Indo-Chinese Junk

Indo-China - Scott #143 (1931)
Indo-China – Scott #143 (1931)

The watercraft known as a junk seems to be — at least in the West — chiefly associated with China to the degree that the demonym “Chinese” is often used in reference to these boats and ships. However, these used to be quite common to most of the bodies of water found throughout Southeast Asia. In fact, I used to see a couple off the various coasts off of my current home of Phuket island in southern Thailand. The term junk may be used to cover many kinds of boat — ocean-going, cargo-carrying, pleasure boats, live-aboards. They vary greatly in size and there are significant regional variations but what they all have in common is a type of sail rig in which rigid members, called battens, span the full width of the sail and extend the sail forward of the mast. This is called a junk rig.

The origin of the term is not directly recorded, but it is popularly attributed the boats utilizing the rig in China where it’s use was first encountered by Europeans. The name junk may stem from the Chinese chuán (船, “boat; ship”) or zhōu (舟), the old word for a sailing vessel. Junk entered the English language in the 17th century through the Portuguese junco from the Malay jong or Javanese djong. The modern Standard Chinese word for an ocean-going wooden cargo vessel is cáo (艚). European writings from 1345 through 1601 use a variety of related terms, including jonque (French), ioncque (Italian), iuncque (Spanish), and ionco (Dutch).

Junks were used as seagoing vessels as early as the 2nd century AD and developed rapidly during the Song dynasty (960–1279). They evolved in the later dynasties, and were used throughout Asia for extensive ocean voyages. They were found, and in lesser numbers are still found, throughout South-East Asia and India, but primarily in China. Found more broadly today is a growing number of modern recreational junk-rigged sailboats. Through their use in artwork and other media, they have come to evoke a romanticized image of the Far East to many Westerners.

Painting of a junk in China.
Painting of a junk in China.

The historian Herbert Warington Smyth considered the junk as one of the most efficient ship designs, stating that “As an engine for carrying man and his commerce upon the high and stormy seas as well as on the vast inland waterways, it is doubtful if any class of vessel… is more suited or better adapted to its purpose than the Chinese or Indian junk, and it is certain that for flatness of sail and handiness, the Chinese rig is unsurpassed.”

The structure and flexibility of junk sails make the junk fast and easily controlled. The sails of a junk can be moved inward toward the long axis of the ship. In theory this closeness of what is called sheeting allowed the junk to sail into the wind. In practice, evidenced both by traditional sailing routes and seasons and textual evidence [10] junks could not sail well into the wind. The junk sail is a low tech approach to sailing and requires only inexpensive components. Spars are typically of wood. Lines for running rigging are typically 3-strand cordage rather than dual core braid. The sailcloth materials are typically light canvas or tarpaulin, used Dacron from discarded sails, or even PVC sheeting.

The junk sail is composed of the following components:

The components of a junk sail.
The components of a junk sail.
  • The yard in context with the modern junk sail is the supporting spar along the head of the sail from the throat and peak. The yard is a stout spar relative to the battens because it supports the full weight of the sail when the halyard is hauled and the sail is raised. It also elevates the peak of the sail when trimmed.
  • Several battens support the sail from luff to leech. A fully battened sail is quiet and steady during raising and reefing, making the junk sail a convenient cruising sail. The battens also make the junk sail rather flat, which detracts from the efficiency of sail drive in light and moderate winds, but is ideal in the trade winds.
  • The boom is the spar at the foot of the junk sail. It supports the sail directly at the tack and the clew, and holds the junk sail assembly down due to the tack line or downhaul. In modern rigs, the boom is controlled by the sheet and is responsible for the mailsail trim. However, in the junk rig, the boom is only partially in control of the trim of the sail, because the sheets are connected to both the boom and several of the battens.
  • The sailcloth panels in the junk rig do not need to be expensive low stretch materials as is required in modern sails. The junk sail makes a substantial driving force from a huge sail area, as opposed to the high efficiency curves built into small modern sails that depend upon Dacron, Mylar, or Kevlar to hold their shape.
  • The batten parrels are short lengths of line or strap that are responsible for holding the junk sail to the mast. They are quite long, allowing the fore and aft movement of the battens across the mast under the control of the running rigging.
  • The tack parrel and tack line secure the tack of the junk sail. The tack parrel will hold the tack into its horizontal position (parallel to the deck) as a snotter tensions a sprit.
  • The tack line will hold the tack in its vertical position (down to the deck). The tack parrel and tack line can be rigged with either standing or running rigging. The latter, if chosen, will rarely be adjusted.
Types of junk-rigged watercraft.
Types of junk-rigged watercraft.

Each of the traditional sailing rigs can be achieved using the modern junk sail:

  • The catboat, characterized by its single mast and sail, is easiest to handle and is most likely seen on sailing dinghies and small boats, including the sampan.
  • The ketch, characterized by a two mast configuration with the largest main mast forward and the smaller mizzen mast aft. Both sails in the ketch are driving sails. For larger boats, this breaks down the sailing canvas into two smaller panels that are easier to handle compared to one huge sail.
  • The yawl, characterized by a two mast configuration with the largest mast forward, is distinguished from the ketch by the smaller size of the mizzen mast, typically aft of the rudderpost in traditional sailing craft, but is not a driving sail. The mizzen mast is used to assist steering the boat and balancing the helm.
  • The schooner, characterized by a two or three mast configuration, with the smallest mast forward and the main mast aft. The schooner rig is suitable for larger boats because it breaks down the sail into smaller canvas which is easier to handle. Some hybrid schooner rigs exist, for example the Colvin rig, which combine a fore-and-aft jib sail with junk-rigged main and fore sails. It is sometimes asserted that this improves the rig’s ability to sail to windward.
  • The ship rig, consisting of at least 3 masts, is suitable for the largest sailing craft. Modern junk rigged ships have multiple masts of equal size, where traditional Chinese sailing junks have 3 masts with a dominating main mast in the center.
Postcard showing a junk in Hong Kong harbor.
Postcard showing a junk in Hong Kong harbor.

Classic junks were built of softwoods (although after the 17th century of teak in Guangdong) with the outside shape built first. Then multiple internal compartment/bulkheads accessed by separate hatches and ladders, reminiscent of the interior structure of bamboo, were built in. Traditionally, the hull has a horseshoe-shaped stern supporting a high poop deck. The bottom is flat in a river junk with no keel (similar to a sampan), so that the boat relies on a daggerboard, leeboard or very large rudder to prevent the boat from slipping sideways in the water.

Ocean-going junks have a curved hull in section with a large amount of tumblehome in the topsides. The planking is edge nailed on a diagonal. Iron nails or spikes have been recovered from a Canton dig dated to circa 221 BC. For caulking the Chinese used a mix of ground lime with Tung oil together with chopped hemp from old fishing nets which set hard in 18 hours, but usefully remained flexible. Junks have narrow waterlines which accounts for their potential speed in moderate conditions, although such voyage data as we have indicates that average speeds on voyage for junks were little different from average voyage speeds of almost all traditional sail, i.e. around 4–6 knots.

The largest junks, the treasure ships commanded by Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, were built for world exploration in the 15th century, and according to some interpretations may have been over 120 metres (390 ft) in length, or larger. This conjecture was based on the size of a rudder post that was found and misinterpreted, using formulae applicable to modern engine powered ships. More careful analysis shows that the rudder post that was found is actually smaller than the rudder post shown for a 70′ long Pechili Trader in Worcester’s “Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze”.

Model of a junk.
Model of a junk.

Another characteristic of junks were interior compartments or bulkheads which strengthened the ship and slowed flooding in case of holing. Ships built in this manner were written of in Zhu Yu’s book Pingzhou Table Talks, published by 1119 during the Song dynasty. This type of construction for Chinese ship hulls was attested to by the Moroccan Muslim Berber traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–1377 AD), who described it in great detail. Although some historians have questioned whether the compartments were watertight, most believe that watertight compartments did exist in Chinese junks because although most of the time there were small passage ways (known as limber holes) between compartments, these could be blocked with stoppers and such stoppers have been identified in wrecks. All wrecks discovered so far have limber holes; these are different from the free flooding holes that are located only in the foremost and aftermost compartments, but are at the base of the transverse bulkheads allowing water in each compartment to drain to the lowest compartment, thus facilitating pumping. It is believed from evidence in wrecks that the limber holes could be stopped either to allow the carriage of liquid cargoes or to isolate a compartment that had sprung a leak.

Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1787 letter on the project of mail packets between the United States and France:

As these vessels are not to be laden with goods, their holds may without inconvenience be divided into separate apartments, after the Chinese manner, and each of these apartments caulked tight so as to keep out water.
— Benjamin Franklin, 1787

In 1795, Sir Samuel Bentham, inspector of dockyards of the Royal Navy, and designer of six new sailing ships, argued for the adoption of “partitions contributing to strength, and securing the ship against foundering, as practiced by the Chinese of the present day”. His idea was not adopted. Bentham had been in China in 1782, and he acknowledged that he had got the idea of watertight compartments by looking at junks there. Bentham was a friend of Isambard Brunel, so it is possible that he had some influence on Brunel’s adoption of longitudinal, strengthening bulkheads in the lower deck of the SS Great Britain. Bentham had already by this time designed and had built a segmented barge for use on the Volga River, so the idea of transverse hull separation was evidently in his mind. Perhaps more to the point, there is a very large difference between the transverse bulkheads in Chinese construction, which offer no longitudinal strengthening, and the longitudinal members which Brunel adopted, almost certainly inspired by the iron bridge and boiler engineering in which he and his contemporaries in iron shipbuilding innovation were most versed.

The junk
The junk “Amoy” arrives in Victoria, British Columbia, following an 87-day voyage from Shanghai in 1922.

Leeboards and centerboards, used to stabilize the junk and to improve its capability to sail upwind, are documented from a 759 AD book by Li Chuan. The innovation was adopted by Portuguese and Dutch ships around 1570. Junks often employ a daggerboard that is forward on the hull which allows the center section of the hull to be free of the daggerboard trunk allowing larger cargo compartments. Because the daggerboard is located so far forward, the junk must use a balanced rudder to counteract the imbalance of lateral resistance.

Other innovations included the square-pallet bilge pump, which was adopted by the West during the 16th century for work ashore, the western chain pump, which was adopted for shipboard use, being of a different derivation. Junks also relied on the compass for navigational purposes. However, as with almost all vessels of any culture before the late 19th century, the accuracy of magnetic compasses aboard ship, whether from a failure to understand deviation (the magnetism of the ship’s iron fastenings) or poor design of the compass card (the standard drypoint compasses were extremely unstable), meant that they did little to contribute to the accuracy of navigation by dead reckoning. Indeed, a review of the evidence shows that the Chinese embarked magnetic pointer was probably little used for navigation. The reasoning is simple. Chinese mariners were as able as any and, had they needed a compass to navigate, they would have been aware of the almost random directional qualities when used at sea of the water bowl compass they used. Yet that design remained unchanged for some half a millennium.

Boats in Guangzhou, China, circa 1880.
Boats in Guangzhou, China, circa 1880.

Junks employed stern-mounted rudders centuries before their adoption in the West for the simple reason that Western hull forms, with their pointed sterns, obviated a centerline steering system until technical developments in Scandinavia created the first, iron mounted, pintle and gudgeon ‘barn door’ western examples in the early 12th century CE. A second reason for this slow development was that the side rudders in use were, contrary to a lot of very ill-informed opinion, extremely efficient. Thus, the junk rudder’s origin, form and construction was completely different in that it was the development of a centrally mounted stern steering oar, examples of which can also be seen in Middle Kingdom (c.2050–1800 BCE) Egyptian river vessels. It was an innovation which permitted the steering of large ships and due to its design allowed height adjustment according to the depth of the water and to avoid serious damage should the junk ground. A sizable junk can have a rudder that needed up to twenty members of the crew to control in strong weather.

In addition to using the sail plan to balance the junk and take the strain off the hard to operate and mechanically weakly attached rudder, some junks were also equipped with leeboards or dagger boards. The world’s oldest known depiction of a stern-mounted rudder can be seen on a pottery model of a junk dating from before the 1st century AD, though some scholars think this may be a steering oar; a possible interpretation given is that the model is of a river boat that was probably towed or poled.

From sometime in the 13th to 15th centuries, many junks began incorporating “fenestrated” rudders (rudders with large diamond-shaped holes in them), probably adopted to lessen the force needed to direct the steering of the rudder.

The rudder is reported to be the strongest part of the junk. In the Tiangong Kaiwu “Exploitation of the Works of Nature” (1637), Song Yingxing wrote, “The rudder-post is made of elm, or else of langmu or of zhumu.” The Ming author also applauds the strength of the langmu wood as “if one could use a single silk thread to hoist a thousand jun or sustain the weight of a mountain landslide.”

Painting of junks, circa 1850.
Painting of junks, circa 1850.

The first records of junks can be found in references dating to the Han dynasty (220 BCE–200 CE). The 3rd century book Strange Things of the South (南州異物志) by Wan Chen (萬震) describes junks capable of carrying 700 people together with 260 tons of cargo (“more than 10,000 “斛”). He explains the ship’s design as follows:

The four sails do not face directly forward, but are set obliquely, and so arranged that they can all be fixed in the same direction, to receive the wind and to spill it. Those sails which are behind the most windward one receiving the pressure of the wind, throw it from one to the other, so that they all profit from its force. If it is violent, (the sailors) diminish or augment the surface of the sails according to the conditions. This oblique rig, which permits the sails to receive from one another the breath of the wind, obviates the anxiety attendant upon having high masts. Thus these ships sail without avoiding strong winds and dashing waves, by the aid of which they can make great speed
— Wan Chen

A 260 CE book by Kang Tai (康泰) also described ships with seven masts, traveling as far as Syria.

The great trading dynasty of the Song employed junks extensively. The naval strength of the Song, both mercantile and military, became the backbone of the naval power of the following Yuan dynasty. In particular the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274–84), as well as the Mongol invasion of Java, essentially relied on recently acquired Song naval capabilities.

A 15th-century Ming dynasty junk, Fengzhou
Print of a 14th-century Yuan dynasty junk

The enormous dimensions of the Chinese ships of the Medieval period are described in Chinese sources, and are confirmed by Western travelers to the East, such as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolò da Conti. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:

…We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. On the China Sea traveling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind.

A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and crossbows, who throw naphtha. Three smaller ones, the “half”, the “third” and the “quarter”, accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun (Zaitun, today’s Quanzhou — 刺桐) and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants.

This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished.
— Ibn Battuta

The Kangxi Emperor on tour, early 18th century, Qing Dynasty, China.
The Kangxi Emperor on tour, early 18th century, Qing Dynasty, China.

The largest junks ever built were possibly those of Admiral Zheng He for his expeditions in the Indian Ocean. According to Chinese sources, the fleet for Zheng’s 1405 expedition comprised nearly 30,000 sailors and over 300 ships at its height. The dimensions of Zheng He’s ships according to ancient Chinese chronicles are disputed by modern scholars:

  • Treasure ships, used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies (Nine-masted junks, claimed by the Ming Shi to be about 420 feet long and 180 feet wide).
  • Horse ships, carrying tribute goods and repair material for the fleet (Eight-masted junks, about 340 feet long and 140 feet wide)
  • Supply ships, containing food-staple for the crew (Seven-masted junks, about 260 feet long and 115 feet wide).
  • Troop transports (Six-masted junks, about 220 feet long and 83 feet wide).
  • Fuchuan warships (Five-masted junks, about 165 feet long).
  • Patrol boats (Eight-oared, about 120 feet long).
  • Water tankers, with 1 month’s supply of fresh water.

Some recent research suggests that the actual length of the biggest treasure ships may have been between 390–408 feet (119–124 m) long and 160–166 feet (49–51 m) wide, while others estimate them to be 200–250 feet (61–76 m) in length.

In 1661, a naval fleet of 400 junks and 25,000 men led by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (Cheng Ch’eng-kung in Wade–Giles , known in the West as Koxinga), arrived in Taiwan to oust the Dutch from Zeelandia. Following a nine-month siege, Cheng captured the Dutch fortress Fort Zeelandia. A peace treaty between Koxinga and the Dutch Government was signed at Castle Zeelandia on February 1, 1662, and Taiwan became Koxinga’s base for the Kingdom of Tungning.

Ships of the world in 1460, according to the Fra Mauro map. Chinese junks are described as very large, three or four-masted ships.
Ships of the world in 1460, according to the Fra Mauro map. Chinese junks are described as very large, three or four-masted ships.

Niccolò da Conti in relating his travels in Asia between 1419 and 1444, matter-of-factly describes huge junks of about 2,000 tons:

They make ships larger than ours, about 2,000 tons in size, with five sails and as many masts. The lower part is made of three decks, so as to better resist storms, which occur frequently. These ships are separated into several compartments, so that if one is touched during a storm, the others remain intact.
— Niccolò da Conti

Also, in 1456, the Fra Mauro map described the presence of junks in the Indian Ocean as well as their construction:

The ships called junks (lit. “Zonchi”) that navigate these seas carry four masts or more, some of which can be raised or lowered, and have 40 to 60 cabins for the merchants and only one tiller. They can navigate without a compass, because they have an astrologer, who stands on the side and, with an astrolabe in hand, gives orders to the navigator.
— Text from the Fra Mauro map, 09-P25

Fra Mauro further explains that one of these junks rounded the Cape of Good Hope and travelled far into the Atlantic Ocean, in 1420:

About the year of Our Lord 1420 a ship, what is called an Asian Junk (lit. “Zoncho de India”), on a crossing of the Sea of India towards the “Isle of Men and Women”, was diverted beyond the “Cape of Diab” (Shown as the Cape of Good Hope on the map), through the “Green Isles” (lit. “isole uerde”, Cabo Verde Islands), out into the “Sea of Darkness” (Atlantic Ocean) on a way west and southwest. Nothing but air and water was seen for 40 days and by their reckoning they ran 2,000 miles and fortune deserted them. When the stress of the weather had subsided they made the return to the said “Cape of Diab” in 70 days and drawing near to the shore to supply their wants the sailors saw the egg of a bird called roc, which egg is as big as an amphora.
— Text from Fra Mauro map, 10-A13,

The junk Keying travelled from China to the United States and England between 1846 and 1848.
The junk Keying travelled from China to the United States and England between 1846 and 1848.

Chinese junks were used extensively in Asian trade during the 16th and 17th century, especially to Southeast Asia and to Japan, where they competed with Japanese Red Seal ships, Portuguese carracks and Dutch galleons. Richard Cocks, the head of the English trading factory in Hirado, Japan, recorded that 50 to 60 Chinese junks visited Nagasaki in 1612 alone.

These junks were usually three masted, and averaging between 200 and 800 tons in size, the largest ones having around 130 sailors, 130 traders and sometimes hundreds of passengers. Large, ocean-going junks played a key role in Asian trade until the 19th century. One of these junks, Keying (Qíyīng — 耆英,), sailed from China around the Cape of Good Hope to the United States and England between 1846 and 1848.

In August 1846 at Canton, China a group of British business men secretly invested in a junk in the hope of using the vessel as a floating trade exhibition, with the view of attracting tourists and trade to Hong Kong which had been ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 at the end of the First Opium War of 1839–42. The purchase defied a Chinese law under the Manchu Dynasty which prohibited the sale of Chinese ships to foreigners.

Keying was a three-masted, 800-ton Foochow Chinese trading junk . The junk was named after the noble Qiying (Keying), a Manchu mandarin of the dynasty of Purity who was entrusted by the Emperor to deal with westerners in Hong Kong. The ship was 160 feet long with a hold depth of 19 feet, 800 tons (Chinese), mainsail 9 tons. The mainmast was 85 feet tall from the deck of the ship and was made of teak. The rudder was suspended by a series of ropes and weighed 7 tons and could be lifted by two winches. She was painted black and white, with a large eagle on her stern and two eyes on her bow which give its hideous assemblage of planks and appearance of a great marine monster. The junk cost U.S. $75,000.

“The Bay and Harbor of New York” by Samuel Waugh (1814–1885), depicting the Junk Keying moored in New York Harbor in 1847 (watercolor on canvas, c. 1853–1855, Museum of the City of New York)

The Keying was manned by 12 British and 30 Chinese sailors (the latter all Cantonese). She was commanded by Captain Charles Auckland Kellett, also British. After Governor John Davis, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane and all the Officers of the Fleet had visited the junk, the vessel left Hong Kong on December 6, 1846, bound for London. She rounded Cape Horn on March 6 and after being at sea for four and half months she put into St Helena on April 17, 1847, leaving on the 23rd. She carried on her passage but was driven westward and running low on supplies she instead made for New York, arriving there on July 9, 212 days from Canton. She moored off the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan becoming the first Chinese ship to visit the East Coast.

The Chinese crew of Keying were understandably angry as they had signed on only for an eight-month voyage to Singapore and Batavia (now Jakarta). Twenty-six of them left Keying and returned to Canton on board the Candace, which sailed October 6, 1847.

P. T. Barnum had a copy of Keying built in Hoboken (Barnum claimed he had it towed from China), and exhibited it with a crew which may have included some of the Keying Chinese. However, the Brooklyn Eagle described Barnum’s crew as “one third white and two thirds negroes or mulattoes”, so probably no real Keying crew were present. The real Keying created a great deal of interest with seven to eight thousand visitors per day initially, each paying 25 cents to view the ship and her crew.

She left New York for Boston and arrived there on November 18, by the Charles River Bridge, according to the Boston Evening Transcript of 1847. On Thanksgiving Day, Keying attracted four to five thousand visitors. She left Boston for London on February 17, 1848, bound for London with her masts adorned with strips of red cloth that the Chinese crew believed would bring a good and safe journey to them. A storm on February 28 wrecked her two boats, ripped the foresail, and disabled the hardwood ironbound rudder, which was hung in the Chinese manner without gudgeons or pintles. During the repair of the rudder the second mate drowned.

On about March 11, 1848, Keying vessel found herself near the Roches Douvres and was approached by the cutter Peirson under the command of Captain Chevalier who escorted the junk into St Aubin’s Bay, for this he was paid 60 pounds. The junk having made a quick crossing of the Atlantic in 21 days, anchored off the Island of Jersey her first European port of call where she stayed for ten days in total. Crowds gathered on the Esplanade with their glasses to view the junk in the bay of St Aubin, several boats ventured out to get a closer look of her but no women were allowed to board her as the right of the first European woman to board was reserved for Queen Victoria.

Print of the Keying from the Illustrated London Times of April 1, 1848.
Print of the Keying from the Illustrated London Times of April 1, 1848.

The Keying left Jersey for London with the steamer Monarch under Captain Priaulx as her escort, with the trip expected to take three days. She arrived at her destination and tied up at the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steamboat Pier, Blackwall on March 27, 477 days after leaving Canton. The junk created no less a stir in London as she had elsewhere with her Mandarin of rank and the artist of celebrity hosting visitors in the grand saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the celestial empire with its collection of Chinese curiosities. The Times stated “There is not a more interesting exhibition in the vicinity of London than the Chinese Junk: one step across the entrance, and you are in the Chinese world; you have quitted the Thames for the vicinity of Canton.”

A medal was made in honor of the Keying‘s arrival in Britain. The obverse of the medal bears the following inscription:

The first junk that ever rounded the Cape of Good Hope, or appeared in British waters. Her dimensions are length 160ft. Depth of hold: 19ft. Burden: 800 tons Chinese measurement. Rudder 7½ tons, mainsail 9 tons. Mainmast 85ft long from deck. The ship is built of teak wood. She sailed from Hong Kong 6 December 1846, arrived in England 27 March 1848, 477 days from Canton. “Captain Kellet”, commander.

Some notorious visitors toured the junk including the Duke of Wellington and Charles Dickens, and several of the young Chinese crew visited Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. Today, a large-scale model of the Keying is on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, at Central Ferry Pier 8. This model was based on contemporary reports and images allied to a comprehensive analysis of traditional Fuzhou junk lines. The model was constructed on a 1 to 12 scale. The model was also intentionally aged to look like a vessel that had seen service prior to is famous journey.

The medal made for the arrival of the junk Keying in Britain.
The medal made for the arrival of the junk Keying in Britain.

Many junks were fitted out with carronades and other weapons for naval or piratical uses. These vessels were typically called “war junks” or “armed junks” by Western navies which began entering the region more frequently in the 18th century. The British, Americans and French fought several naval battles with war junks in the 19th century, during the First Opium War, Second Opium War and in between.

At sea, junk sailors cooperated with their Western counterparts. For example, in 1870 survivors of the English barque Humberstone shipwrecked off Formosa, were rescued by a junk and landed safely in Macao.

Joshua Slocum and his family built and sailed the junk-rigged boat Liberdade from Brazil to Washington, D.C. after the wreck of his barque Aquidneck. Slocum had high praise for the practicality of the junk rig: “Her rig was the Chinese sampan style, which is, I consider, the most convenient boat rig in the whole world.”



In 1938, E. Allen Petersen escaped the advancing Japanese armies by sailing a 36-foot (11 m) junk, Hummel Hummel, from Shanghai to California with his wife Tani and two White Russians (Tsar loyalists). In 1939, Richard Halliburton was lost at sea with his crew while sailing a specially constructed junk, Sea Dragon, from Hong Kong to the World Exposition in San Francisco.

In 1955, six young men sailed a Ming dynasty-style junk from Taiwan to San Francisco. The four-month journey aboard the Free China was captured on film and their arrival into San Francisco made international front-page news. The five Chinese-born friends saw an advertisement for an international trans-Atlantic yacht race, and jumped at the opportunity for adventure. They were joined by the then U.S. Vice-Consul to China, who was tasked with capturing the journey on film. Enduring typhoons and mishaps, the crew, having never sailed a century-old junk before, learned along the way. The crew included Reno Chen, Paul Chow, Loo-chi Hu, Benny Hsu, Calvin Mehlert and were led by skipper Marco Chung. After a journey of 6,000 miles (9,700 km), the Free China and her crew arrived into San Francisco Bay in fog on August 8, 1955. Shortly afterward the footage was featured on ABC television’s Bold Journey travelogue. Hosted by John Stephenson and narrated by ship’s navigator Paul Chow, the program highlighted the adventures and challenges of the junk’s sailing across the Pacific, as well as some humorous moments aboard ship.

In 1959 a group of Catalan men, led by Jose Maria Tey, sailed from Hong Kong to Barcelona on a junk named Rubia. After their successful journey, this junk was anchored as a tourist attraction at one end of Barcelona harbor, close to where La Rambla meets the sea. Permanently moored along with it was an alleged reproduction of Columbus’ caravel Santa Maria during the 1960s and part of the 1970s.

In 1981, Christoph Swoboda had the 65-foot junk Bedar built by the boatyard of Che Ali bin Ngah on Duyong island in the estuary of the Terengganu River on the east coast of Malaysia. The Bedar is one of the two types of Malay junk schooners traditionally built there. He sailed this junk with his family and one friend to the Mediterranean and then continued with changing crew to finally finish a circumnavigation in 1998. He sold this vessel in 2000 and in 2004 he started to build a new junk in Duyong with the same craftsmen, the Pinas Naga Pelangi, in order to help keep this ancient boat building tradition alive. The junk was fitted out in 2010 and is working as a charter boat in the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea, currently based on Phuket, Thailand.

In 1985, Belgian Francis Clément ordered a 55-foot traditional Malay junk of the Pinis type at Che Ali Bin Ngah (Chengal boat carpenter) on Pulau Duyong, Malaysia. In 1995 the junk BILBO was launched and finally reached Turkey in 1997 with the help of five Italian sailor teams. Today, BILBO is anchored at the Grau du Roi harbor in Camargue, France.

Junk painting

Beautiful Chinese painting of a junk.The design of a junk was used on the seven lowest denominations (Scott #143-149) of a set of 34 definitive issued by French Indochina (Indochine française) between 1931 and 1941 (Scott #143-140). These were printed by Helio Vaugirard in Paris using the photogravure process and perforated 13½x13. I picked the 1/10-centime value because it is printed in my all-time favorite stamp color, Prussian blue.

French Indochina (previously spelled as French Indo-China) was officially known as Indochinese Union (Union indochinoise) after 1887 and the Indochinese Federation (Fédération indochinoise) after 1947, This was a grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia that issued postage stamps between 1886 and 1949 (please see my previous ASAD article for more detail).

A grouping of the three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south) with Cambodia was formed in 1887. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan in 1898. The capital was moved from Saigon (in Cochinchina) to Hanoi (Tonkin) in 1902 and again to Da Lat (Annam) in 1939. In 1945, it was moved back to Hanoi.

After the Fall of France during World War II, the colony was administered by the Vichy government and was under Japanese occupation until March 1945, when the Japanese overthrew the colonial regime. After the Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh, a communist organization led by Hồ Chí Minh, declared Vietnamese independence, but France subsequently took back control of French Indochina. An all-out independence war, known as the First Indochina War, broke out in late 1946 between French and Viet Minh forces.

In order to create a political alternative to the Viet Minh, the State of Vietnam, led by former Emperor Bảo Đại, was proclaimed in 1949. On November 9, 1953, the Kingdom of Cambodia proclaimed its independence. Following the Geneva Accord of 1954, the French evacuated Vietnam and French Indochina came to an end.

Map of Indochina, 1886
Map of Indo-China, 1886

2 thoughts on “Indo-Chinese Junk

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