Sailing with Li Bo and Tanzong

Since my novel Dream of the Dragon Pool is a “river story,” with Li Bo sailing up the Yangtze River on his quest with the Dragon Pool Sword, and my forthcoming novel, Listening to Rain, spends time sailing in the South China Sea, I thought to discuss ancient/medieval Chinese ships. In Dragon Pool, Li Bo uses three river conveyances: an Imperial salt hauler – basically, a freighter;  a gorge runner – a lighter, faster ship to pass through the famed Three Gorges; and a third highly unconventional water “craft,” which you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is! In Listening to Rain, Tanzong and Li Wei sail on a mysterious “shaman’s craft,” an ocean going pirate junk, the Dragonfly, and are chased by swift sailing Sea Hawk patrol craft. Overall, traditional Chinese ship design was far in advance of the West till at least the 17th or 18th centuries C.E. As a matter of fact, the West borrowed much from the Chinese in further developing their modern ship designs. And, one could speculate that it was all due to bamboo and the Chinese sensitivity to Nature – the Tao of bamboo?

Ship Architecture

The basic advance of the Chinese shipbuilders that seems to have literally laid the foundations for all future developments was the use of watertight bulkheads – just like the bamboo when split open, the joints form natural partitions inside the bamboo. They add strength and allow for flexibility. Thus, bamboo is one of the most popular materials used in Asia for almost every conceivable construction – from kitchen utensils to skyscraper scaffolding; and, most likely, to the earliest rafts (still in use in the rivers and their fast-flowing tributaries in Asia). Scholars now believe that the early Chinese got their ideas for ship construction from the simple bamboo.

Most traditional Chinese ships were built without keels. The shipwright lays out the frame based on the bulkhead placement and builds from there. The sides and bottom of the ship are formed by planking nailed to the bulkheads and reinforced by very solid “wales” (strakes, thicker planking) along the sides from bow to stern. Not only does this lead to a very strong, watertight interior hull (probably in use by the second century C.E. The West doesn’t figure this out till the end of the 18th century. This innovation also results in flat bottoms and blunted bows and sterns, which, in turn lead to further nautical advances. Meanwhile, the West doesn’t go to flat bottoms for larger ships till the 19th century when steel comes into use for ship hulls.

The flat stern sets the stage for another Chinese advance, the axial balanced rudder. While the rest of the ancient and not so ancient world was sailing around with various forms of steering oars/paddles, the Chinese were using a stern slung rudder that through an ingenious pulley system could be raised or lowered depending upon the sailing conditions (at least by the 2nd century C.E.; the first evidence of a stern rudder in the West appears in 1180 C.E.). Thus the rudder could be used to both steer and stabilize the ship, while also allowing it to sail in shallower waters without fear of hanging up the rudder – the pirate captain, Byung Nhak will use this nautical design to her advantage in Listening to Rain. During the Sung dynasty (10-13th centuries) the Chinese developed balanced rudders, where there was a portion of the rudder in front of the rudder post allowing the flowing water to assist in the steering. A further development was the fenestration of the rudder: holes were cut into the lower sections of the rudder to allow water to pass through it to reduce the water resistance to a turning rudder. Here's a drawing of such a rudder setup:

Chinese Rudder

Chinese ships and boats were built according to the conditions of use and the conditions of the environment in which they would sail.

China has one of the longest histories of shipbuilding in the world. Wooden junks alone as described in historical records varied greatly in type, being estimated at about 1,000 by the mid-20th century. For coastal fishing alone, 200 to 300 types were noted. (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Institute of the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, “Shipbuilding,” Zhou Shide, p.479, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China, 1983)

Professor Zhou continues on to point out the skill of the ancient Chinese in adapting form to function:

The ancient shipwrights were remarkable for their ability to develop a great variety of models and types to suit different marine conditions…The Chinese shipwrights were good at devising new types of ships by combining the good points of various kinds of vessels. The Song Dynasty ship used in both inland and sea-going navigation combined the bottom of a lake-boat, the deck of a warship and the bow and stern of a sea-going vessel. Again, in the reign of the Emperor Kang Xi in the early Qing, a type of freighter build in Fuzhou for timber shipping and know as the “Three Unlikes” was not like the sand ship, bird ship or egg ship but was a new model combining the advantages of all three. (Ibid., pp.482-483)

The flat bottomed or “sand ships” were a basic design an initially built for use mostly in northern coastal waters (from the delta of the Yangtze River and north) where sand shoals abound, but were also used as river freighters. The shallow draft, flat bottoms, and retractable rudders helped these ships avoid beaching on the numerous sand shoals in those regions; and thus the name “sand ships.” While to the south, around the great open sea sailing ports in Fujian and Guangdong provinces, their deep-sea sailing ships had rounded bottoms for swifter more stable sailing:

North of the Hangchow [Hangzhou] Bay the coastal and sea-going craft are flat-bottomed and have a pronounced ridge with relatively large, heavy and square rudders which can be lowered well below the ship’s bottom or raised up high. They are thus fitted for frequent beaching in the shallow harbours or muddy estuaries of the north, where the tidal effects are most noticeable, while at sea the rudder acts as an efficient ‘drop-keel.’ South of Hangchow Bay the coastal waters are deeper, the inlets fjord-like, and the islands more numerous. Here the underwater lines of the vessels become progressively more curved, with the sharper entry, less pronounced ridge and rounder stern; at the same time the rudders, often supplemented by centre-boards, become sometimes narrower and deeper, sometimes drilled with holes and shaped like a rhomboid. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.93-4, ISBN: 0521252725)

Looking further into the hull designs of Chinese ships, we find another interesting reading of Nature by the Chinese. When the Europeans thought about hull design, they thought about fish. Seems natural, fish and water are “made for each other.” So European hulls were designed with a fish-shape in mind:

Broadly speaking, the European tendency has always been to set the greater fullness of the ship forward, towards the bow… (Ibid., pp.85-86)

Fish-shaped. But the Chinese insight differed. When they looked at a ship, they saw a duck. Fish swim in the water, ducks swim on top of the water – like a ship:

…while the Chinese tendency was to set it [the greater fullness of the ship] towards the stern. (Ibid.)

This Chinese insight was proven correct when ship design was scientifically tested by the Europeans.


In terms of the means of propulsion the Chinese were also far ahead of the rest of the world. Earlier in European history, with the Greeks and Romans there had been large ships with multiple masts, but these did not survive the fall of theRoman Empire. The Chinese, however, were sailing large ships with as many as five masts. The great European traveler Marco Polo confirms the Chinese advances in sail technology:

He gives evidence for the great mat-and-batten square sails, much greater in number than were carried by any European or Arab ship of the time, and their ability to make use of the wind coming from almost any quarter. (Ibid., p.118)

From at least the 3rd century C.E., Chinese ships were equipped with multiple masts. Most likely, this was due to their bulkhead construction methods, which provided strong anchoring positions for the masts. Further:

The Chinese also staggered their masts across the width of the ship in order to avoid the becalming of one sail by another. This is approved by modern sailing ship designers, but not adopted by Europeans during the period of importance of the sailing ship. Nor did the Chinese practice of radiating the rakes (tilts) of the masts like spines of a fan win acceptance in other parts of the world. (Ibid., p.268)

A Chinese seventeenth century description of classic mat and batten lug sail that was common on Chinese ships explains:

The sail is made by weaving together thin and narrow strips of the outer parts of the stems of bamboo, and (this matting is) divided into sections grasped by (parallel) bamboo battens. Thus the sail folds in tiers, ready to be (bent to yard and boom and) hoisted. A large mainsail in a grainship needs ten men to hoist it, but for the foresail two suffice…When the wind is favourable the sail is hoisted to its full height and the boat moves at a good speed like a racing horse, but if the wind freshens the sail is reefed (coming down by its own weight) in due order (section by section one after another)…In a gale only one or two sections of the sail are hoisted. (The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, ed., Colin A. Ronan, vol.3, pp.195-196)

The Chinese mat and batten lug sail, (for example, the ones seen most frequently on the junks in Hong Kong harbor), are raised and lowered from the deck. Not only are they more efficient than the traditional early modern Western square-riggers, the crew doesn’t have to climb the mast and hang off the spars sheeting the great canvass sails as the ship is being tossed around.

Even more interesting is the possibility that Chinese ships might have indirectly made the European “Age of Discovery” possible; G.S. Clowes, the historian of navel architecture, points out:

It was the introduction of the three-masted ship with its improved ability to contend with adverse winds, which made possible the great voyages of discovery of the end of the fifteenth century, of Columbus to the West Indies, of Vasco da Gama to India, and of the Cabots to Newfoundland; and it is a curious thought that this great development may really have been due to the introduction into Europe of accounts of the multiple-masted Chinese junks which traded so effectively in the Indian Ocean…(Ibid., p.119)

There is much more technical information in the Ronan volume about the construction of Chinese sails, but it is both beyond what is necessary here to convey a sense of the Chinese advances in naval technology, and also beyond my knowledge of sailing!

Besides wind propulsion, the Chinese, not later than the 1st century C.E., invented the self-feathering sculling oar, and “the treadmill-operated paddle wheel in the eighth if not the fifth century C.E., and its great development in the Sung [Song] (twelfth century) for warships with multiple paddle-wheels and catapult artillery.” (Ibid., p.268)


The ancient Chinese used two basic systems of navigation: celestial and magnetic. The Chinese scholar, Yan Dunjie sums it up when he writes:

Chinese sailors in ancient times learned to orient themselves on the sea by observing celestial bodies. It is mentioned in the Huai Nan Zi (The Book of the Prince of Huai Nan) that traveling aboard ship at see, one could tell east from west by locating the polar star. A similar remark is found in Bao Pu Zi (Book of Master Baopu) by Ge Hong in 284-364) of the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Ge Hong states that travelers on land who lost their way were guided by the south-pointing chariot, and if they lost their way on the sea they looked at the polar star. Fa Xian, a monk of the Eastern Jin  Dynasty (317-420) who returned from India by sea, said that on board ship, “we found ourselves in the midst of boundless waters, at a loss in telling east from west. We advanced by observing the sun, the moon and the stars.” This “dependence on stars at night and the sun in the daytime” continued till the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), when Chinese mariners learned to “look at the compass on a cloudy day.” (Ancient China’s Technology and Science, Yan Dunjie, p.494)

Though the exact date of the Chinese invention of the south pointing compass is unclear, it did come into use during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.). However, it is only in the 12th century that we have clear confirmation of its use on Chinese ships. The actual use of the compass for nautical navigation probably happened a few centuries before the 12th century written source. And the Chinese record of astronomical observation is both ancient and remarkable.

This is only a meager attempt to outline the Chinese naval experience, for theirs was a long and brilliant history that far surpassed the rest of the world until recent times. In Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain you’ll make the acquaintance of a few of these remarkable water crafts.

I’ve also added some ship images to show you my inspirations for the various ships in my novels. While there aren’t any definitive images of Tang dynasty ships, I used ships of later dynasties as my imaginary models for the ships in Dream of the Dragon Pool and Listening to Rain.

In the former novel, Li Bo and Ma Ssu-ming’s skiffs were based this image of a contemporary Wuhu-Hankow region skiff (NOTE: Move your cursor over the ship names to click on images).

Li Bo & Ma Ssu-ming's Skiff type

For their Long River Gorge Runner, my inspiration was another contemporary ship that probably still runs those rapids.

Yangtze Gorge Runner

Turning to Tanzong and his waterborne adventures in Listening to Rain, my inspiration for the Sea Hawks was this Qing dynasty patrol ship.

Sea Hawk Model

And for the pirate Byung’s Dragonfly, my inspiration came from another modern period ship.

Dragonfly Model

While admittedly this merchant ship looks a bit dowdy, when I see Byung racing over the South China Sea, the following image is more to my liking.

Dragonfly Under Sail! 

(The above images were all from G.R.G. Worcester's wonderful, The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze [ISBN-13: 978-0870213359)

However, someday in the future – I intend to write a volume devoted solely to her adventures, Byung will have the opportunity to build her own ship, the Dragonfly II. And my inspiration for that ship comes from this wonderful image of a 13th century Mongol (yes, they had ships – built by the Chinese) warship! Imagine the adventures!!!