Archives For Chinese Shipwrecks

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.

hong kong ferry

CC Image Courtesy of Trey Menefee on Flickr

A commuter ferry and a boat full of Hongkong Electric Co. employees collided Monday night around 8:30pm. The Hongkong Electric boat, Lamma IV, was carrying 120 passengers on their way back from a tour of a power facility and were about to take in a fireworks display in Victoria Harbor. The ferry, Sea Smooth, collided with the Lamma IV’s stern and caused the Lamma IV to sink quickly by the stern, stranding dozens of passengers below deck.

So far 38 people have been declared dead of the 120 aboard while only minor wounds were suffered by the Sea Smooth‘s passengers and crew. Authorities have towed the Lamma IV to a nearby beach and discovered a large hole on the port side of the vessel’s stern. Both captains and several of the crew from each vessel have been arrested and released on bail. Hongkong Electric has already pledged to pay $25,800 to each victim’s family. The exact cause and responsibility for the wreck has yet to be determined.

hong kong ferry

CC Image Courtesy of Trey Menefee on Flickr

chinese ice breaker

Chinese Ice Breaker Xue Long
Photo: Ajai Shukla

This week has proven to be a historic one in Chinese naval affairs. On Tuesday, the Chinese Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning. Although still lacking a naval air wing capable of operating from the carrier, the Chinese Navy has joined the exclusive club of nations which operate aircraft carriers and set itself on a path to developing the skills requisite to its efficient operation. In addition, crowds in Shanghai welcomed home the ice breaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) as it completed a historic 18,500 mile scientific voyage and became the first Chinese ship to sail through the Northern Sea Route.

Manned by 119 scientists and crew, Xue Long departed Qingdao (best known for its Tsingtao beer, a relic of its Imperial German colonial past) on July 2nd. During her 3 month voyage, the Xue Long and her crew conducted various geophysical surveys and installed an automatic meteorological station. The ship also stopped over in Iceland to collaborate with scientists there and to perform joint oceanic surveys.

These two events further mark the strides China has made towards projecting its power on a global scale. Not since Admiral Zheng He’s 15th century sailing expeditions has China reached this far afield. A final event this week which could either end up a small footnote in diplomatic history or the catalyst to an Asian conflagration was the cruising of Chinese maritime surveillance cutters and naval frigates to the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Long a subject of dispute between China and Japan and to a lesser extent Taiwan, Japan purchased the islands earlier this month from a private party. The presence of large oil reserves in the waters around the islands make them, like the Falklands, quite valuable economically. It remains to be seen whether the dispute is simply kicked down the road, spurs Japan to acquire a nuclear deterrent or erupts in limited to full scale conflict.

chinese porcelain

Blue & White Yuan Dynasty Porcelain
Photo: history.cultural-china.com

Earlier this year Vietnamese fishermen in the province of Quang Ngai came across a shipwreck full of Chinese porcelain. The fishermen recovered several artifacts and later tried to illegally sell them, but the items were intercepted by Vietnamese authorities. After examination by archaeologists and porcelain experts, the porcelain bowls and incense burners have been determined to be from the 14th century Yuan Dynasty. The porcelain is among the oldest artifacts found in Vietnam and the find is believed to be relatively well preserved beneath sand and silt. Recovery operations have not been announced, but the wreck would undoubtedly yield increased knowledge about trading patterns from the period along with priceless porcelain.

Porcelain has long been an important export for the Chinese economy. The Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and even the Atlantic Ocean are littered with porcelain carrying shipwrecks from every Chinese dynasty. During the American Colonial Period, Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province was considered one of the highest forms of conspicuous consumption. New England merchants made fortunes importing porcelain from China and one item in especial demand was porcelain decorated with the owner’s coat of arms – “armorial porcelain.” Even President George Washington owned a dinner service set of the trendy armorial porcelain. Pieces of Washington’s porcelain are now housed at Washington & Lee’s Reeves Center – one of the largest collections of Chinese export porcelain in the world.

Ci Xi Marble Boat

CC Image courtesy of Kevin Poh on Flickr

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by anti-imperialist sentiment and religious mysticism, the Boxers were a nationalist Chinese group which rose up against Westerners across China in late 1899. Thousands of Chinese Christian converts, Western missionaries and other Western ex-pats were slaughtered in the ensuing violence. The Rebellion culminated in a 55 day siege of the foreign embassies in Peking which was finally lifted when 20,000 troops from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US fought their way into Peking.

In a strange twist, the Boxer Rebellion owes much to the marble edifice pictured above – the Marble Boat on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Peking. Originally built in 1755, the structure was renovated in 1893 by order of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead of funding the construction of a modern navy that could have kept Western forces at bay and prevented the further divvying up of China between competing Western nations, the Chinese built a ship useful only for delighting courtesans and guests of the Empress.