern Sha Chuan and southern Fu Chuan, or a hybrid of white-coloured Fu Chua and dark-hulled Guang Chuan.

Niao Chuan as a distinct ship type

Regardless of origin theories, the commonly accepted definition nowadays is that Niao Chuan is simply another name for Zhe Chuan (浙船, lit. 'Zhejiang ship'), that is, a distinct ship type/shipbuilding tradition found in Zhejiang. Niao Chuan is similar to Fu Chuan in most respects, although it has a more slender U- or S-shaped hull (or a hull that is V-shaped at the prow but gradually transitions into U-shape towards the stern) with very obvious curvature, a narrow, pointed prow with a flat stempost that flares towards the top, as well as diagonally fitted open bulwark (Niao Chuan's prow appears as a Y-shape when viewed from the front). Some Niao Chuan are also fitted with leeboards.

Possibility of Niao Chuan being the "post-upgrade" Fu Chuan

(Disclaimer: this part is my own theorising based on admittedly very limited data. More research will be needed.)

Nevertheless, current definition may not be applicable to the historical Niao Chuan that were in widespread use for much of the Ming and Qing period. The period of which Niao Chuan replaced older Fu Chuan more or less coincide with the transition of tower ship into gun deck-based design and the obsolescence of Fu Chuan classification, which hints at the possibility of Niao Chuan not being a distinct ship type, but what became of Fu Chuan after the transition. In other words, Fu Chuan evolved into Niao Chuan rather than the other way around, and the ship type now recognised as Fu Chuan might actually be called Niao Chuan historically.

Left: A Kai Lang Chuan circa 1540s. Middle: A Niao Chuan circa 1600s. Right: Japanese illustration of a merchant Niao Chuan visiting Nagasaki port circa 1700s. Ship images are taken from 'San Cai Tu Hui (《三才圖會》)', 'Bing Lu (《兵錄》)' and 'Nagasaki-shi Seihen (『長崎志正編 』)', cleaned and merged together by myself.
There are several other lines of evidence also lend credence to the theory. Notably, after Qing Dynasty decisively defeated the Ming rump state of Tungning in 1683, it found itself no longer having other use for the powerful Niao Chuan warship, and began converting its Niao Chuan fleet into the cheaper Gan Zeng Chuan (趕繒船, lit. 'Trawling net ship') to cut cost. Since Gan Zeng Chuan is widely recognised as a Fu Chuan-type warship, it stands to reason that Niao Chuan, which is convertible to Gan Zeng Chuan, is also a Fu Chuan-type vessel. Moreover, Niao Chuan was frequently associated with Fujian in Qing records, while ship types more associated with Zhejiang were Dan Chuan (蛋/蜑/疍船, lit. 'Egg ship', a type of flat-bottomed cargo vessel commonly used to transport salt along Grand Canal during Qing period. Also refers to the ship-dwellings of Tanka people) and San Bu Xiang Chuan (三不像船, lit.'Three unlikes ship', a hybrid design incorporating elements from three different ships) rather than Niao Chuan. Besides, historical records from Japan, such as Nagasaki-shi (『長崎志』) that recorded various Chinese merchant junks that visited Nagasaki port, also associated Niao Chuan with Fujian, not to mention a preserved Japanese illustration of Niao Chuan shows little in common with its Zhejiang counterpart.

Other blog posts in my Four Great Ancient Ships series:
Niao Chuan (鳥船)

No comments:

Post a Comment

< > Home

Random Quotes & Trivia

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