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Setting sail with Fujian's wooden junks

Source:gbtimes.com | 2018-01-11  Click:

From seafarers navigating China’s neighbouring countries, to merchants plying trade routes, Chinese people have been exploring the oceans for over a thousand years.

Centered on the coast of southeastern Fujian Province, the Chinese shipbuilding industry is also responsible for the invention of Fu wooden junks. One of the most important developments in the history of maritime technology, the design of these distinctive and ingenious wooden vessels hugely increased the safety of travelling by sea, saving the lives of countless sailors throughout history.

Looking at one of these distinctive wooden junks, some common features jump out: a pointed keel or base, a wide back section and a narrow, squared-off beak at the front. But what makes Fu wooden junks so unique is their ‘watertight bulkhead technology’. According to this method, the inside of the boat should be split up into many small watertight sections. Dividing the space inside the boat in this way means that even if several sections of the ship become damaged or start to let in water, the other undamaged sections form pockets of air, helping the boat to remain stable and afloat. The same principles are still used now in modern shipbuilding.

The history of Fu boats started in the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE), up to six hundred years after the first Chinese fleets carrying silk, porcelain, tea and spices started travelling the Pacific and Indian Ocean ‘Maritime Silk Road’ for trade purposes. Judging by the remnants of ships salvaged from the water in the port city of Quanzhou in the 1970s, historians think that watertight bulkhead boats became widely used during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE).

Later on, fleets of watertight bulkheads were used on diplomatic and exploratory missions by the famous mariner Zheng He, who travelled around Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa in the early part of the fifteenth century.

Ancient technology, new adventures

Nowadays, Fujian is the only part of China where wooden junk vessels are still produced. In the town of Shenhu, expert craftspeople are still passing on the technology to the next generation as they build boats using traditional techniques. Building these boats requires a set of specialist manual skills including rabbeting (joining planks together to form small sections) and caulking (stuffing the cracks between the planks with rope fibres, lime and tung oil to ensure a watertight seal).

Craftspeople build the boats from camphor and pine timber, using hand tools including the luban chi (a traditional Chinese measuring ruler), as well as a carpenter’s ink marker, axe, chisel, hand drill, mace and saw. A ‘grand master’ boat builder leads the whole process, directing a team of craftspeople.

Chen Fangcai is one of these grand masters. In 2005, he began work on a very special task: reconstructing an ancient sailing vessel from the Ming dynasty called the Princess Taiping, before embarking on a journey of over 10,000 km from Fujian to the west coast of the US. During the crossing, the boat was twice in danger of sinking but was saved by the watertight compartments, which kept it afloat throughout the 10-month crossing until it landed safely in San Francisco.

A sinking ship?

Despite the global legacy of Fujian shipbuilding, nowadays this historically significant and unique craft is in danger of extinction. In 2009 there were only three grand masters left in Fujian Province. With steel ships having replaced wooden ones, most boat builders found themselves forced to seek other employment. In an effort to stop the technology from dying out, UNESCO listed watertight bulkhead junks as an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2010. By increasing public awareness, supporting a new generation of apprentices to learn the craft and making written records of skills normally transmitted by word of mouth, they hope to throw a lifeline that keeps this ancient technology above water.

(By Catherine Jessup )