Table of Contents Hide
- The Core Concepts of the Watertight-Bulkhead Technology
- A Beautiful Symphony of Construction Materials and Techniques
- Admiring the Excellence of the Watertight-bulkhead Technology
- Fuchuan: The Ancient Fujian-Built Ships Using the Traditional Chinese Junks’ Watertight-bulkhead Technology
- The Graceful and Smart Structure of Fujian-Built Ships
- Chinese Shipbuilding and the Associated Customs
- The Challenges of the 21st Century: Will the Revolutionary Watertight-bulkhead Technology of Chinese Junks Continue throughout the Next Generations?
- The Dying Craft of Watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks: Final Food for Thought
Miniature ship model of a traditional Chinese river junk of the 19th century – Image Source
There are Four Great Chinese inventions that have marked the history of mankind forever. Deservedly well-known for this reason, the Four Great Chinese inventions include paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.
Interestingly, the Top 20 Ancient Chinese Inventions brings out another plethora of original creations that China gave birth to, namely alcohol, the mechanical clock, tea production, silk, the umbrella, acupuncture, iron smelting, porcelain, earthquake detector, bronze, rocket, the kite, the seed drill, toothbrush, row crop farming, and paper money.
However, the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks can be crowned the fifth Great Chinese invention, even though it is somehow left in the shadows of public awareness.
The invention of the watertight-bulkhead technology is a tremendous contribution to global significance. This one-of-a-kind invention has revolutionized the safety of ocean navigation.
In fact, this technology is still being used up-to-date as a crucial part of the advanced vessels’ safety.
Throughout the course of history, the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks has literally saved the lives of thousands of sailors.
Fortunately, UNESCO recognized and designed the unique Chinese technology of watertight-bulkhead junks on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
But on the other hand, the ancient craft is also listed as being in “Need of Urgent Safeguarding” as the traditional know-how is gradually being faced with oblivion due to various factors shaping modern-day China.
The Core Concepts of the Watertight-Bulkhead Technology
The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks refers to the traditional skills of making wooden vessels. This particular type of vessels is attributed to the coastal areas of Fujian Province in South China. Fujian province is located on the southeast coast of mainland China, right opposite to the island of Taiwan.
A Beautiful Symphony of Construction Materials and Techniques
Traditionally, the Chinese junks were made out of fir, pine and camphor timber. Pine, fir, and camphor timber make a superior choice in the construction of durable vessels that are able to withstand the test of time.
The junks were then assembled through the proper application of key technologies which include seam-caulking and rabbit-joining.
Interestingly, aboard wooden sailing ships, the seam formed at the juncture where the covering board that sapped the ship met the deck planking was given the name “the devil” as it was particularly difficult to caulk because of its length, as highlighted in Windjamming to China written by Gustav Tjgaard and Philip Colsen. Nevertheless, there was a very limited space when it comes to performing the task of caulking the devil seam, and there was so little room standing between the devil and the sea.
The process of caulking was accomplished by pouring hot pitch into the seam, and this process was referred to as “paying.”
Most noteworthy, the cabins were designed watertight and were constructed independently from each other. This allowed for the watertight-bulkhead technology to function as a safety feature in the case of any accidents causing the damage of the cabins. Being independent and watertight, even if one cabin was to be damaged, it could be repaired in a timely manner without letting the vessel sink.
To illustrate this better, the watertight-bulkhead technology makes use of bulkheads in order to separate the ship cabin into several independent compartments.
Therefore, if one or even two cabins get accidentally damaged in the course of sailing, seawater could be efficiently blocked from flooding the other cabins or even worse, the whole vessel.
Thanks to the effect of the watertight-bulkhead technology, the vessel could remain afloat regardless of the possible mishaps along the journey.
But what’s more, the watertight-bulkhead technology had another valuable benefit for the navigators of Chinese junks. Since most of the traditional Chinese junks were used for carrying cargo, cargos could be easily stored in the different independent cabins. By doing so, the cargo was better managed whether it comes to loading or unloading.
Admiring the Excellence of the Watertight-bulkhead Technology
The complex construction of the Chinese wooden vessels was to be directed by a master craftsman. Master craftsmen had to be able to oversee a huge number of craftsmen who work together on close coordination and co-operation, which further enhances the master craftsmanship embedded in traditional Chinese junks using the watertight-bulkhead technology.
According to historians, China has widely adopted the watertight-bulkhead technology in wooden vessel building since the reign of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The reign of the Tang Dynasty is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Imperial China.
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However, it wasn’t before the 18th century, that the revolutionary technology was adopted and utilized by many other countries.
Sadly, nowadays the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks has reached the verge of becoming extinct. The traditional know-how is still practiced in Zhangwan Town, Ningde City of Fujian Province but the preservation and transmutation of the folk craftsmanship are greatly endangered.
Up-to-date, people are still able to build a 3-mast wooden sailing boat that possesses a capacity of 60 shipping tons. With all of this in mind, with this, the indigenous technology is nothing less but precious and rare, and many experts refer to it as a“living fossil”.
Fuchuan: The Ancient Fujian-Built Ships Using the Traditional Chinese Junks’ Watertight-bulkhead Technology
“Fuchuan” literally translates into “Fujian-built ships.” To be more specific, “Fu” is the short name of Fujian Province. Meanwhile, “chuan” means “ship.”
Fuchuan has become a common name for the ancient ships made that were built in the coastal areas of Fujiang Province, as well as the Zhejiang Province. These ships typically had a sharp, V-shaped bottom with further contributed to the aesthetic appeal of the vessels.
Fuchuan has flat decks. Both ends of the Fuchuan rise upwards while the prow is sharp, and the stern is wide. Usually, there are eight and up to thirteen compartments that are separated with the use of the watertight-bulkhead technology.
The Graceful and Smart Structure of Fujian-Built Ships
Fujuan-built ships reliability and safety is intricately related to the smart structure that made use of the watertight-bulkhead technology. So far, we discussed that “watertight-bulkhead” means that bulkheads are used to separate the different compartments within the ship.
But apart from the magnificent advantage of keeping the vessels afloat even if one or two of the compartments are flooded with water, the watertight-bulkhead technology was extremely beneficial for yet another little-known reason.
The compartments are seperated by the bulkheads layer by layer. Furthermore, the thick, solid bulkheads are carefully and closely stapled with the shell plating. As a result, shell plating actually works as ribs for the Fuchuan. Because of the lack of ribs, the vessel’s structure was greatly simplified and stabilized while also improving the overall floodability.
The hull is smooth and the keel is tightly hooped. The upturned ends of the ship contribute to a graceful appearance. When Fuchuan was sailing without wind, the side sculls would elevate and fall. An exceptionally functional and well-coordinated ensemble, the structure of Fuchuan is a symphony of elegance and power.
Video by Titan Top List – Chinese Red Sail Junk Boats
Chinese Shipbuilding and the Associated Customs
Image Courtesy of pixabay.com
For centuries, the native people from Zhangwan Town where the Fuchuan ships were crafted have lived on shipbuilding. Many rituals and special ceremonies have become an intricate part of the building and sailing process in order to ask for divine blessings, fortune, and favorable weather.
Some of the traditional practices include the worship of the mighty deity Mazu (the commencement ceremony) and the dragon-eye installation ceremony. Mazu is the guardian of the Chinese Seas. The Hoi Gong ceremony is attributed to awakening the dragon from its sleep by dotting its eyes with a calligraphy brush.
Mazu (also referred to as Matsu, Mat-su, and Mizu-Gami)– a Princess of Supernatural favor, Empress of Heaven, Goddess of the Sea – Image Source
Just like the know-how of constructing the wooden vessels was passed down to the younger generations, so were the associated customs. Praying for the safety of both the sailors and the ship, the natives believed that prayers were bound to bring good luck and considerable earnings.
Apart from the various praying ceremonies during the course of shipbuilding, specially painted totems were placed on the ships.
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The Challenges of the 21st Century: Will the Revolutionary Watertight-bulkhead Technology of Chinese Junks Continue throughout the Next Generations?
Modern-day China is developing at a very fast pace but that doesn’t seem to refer to preserving the ancient crafts. The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks is on the brink of extinction, and that’s due to three main reasons.
Firstly, there is a horrible shortage of master builders.
Traditionally, the ancient methods of watertight-bulkhead shipbuilding are transmitted only male offsprings within the family.
But as the old masters who are skillful and highly experienced in the ancient technology are rapidly decreasing due to aging, there are even fewer descendants left.
Young people of the 21st century are quite reluctant in devoting the time that is necessary to master the centuries-old technology.
Altogether with rapid urbanization, there is only a handful of people under the age of 30 in Zhangwan Town alone who possess the traditional know-how of applying and possibly transmitting the watertight-bulkhead technology. And since the government does little to keep the young generations interested in the ancient craft, it almost seems as if the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks is losing the uneven battle.
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Secondly, there is a high reduction of ground that can be used for shipbuilding purposes.
Little by little, the construction of village roads keeps “eating up” the ground for shipbuilding. It is impossible to build the massive ships on a reduced territory of land because of the size and laborious process of crafting the large-tonnage wooden vessels.
Nevertheless, the ocean tide doesn’t seem to work in favor when it comes to transmitting the ancient technology. Because of the ocean tide, each month there are several days that the shipbuilding ground is flooded, and hence, it becomes unsuitable to be used for shipbuilding.
Thirdly, the watertight-bulkhead technology is regarded as an outdated business model.
The current business model of China is solely focused on integrating technology and resources, and this makes the survival of the watertight-bulkhead technology in the market economy even more complicated. On the other hand, the production costs are very high while the added value is considered only marginal, making it very difficult for the ancient technology to withstand the pace of the market.
Fortunately, there are many connoisseurs of the captivating beauty and grace of the authentic Chinese junks, like Monte Gisborne – a Montague boat builder whose heart was stolen forever by Chinese junk.
In an interview for CBC News, Gisborne described the process of negotiating with the owners of the Chinese junk before they agreed to sell it.
“They love this boat. This is like selling their own son,” said Gisborne.
“I had to have about a two-hour conversation with them and show my credentials that yes, I am the right type of person.”
The former owners have asked him to use traditional materials and keep the Ho Hum as authentic as possible.
Another story that highlights the efforts for saving the ancient watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks from extinction took place in 2007.
A non-motorized 13-cabin watertight-bulkhead wooden junk named “Taiping Princess” was first commissioned to a master craftsman based in Fujian Province – Chen Fangcai.
The vessel successfully sailed across the Pacific Ocean. This has been an enormous step towards raising the public awareness.
Undoubtedly, one of the most important events for preserving the ancient watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks took place on November 15, 2010.
It was then that the fifth session of UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was held in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks was officially approved to be designated to the 2010 List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Urgent Need of Safeguarding.
Video by UNESCO – The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks
The Dying Craft of Watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks: Final Food for Thought
Did you know that China used to own the greatest seagoing fleet in the entire world in the 1400s?
The Treasure Fleet consisted of up to 3500 ships at its peak (keeping in mind that the US navy nowadays possesses approximately 430 ships in its fleet), and some reached the spectacular 120 meters (as a comparison, Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria was only 19 meters long).
But by 1525, the incredible Treasure Fleet was almost completely destroyed by either burning the ships or letting them rot in the docks.
Considering these facts, it almost seems as no wonder how the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks has been left to decay but is there light at the end of the tunnel? In 2009, there were only three masters “who can claim full command” of the ancient technology, according to UNESCO.
Why, when, how, and who will be responsible for the destiny of the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks is a mystery that only time will resolve.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”ancient Chinese proverb.