Chinese junks

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model of traditional Chinese ship in museum display case

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

In 1986 I went on a facility trip to Singapore with journalists, MPs and airline officials.

It was five days of amazing variety – gin slings and lobster at the Raffles Hotel, rides on rickshaws, visits to Sentosa Island and the National Museum plus an extraordinary variety of restaurants and other attractions.  

We went up the world’s highest hotel and even got to see the Sultan of Brunei’s house and the legendary Singapore Cricket Club. However, despite exploring the port and lagoons I failed to see a single Chinese junk which was a great disappointment.

This sailing vessel is one of the oldest and best known ship designs in the world, dating back to the Han Dynasty (200 BC – 200 AD), and still in use today.

No traditional view of China or the East is complete without the romantic vision of a junk slowly making its way across a calm bay or lagoon. They perfectly evoke the timeless grandeur of China and its ancient trading culture.

Junk is a European word deriving from the Javanese word jong, meaning large vessel.

Junks are not just beautiful or atmospheric vessels – they have well thought-out sail and hull designs and are sturdy efficient ships for use both on the sea, rivers and estuaries.

Despite the common name, there are many types of junk for different locations and uses. The interior is divided up into many sections to reinforce the structure and reduce the speed of flooding if the hull is damaged.

Junks are flat-bottomed and instead of a keel they have large stern-mounted rudders which extend below the hull and provide stability. The lugsail design incorporates horizontal battens which provide strength and shape.

Four junk models are on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum's Art and the Sea gallery.  

The largest is a fishing junk from Ningpo (literally meaning peaceful waters) in Zhejiang province on the Yong River in East China. Ningpo is one of China’s oldest cities, a thriving fishing port with a history dating back to 4800 BC.  

Ningpo was already nearly 6,000 years old when Liverpool was just a farmstead on the banks of the River Mersey at the time of Norman Conquest.

The junk carries a small rowing junk known as a sampan and two large anchors.  

A three-masted trading junk from South China (pictured) was used for carrying rice. Decorative eyes are painted on the bows as protective deities. The other models are of a Foochow trading junk and a Yangtze River junk.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents or bookshops.