Chinese Junk

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chinese junk ship model

Ship models have been made for centuries, representing changes in style and function of ships and boats, all around the world, making them such interesting objects! My current project in ship and historic model conservation illustrates this point well, as it is a model of a Chinese junk. A “junk” is a ship from China, and as you can see they are most unlike the European ships we are used to seeing. This project represents a challenge as the historical context of objects is an important consideration when conserving objects, and I had no knowledge about junks prior to starting the project.

 Firstly some interesting information I found out about junks of this particular type. The style and shape of the junk shows that it is a vessel from Swatow in the south of China. It is unknown when the model was made, as junks remained mostly unchanged throughout the centuries. Whilst they may look crude in comparison to their European counter parts, Chinese junks were perfected for their purpose and therefore did not need modification. Most junks were highly decorated, painted with pictures and symbols. A common decoration can be seen on the model, of eyes either side of the hull, called the oculus. This can differentiate between types of junk, as when the eyeball is set low in the white of the eye it suggests a fishing vessel, and when looking straight ahead a trading vessel, to see distant peril.

At first glance I thought that the crusty substance between the wooden planks was some sort of build-up of dirt, but after research I realised that this represented caulking;  which is where the Chinese mix lime , hemp and wood oil (known as chunam), and use this mixture to fill the gaps between the planks to prevent any water getting in. Wood identification revealed that the hull of the model was made from a type of native pine, and the masts from a hard wood. The wood is coated with t’ung oil, which is a hard yellow wood oil which was used to make the real life junks waterproof.

Another special characteristic of junks is the sails. What makes them unusual is the battens of bamboo which run horizontally along the sail cloth, usually mat. These battens keep the keep the sail flat, and give the sail great strength. The model of junk that I’m working on has very rare sails made from plant material and caning with rattan, unlike any other junks in the collection. Unfortunately these sails are in very poor condition, with holes and breakages that mean they are too fragile to be hung from the masts on the model. Therefore they present quite a challenge to conserve them successfully.

To be continued…