The Largest Naval Battle You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

October 4, 2012 — Leave a comment
china naval battle

Lake Poyang from Space
CC Image Courtesy of Richard Petry on Flickr

More than 650 years ago, Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake, was the scene of quite possibly the largest naval battle in human history. As many as a million sailors (although the number is more likely closer to 500,000) fought one another during a series of maneuvers lasting from August 30th through October 4th, 1363. The Yuan Dynasty, founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, was in its death throes during the mid-14th century and multiple factions vied to fill the resulting power vacuum. Two of the most powerful factions were the Han and Ming and it was these two groups whose navies collided in epic fashion in the fall of 1363.

Determined to capture the strategic Ming stronghold of Nanchang, Han naval forces led by Chen Youling sailed across the waters of Lake Poyang and laid siege to Nanchang. Unfortunately for Chen Youling and his men, the lake shrinks every year during the summer and fall dry months. As the waters receded, Chen’s siege ships became ineffective and gave the Ming time to deploy forces from Yingtian (modern day Nanjing). Led by Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming fleet relieved the besieged army in Nanchang and assaulted the Han fleet with fire ships. The Han fleet retreated down the lake and in a final battle on October 4th were utterly annihilated after Chen Youling died from an arrow to the head. Many of the Han sailors chose suicide over capture and estimates place the death count as high as 600,000. Perhaps this is why the lake has taken on a mythical role as China’s Bermuda Triangle. Leveraging his victory at Lake Poyang, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming dynasty in 1368. The dynasty would last nearly 300 years before falling to the Qing in 1644.

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