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Junks in Guangzhou, China by Lai Afong
Junks in Guangzhou, China by Lai Afong
A modern junk in La Rochelle in 2009
A modern junk in La Rochelle in 2009
The Bedar Naga Pelangi, after her circumnavigation sailing off Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia in 1998
The Bedar Naga Pelangi, after her circumnavigation sailing off Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia in 1998

A junk is a type of Chinese sailing ship with fully battened sails. There are two types of junk in China: the northern junk, which developed from Chinese river boats,[1]: 20  and southern junk, which developed from Austronesian ship designs used in trade with the Eastern Han dynasty since the 2nd century AD.[2]: 12–13  They continued to evolve in later dynasties, and were predominantly used by Chinese traders throughout Southeast Asia. Similar junk sails were also adopted by other East Asian countries, most notably Japan where junks were used as merchant ships to trade goods with China and Southeast Asia. They were found, and in lesser numbers are still found, throughout Southeast Asia and India, but primarily in China.[3] Historically, a Chinese junk could be one of many types of small coastal or river ships, usually serving as a cargo ship, pleasure boat, or houseboat, but also ranging in size up to large ocean-going vessel. Found more broadly today is a growing number of modern recreational junk-rigged sailboats. There can be significant regional variations in the type of rig or the layout of the vessel; however, they all employ fully battened sails.

The term "junk" (Portuguese junco; Dutch jonk; and Spanish junco)[4] was also used in the colonial period to refer to any medium- to large-sized ships of the Austronesian cultures in Island Southeast Asia, with or without the junk rig.[5] Examples include the Indonesian and Malay jong, the Philippine karakoa and lanong, and the Maluku kora kora.[6]


Views diverge on whether the origin of the word is from a dialect of Chinese or from a Javanese word. The term may stem from the Chinese chuán (, "boat; ship") — The modern Mandarin Chinese word for an ocean-going wooden cargo vessel is cáo ().[7]

Pierre-Yves Manguin and Zoetmulder, among others, point to an Old Javanese origin, in the form of jong.[8]: 748  The word is recorded in an Old Javanese inscription of the 9th century AD. It entered the Malay and Chinese languages by the 15th century, evidenced by a Chinese word list that identifies it as a Malay word for ship.[9]: 60  The late 15th century Undang-Undang Laut Melaka, a maritime code composed by Javanese shipowners in Melaka,[10]: 39  uses jong frequently as the word for freight ships.[9]: 60  European writings from 1345 through 1601 use a variety of related terms, including jonque (French), ioncque, ionct, giunchi, zonchi (Italian), iuncque, joanga, juanga (Spanish), junco (Portuguese), and ionco, djonk, jonk (Dutch).[11][12]: 299 [9]: 60  These terms commonly used to describe all kinds of large ships encountered in the Southeast Asia, as well as Chinese ships.[1]: 19 

The origin of the word "junk" in the English language can be traced to the Portuguese word junco, which is rendered from the Arabic word j-n-k (جنك). This word comes from the fact that the Arabic script cannot represent the sound spelled with the digraph "ng".[13]: 37  The word was used to denote both the Javanese/Malay ship (jong or djong) and the Chinese ship (chuán), even though the two were markedly different vessels. After the disappearance of jongs in the 17th century, the meaning of "junk" (and other similar words in European languages), which until then was used as a transcription of the word "jong" in Malay and Javanese, changed its meaning to exclusively refer to the Chinese ship (chuán).[14]: 204 [15]: 222 


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The historian Herbert Warington Smyth considered the junk as one of the most efficient ship designs, stating that "As an engine for carrying man and his commerce upon the high and stormy seas as well as on the vast inland waterways, it is doubtful if any class of vessel… is more suited or better adapted to its purpose than the Chinese or Indian junk, and it is certain that for flatness of sail and handiness, the Chinese rig is unsurpassed".[16]


Main article: Junk rig

Iconographic remains show that Chinese ships before the 12th century used square sails. A ship carving from a stone Buddhist stele shows a ship with square sail from the Liu Sung dynasty or the Liang dynasty (ca. 5th or 6th century). Dunhuang cave temple no. 45 (from the 8th or 9th century) features large sailboats and sampans with inflated square sails. A wide ship with a single sail is depicted in the Xi'an mirror (after the 9th or 12th century).[17][18] Later, the Chinese adopted the Austronesian junk sail, which used vegetable matting attached to bamboo battens, a practice originated from Indonesia.[1]: 20–21 [19]: 191–192 [2]: 12–13  The full-length battens keep the sail flatter than ideal in all wind conditions. Consequently, their ability to sail close to the wind is poorer than other fore-and-aft rigs.[20][21]

The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1654–1722) on a tour, seated prominently on the deck of a junk ship
The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1654–1722) on a tour, seated prominently on the deck of a junk ship


Classic junks were built of softwoods (although after the 17th century teak was used in Guangdong) with the outside shape built first. Then multiple internal compartment/bulkheads accessed by separate hatches and ladders, reminiscent of the interior structure of bamboo, were built in. Traditionally, the hull has a horseshoe-shaped stern supporting a high poop deck. The bottom is flat in a river junk with no keel (similar to a sampan), so that the boat relies on a daggerboard,[22] leeboard or very large rudder to prevent the boat from slipping sideways in the water.[23]

Another characteristic of junks, interior compartments or bulkheads, strengthened the ship and slowed flooding in case of holing. Ships built in this manner were written of in Zhu Yu's book Pingzhou Table Talks, published by 1119 during the Song dynasty.[18] Again, this type of construction for Chinese ship hulls was attested to by the Moroccan Muslim Berber traveler Ibn Battuta (1304–1377 AD), who described it in great detail (refer to Technology of the Song dynasty).[24]

Junk near Hong Kong, circa 1880
Junk near Hong Kong, circa 1880

Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1787 letter on the project of mail packets between the United States and France:

As these vessels are not to be laden with goods, their holds may without inconvenience be divided into separate apartments, after the Chinese manner, and each of these apartments caulked tight so as to keep out water.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1787[25]

Due to the numerous foreign primary sources that hint to the existence of true watertight compartments in junks, historians such as Joseph Needham proposed that the limber holes were stopped up as noted above in case of leakage. He addresses the quite separate issue of free-flooding compartments on page 422 of Science and Civilisation in Ancient China:

Less well known is the interesting fact that in some types of Chinese craft the foremost (and less frequently also the aftermost) compartment is made free-flooding. Holes are purposely contrived in the planking. This is the case with the salt-boats which shoot the rapids down from Tzuliuching in Szechuan, the gondola-shaped boats of the Poyang Lake, and many sea going junks. The Szechuanese boatmen say that this reduces resistance to the water to a minimum, though such a claim makes absolutely no hydrodynamic sense, and the device is thought to cushion the shocks of pounding when the boat pitches heavily in the rapids, as it acquires and discharges water ballast rapidly supposedly just at the time when it is most desirable to counteract buffeting at stem and stern. As with too many such claims, there has been no empirical testing of them and it seems unlikely that the claims would stand up to such testing since the diameter or number of holes needed for such rapid flooding and discharging would be so great as to significantly weaken the vulnerable fore and aft parts of the vessel. The sailors say, as sailors all over the world are inclined to do when conjuring up answers to landlubbers' questions, that it stops junks flying up into the wind. It may be the reality at the bottom of the following story, related by Liu Ching-Shu of the +5th century, in his book I Yuan (Garden of Strange Things)

In Fu-Nan (Cambodia) gold is always used in transactions. Once there were (some people who) having hired a boat to go from east to west near and far, had not reached their destination when the time came for the payment of the pound (of gold) which had been agreed upon. They therefore wished to reduce the quantity (to be paid). The master of the ship then played a trick upon them. He made (as it were) a way for the water to enter the bottom of the boat, which seemed to be about to sink, and remained stationary, moving neither forward nor backward. All the passengers were very frightened and came to make offerings. The boat (afterwards) returned to its original state.

This, however, would seem to have involved openings which could be controlled, and the water pumped out afterwards. This was easily effected in China (still seen in Kuangtung and Hong Kong), but the practice was also known in England, where the compartment was called the 'wet-well', and the boat in which it was built, a 'well-smack'. If the tradition is right that such boats date in Europe from +1712 then it may well be that the Chinese bulkhead principle was introduced twice, first for small coastal fishing boats at the end of the seventeenth century, and then for large ships a century later. However, the wet well is probably a case of parallel invention since its manner of construction is quite different from that of Chinese junks, the wet well quite often not running the full width of the boat, but only occupying the central part of the hull either side of the keel.[citation needed]

Similar wet wells were also apparent in Roman small craft of the 5th century CE.[26]

Leeboards and centerboards

Other innovations included the square-pallet bilge pump, which was adopted by the West during the 16th century for work ashore, the western chain pump, which was adopted for shipboard use, being of a different derivation. Junks also relied on the compass for navigational purposes. However, as with almost all vessels of any culture before the late 19th century, the accuracy of magnetic compasses aboard ship, whether from a failure to understand deviation (the magnetism of the ship's iron fastenings) or poor design of the compass card (the standard drypoint compasses were extremely unstable), meant that they did little to contribute to the accuracy of navigation by dead reckoning. Indeed, a review of the evidence shows that the Chinese embarked magnetic pointer was probably little used for navigation. The reasoning is simple. Chinese mariners were as able as any and, had they needed a compass to navigate, they would have been aware of the almost random directional qualities when used at sea of the water bowl compass they used. Yet that design remained unchanged for some half a millennium. Western sailors, coming upon a similar water bowl design (no evidence as to how has yet emerged) very rapidly adapted it in a series of significant changes such that within roughly a century the water bowl had given way to the dry pivot, a rotating compass card a century later, a lubberline a generation later and gimbals seventy or eighty years after that. These were necessary because in the more adverse climatic context of north western Europe, the compass was needed for navigation. Had similar needs been felt in China, Chinese mariners would also have come up with fixes. They didn't.[27]


Junks employed stern-mounted rudders centuries before their adoption in the West for the simple reason that Western hull forms, with their pointed sterns, obviated a centreline steering system until technical developments in Scandinavia created the first, iron mounted, pintle and gudgeon 'barn door' western examples in the early 12th century CE. A second reason for this slow development was that the side rudders in use were still extremely efficient.[28] Thus the junk rudder's origin, form and construction was completely different in that it was the development of a centrally mounted stern steering oar, examples of which can also be seen in Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–1800 BCE) Egyptian river vessels. It was an innovation which permitted the steering of large ships and due to its design allowed height adjustment according to the depth of the water and to avoid serious damage should the junk ground. A sizable junk can have a rudder that needed up to twenty members of the crew to control in strong weather. In addition to using the sail plan to balance the junk and take the strain off the hard to operate and mechanically weakly attached rudder, some junks were also equipped with leeboards or dagger boards. The world's oldest known depiction of a stern-mounted rudder can be seen on a pottery model of a junk dating from before the 1st century AD.[29]


Spring and Autumn period (8th to 5th century BC)

Mariners were sailing between islands to cross the Shandong-Liaodong strait and along the Korean coastline by the 8th century BC. In 710 BC, due to a famine in Korea, ships sailed to the state of Lu and Qi in Shandong to purchase grain. In 656 BC, Qi planned a naval invasion of Chu. River traversal by ship was recorded during the Chu-Wu wars in 603 BC and 549 BC. A river battle between the two fleets of Chu and Wu occurred in 525 BC and lost their flagship Yuhuang.[30] According to a poem by Ma Rong 600 years later, the Yuhuang was equipped with sails: "From the Yuhuang to the small boats, all unfurled sails like clouds and displayed awnings like rainbow."[31] Prior to the 12th century, Chinese sails were commonly made of bamboo mats since cotton did not become common in China until the Song-Yuan dynasties.[31] There were reports of Chu building fleets in 528 BC and 518 BC but Chu was defeated by Wu's fleet in 489 BC, and their admiral and seven officers were captured.[30] In 485 BC, Wu's fleet sailed up the coast to attack Qi and was defeated in the first known naval battle in Chinese history. In 478 BC, Yue's fleet destroyed Wu's navy.[32]

Warring States and Qin period (5th to 3rd century BC)

Because of fables that there were islands to the east that possessed the elixir of immortality, King Wei of Qi (r. 356–320 BC), King Xuan of Qi (r. 319–301 BC), and King Zhao of Yan (r. 311–279 BC) sent naval expeditions to search for them. They failed. In the Qin dynasty, a magician named Xu Shi from the former state of Qi requested help to organize an expedition to seek the immortal islands of Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou. Three thousand young men and women and "artisans of a hundred trades"[33] set sail from Langya in 219 BC. No news returned of Xu Shi, so Qin Shi Huang sent another expedition with four magicians in 215 BC. Only one magician named Scholar Lu came back and he deserted in 212 BC. In 210 BC, the emperor met Xu Shi, who had failed to bring back the elixir of immortality. He said that the expedition had been frustrated by dragons and sea monsters. They set out with a squadron of crossbowmen and cruised around the Shandong peninsula, where they killed a large fish at Zhifu.[34]

2nd–6th century (Han dynasty to Northern and southern dynasties era)

Illustration of a jong, large Javanese trading vessel, extant until 17th century CE. Shown with the characteristic tanja sail of Southeast Asian Austronesians. Vessels like these became the basis of Southern Chinese junks.
Illustration of a jong, large Javanese trading vessel, extant until 17th century CE. Shown with the characteristic tanja sail of Southeast Asian Austronesians. Vessels like these became the basis of Southern Chinese junks.

The Chinese engaged in cross-ocean expeditions by the 2nd century BC.[35] In 108 BC, Yang Pu led a sea-force to Korea.[36] The Book of Han mentions sea-going voyages taking 12 months to reach the furthest country.[37] In 230, Sun Quan sent commanders Wei Wen and Zhuge Zhi with a fleet of 10,000 men to seek the islands of Yizhou and Danzhou. The fleet was away for a year and many of the crew died of disease. It did not reach Danzhou but reached Yizhou and returned with several thousand captives. The contemporary writer Shen Ying stated that Yizhou was 2,000 li southeast of Linhai and appears to have been Taiwan. Danzhou was probably the Ryukyu Islands.[38] In 233 AD, a fleet from Eastern Wu was lost in a storm in the Yellow Sea.[39]

Manguin, Pelliot, Ferrand, Miksic, and Flecker, amongst other, believe that the ships used by Chinese travelers were mostly foreign in origin, and Chinese ships were rarely used on the Southeast Asian voyages until the 9th century AD.[40]: 20–21  Chinese ships did exist — but they're essentially fluvial (riverine) in nature and operation.[1]: 20  Large Austronesian trading ships docking in Chinese seaports with as many as four sails were recorded by scholars as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). They called them the kunlun bo or kunlun po (崑崙舶, lit. "ship of the [dark-skinned] Kunlun people"[citation needed]). They were booked by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims for passage to Southern India and Sri Lanka.[41][42]: 34–36  The Han adopted the Austronesian junk sail.[2]: 12–13 

The 3rd century book "Strange Things of the South" (南州異物志) by Wan Chen (萬震) describes one of these Austronesian ships as being capable of 600–700 people together with more than 10,000 hu (斛) of cargo (250–1000 tons according to various interpretations—600 tons deadweight according to Manguin).[43]: 262  The ships could be more than 50 meters in length and had a freeboard of 5.2–7.8 meters. When seen from above they resemble covered galleries.[44]: 347  He explains the ships' sail design as follows:

The people beyond the barriers, according the size of their ships, sometimes rig (as many as) four sails which they carry in row from bow to stern. (...) The four sails do not face directly forward, but are set obliquely, and so arranged that they can all be fixed in the same direction, to receive the wind and to spill it. Those sails which are behind the most windward one receiving the pressure of the wind, throw it from one to the other, so that they all profit from its force. If it is violent, (the sailors) diminish or augment the surface of the sails according to the conditions. This oblique rig, which permits the sails to receive from one another the breath of the wind, obviates the anxiety attendant upon having high masts. Thus these ships sail without avoiding strong winds and dashing waves, by the aid of which they can make great speed.

— Wan Chen, [45][43]: 262 

A 260 CE book by K'ang T'ai (康泰) described ships with seven sails called po or ta po (great ship or great junk) that could travel as far as Syria (大秦—Ta-chin, Roman Syria). These ships were used by the Indo-Scythian (月支—Yuezhi) traders for transporting horses. He also made reference to monsoon trade between the islands (or archipelago), which took a month and a few days in a large po.[44]: 347 [46]

Detail of a ship on Along the River During Qingming Festival, by Zhang Zeduan (1085–145)
Detail of a ship on Along the River During Qingming Festival, by Zhang Zeduan (1085–145)

Southern Chinese junks were based on keeled and multi-planked Austronesian ships (known as po by the Chinese, from Javanese prau or Malay perahu — large ship).[47]: 613 [48]: 193 [49]: 21  Southern Chinese junks showed characteristics of Austronesian ships that they are made using timbers of tropical origin, with keeled, V-shaped hull. This is different from northern Chinese junks, which are developed from flat-bottomed riverine boats.[1]: 20–21 The northern Chinese junks were primarily built of pine or fir wood, had flat bottoms with no keel, water-tight bulkheads with no frames, transom (squared) stern and stem, and have their planks fastened with iron nails or clamps.[47]: 613–614 

Sui dynasty to the rise of Song dynasty (7th century–10th century)

In 683 AD, Tang court sent an envoy to Srivijaya, which seems to have been done in foreign ship.[40]: 22  Wang Gungwu stated that there are no records from Tang Dynasty era that mentioned Chinese junks being used for trading with Southern countries (Nanhai).[50]: 107  Wang also noted that the ships used by Chinese pilgrim and travelers were K'un-lun ships or Indian ships.[50]: 73, 103 

Chinese and Korean ships sailed to Kyushu for private trade with Japan in the 9th century.[40]: 21 

10–13th century (Song dynasty)

Main article: Quanzhou ship

In 989 AD the Song court permitted private Chinese ships to trade overseas.[40]: 21  The ships of the Song, both mercantile and military, became the backbone of the navy of the following Yuan dynasty. In particular the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274–1281), as well as the Mongol invasion of Java (1293), essentially relied on recently acquired Song naval capabilities. Worcester estimates that Yuan junks were 36 feet (10.97 m) in width and over 100 feet (30.48 m) long. In general, they had no keel, stempost, or sternpost. They did have centreboards, and a watertight bulkhead to strengthen the hull, which added great weight. This type of vessel may have been common in the 13th century.[51]: 22 [52]: 102  By using the ratio between the number of soldiers and ships, Nugroho concluded that each ship may carry a maximum capacity of 30 or 31 men,[53]: 128  while using data presented by John Man would result in a capacity of 29–44 men per ship.[54]: 306  David Bade estimated a capacity of 20 to 50 men per ship during the Java campaign.[55]: 46 

14th century (Yuan dynasty)

Yuan dynasty ships carry on the tradition of Song, the Yuan navy is essentially Song navy.[56] Both Song and Yuan employed large trading junks. The large ships (up to 5,000 liao or 1520–1860 tons burden) would carry 500–600 men, and the second class (1,000–2,000 liao) would carry 200–300 men.[57] Unlike Ming treasure ships, Song and Yuan great junks are propelled by oars, and have with them smaller junks, probably for maneuvering aids.[58] The largest junks (5,000 liao) may have a hull length twice that of Quanzhou ship (1,000 liao),[59] that is 68 m.[57]

The enormous dimensions of the Chinese ships of the Medieval period are described in Chinese sources, and are confirmed by Western travelers to the East, such as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolò da Conti. According to Ibn Battuta, who visited China in 1347:

…We stopped in the port of Calicut, in which there were at the time thirteen Chinese vessels, and disembarked. On the China Sea traveling is done in Chinese ships only, so we shall describe their arrangements. The Chinese vessels are of three kinds; large ships called chunks (junks), middle sized ones called zaws (dhows) and the small ones kakams. The large ships have anything from twelve down to three sails, which are made of bamboo rods plaited into mats. They are never lowered, but turned according to the direction of the wind; at anchor they are left floating in the wind. A ship carries a complement of a thousand men, six hundred of whom are sailors and four hundred men-at-arms, including archers, men with shields and crossbows, who throw naphtha. Three smaller ones, the "half", the "third" and the "quarter", accompany each large vessel. These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun (a.k.a. Zaitun; today's Quanzhou; 刺桐) and Sin-Kalan. The vessel has four decks and contains rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants. This is the manner after which they are made; two (parallel) walls of very thick wooden (planking) are raised and across the space between them are placed very thick planks (the bulkheads) secured longitudinally and transversely by means of large nails, each three ells in length. When these walls have thus been built the lower deck is fitted in and the ship is launched before the upper works are finished.[60] - Ibn Battuta

15–17th century (Ming dynasty)

Expedition of Zheng He

Main article: Chinese treasure ship

A large four masted junk from Longjiang shipyard, the same shipyard that built the Chinese treasure ships.
A large four masted junk from Longjiang shipyard, the same shipyard that built the Chinese treasure ships.

The largest junks ever built were possibly those of Admiral Zheng He, for his expeditions in the Indian Ocean (1405 to 1433), although this is disputed as no contemporary records of the sizes of Zheng He's ships are known. Instead the dimensions are based on Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji Tongsu Yanyi (1597), a romanticized version of the voyages written by Luo Maodeng [zh] nearly two centuries later.[61] Maodeng's novel describes Zheng He's ships as follows:

Louise Levathes suggests that the actual length of the biggest treasure ships may have been between 390–408 feet (119–124 m) long and 160–166 feet (49–51 m) wide.[62] Modern scholars have argued on engineering grounds that it is highly unlikely that Zheng He's ship was 450 ft in length,[63] Guan Jincheng (1947) proposed a much more modest size of 20 zhang long by 2.4 zhang wide (204 ft by 25.5 ft or 62.2 m by 7.8 m)[64] while Xin Yuan'ou (2002) put them as 61–76 m (200–250 feet) in length.[65]

Comparing to other Ming records, the Chinese seem to have exaggerated their dimensions. European East Indiamen and galleons were said to be 30, 40, 50, and 60 zhang (90, 120, 150, and 180 m).[66][67] It was not until the mid to late 19th century that the length of the largest western wooden ship began to exceed 100 meters, even this was done using modern industrial tools and iron parts.[68][69][70]

Sea ban

Main article: Haijin

From the mid-15th to early 16th century, all Chinese maritime trading was banned under the Ming Dynasty. The shipping and shipbuilding knowledge acquired during the Song and Yuan dynasties gradually declined during this period.[71]

Capture of Taiwan

In 1661, a naval fleet of 400 junks and 25,000 men led by the Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (Cheng Ch'eng-kung in Wade–Giles, known in the West as Koxinga), arrived in Taiwan to oust the Dutch from Zeelandia. Following a nine-month siege, Cheng captured the Dutch fortress Fort Zeelandia. A peace treaty between Koxinga and the Dutch Government was signed at Castle Zeelandia on February 1, 1662, and Taiwan became Koxinga's base for the Kingdom of Tungning.

Javanese junk

Main article: Djong (ship)

Javanese junks differed from Chinese junks in several respects. The Javanese junk was made of very thick wood, and as the ship got old, it was fixed with new planks, this way they have 3–4 planks, stacked together. The rope and the sail were made with woven rattan.[72]: 191–192 [73] The jong was made using jati wood (teak) at the time of this report (1515), at that time Chinese junks are using softwood as the main material.[74]: 145  The jong's hull is formed by joining planks and keel by wooden dowels, without using iron bolts or nails and a frame (except for subsequent reinforcement). The planks are perforated by an auger and inserted with dowels, which remain inside the fastened planks, not seen from the outside.[75]: 267–268  On some of the smaller vessels parts may be lashed together with vegetable fibers.[2]: 13  The hull was pointed at both ends, they carried two rudders and used lateen-rigged sails (actually tanja sail),[note 1] but it may also use junk sail,[76]: 37  a sail of Indonesian origin.[19]: 191–192  It differed markedly from the Chinese vessel, which had its hull fastened by iron nails and strakes to a frame and to bulkheads. The Chinese vessel had a single rudder on a transom stern, and (except in Fujian and Guangdong) they had flat bottoms without keels.[9]: 58 

Cropped portion of Indian Ocean in the Miller Atlas, showing 2 jongs, one is a 6-masted ship viewed from aft, the other is a 7-masted ship. The sails featuring crescent moons suggests that these jong hailed from one of the Islamic sultanates of Indonesia.
Cropped portion of Indian Ocean in the Miller Atlas, showing 2 jongs, one is a 6-masted ship viewed from aft, the other is a 7-masted ship. The sails featuring crescent moons suggests that these jong hailed from one of the Islamic sultanates of Indonesia.

Encounters with giant jongs were recorded by Western travelers. Florentine merchant Giovanni da Empoli (1483–1517), one of the first Italian agents to join a Portuguese armada to India in 1503–1504,[77] said that the junks of Java were no different in their strength than a castle, because the three and four boards, layered one above the other, could not be harmed with artillery. They sailed with their women, children, and families, with everyone mainly keeping to their respective rooms.[78]: 58  Portuguese recorded at least two encounters with large jongs, one was encountered off the coast of Pacem (Samudera Pasai Sultanate) and the other was owned by Pati Unus, who went on to attack Malacca in 1513.[79]: 62–64 [80] Characteristics of the 2 ships were similar, both were larger than Portuguese ship, built with multiple plankings, resistant to cannon fire, and had two oar-like rudders on the side of the ship. At least Pati Unus' jong was equipped with three layers of sheathing which the Portuguese said over one cruzado[note 2] in thickness each.[74]: 151–152  The Chinese banned foreign ships from entering Guangzhou, fearing the Javanese or Malay junks would attack and capture the city, because it is said that one of these junk would rout twenty Chinese junks.[74]: 122–123 

The main production location of jong was mainly constructed in two major shipbuilding centers around Java: north coastal Java, especially around Rembang-Demak (along the Muria strait) and Cirebon; and the south coast of Borneo (Banjarmasin) and adjacent islands. These places have teak forests, whose wood is resistant to shipworm, whereas Borneo itself would supply ironwood.[81]: 132 [82]: 377  Pegu, which is a large shipbuilding port in the 16th century, also produced jong, built by Javanese who resided there.[83]: 250 

Accounts of medieval travellers

Ships of the world in 1460, according to the Fra Mauro map. Chinese junks are described as very large, three or four-masted ships.
Ships of the world in 1460, according to the Fra Mauro map. Chinese junks are described as very large, three or four-masted ships.

Niccolò da Conti in relating his travels in Asia between 1419 and 1444, describes huge junks of about 2,000 tons in weight:

They build some ships much larger than ours, capable of containing 2,000 tons in size, with five sails and as many masts. The lower part is constructed with of three planks, in order to withstand the force of the tempest to which they are much exposed. But some ships are built in compartments, that should one part is shattered, the other portion remaining intact to accomplish the voyage.[84]

Also, in 1456, the Fra Mauro map described the presence of junks in the Indian Ocean as well as their construction:

The ships called junks (lit. "Zonchi") that navigate these seas carry four masts or more, some of which can be raised or lowered, and have 40 to 60 cabins for the merchants and only one tiller. They can navigate without a compass, because they have an astrologer, who stands on the side and, with an astrolabe in hand, gives orders to the navigator.

— Text from the Fra Mauro map, 09-P25, [88]

Fra Mauro further explains that one of these junks rounded the Cape of Good Hope and travelled far into the Atlantic Ocean, in 1420:

About the year of Our Lord 1420 a ship, what is called an Indian Zoncho, on a crossing of the Sea of India towards the "Isle of Men and Women", was diverted beyond the "Cape of Diab" (Shown as the Cape of Good Hope on the map), through the "Green Isles" (lit. "isole uerde", Cabo Verde Islands), out into the "Sea of Darkness" (Atlantic Ocean) on a way west and southwest. Nothing but air and water was seen for 40 days and by their reckoning they ran 2,000 miles and fortune deserted them. When the stress of the weather had subsided they made the return to the said "Cape of Diab" in 70 days and drawing near to the shore to supply their wants the sailors saw the egg of a bird called roc, which egg is as big as an amphora.

— Text from Fra Mauro map, 10-A13, [89]

19th century (Qing dynasty)

Large, ocean-going junks played a key role in Asian trade until the 19th century. One of these junks, Keying, sailed from China around the Cape of Good Hope to the United States and England between 1846 and 1848. Many junks were fitted out with carronades and other weapons for naval or piratical uses. These vessels were typically called "war junks" or "armed junks" by Western navies which began entering the region more frequently in the 18th century. The British, Americans and French fought several naval battles with war junks in the 19th century, during the First Opium War, Second Opium War and in between.

At sea, junk sailors co-operated with their Western counterparts. For example, in 1870 survivors of the English barque Humberstone shipwrecked off Formosa, were rescued by a junk and landed safely in Macao.[90]

20th century

A junk Sin Tong Heng and a lorcha Tek Hwa Seng in the Dutch East Indies (1936)
A junk Sin Tong Heng and a lorcha Tek Hwa Seng in the Dutch East Indies (1936)

In 1938, E. Allen Petersen escaped the advancing Japanese armies by sailing a 36-foot (11 m) junk, Hummel Hummel, from Shanghai to California with his wife Tani and two White Russians (Tsar loyalists).[91]

In 1955, six young men sailed a Ming dynasty-style junk from Taiwan to San Francisco. The four-month journey aboard the Free China was captured on film and their arrival into San Francisco made international front-page news. The five Chinese-born friends saw an advertisement for an international trans-Atlantic yacht race, and jumped at the opportunity for adventure. They were joined by the then US Vice-Consul to China, who was tasked with capturing the journey on film. Enduring typhoons and mishaps, the crew, having never sailed a century-old junk before, learned along the way. The crew included Reno Chen, Paul Chow, Loo-chi Hu, Benny Hsu, Calvin Mehlert and were led by skipper Marco Chung. After a journey of 6,000 miles (9,700 km), the Free China and her crew arrived in San Francisco Bay in fog on August 8, 1955. Shortly afterward the footage was featured on ABC television's Bold Journey travelogue. Hosted by John Stephenson and narrated by ship's navigator Paul Chow, the program highlighted the adventures and challenges of the junk's sailing across the Pacific, as well as some humorous moments aboard ship.[92]

In 1959 a group of Catalan men, led by Jose Maria Tey, sailed from Hong Kong to Barcelona on a junk named Rubia. After their successful journey this junk was anchored as a tourist attraction at one end of Barcelona harbor, close to where La Rambla meets the sea. Permanently moored along with it was a reproduction of Columbus' caravel Santa Maria during the 1960s and part of the 1970s.[93]

In 1981, Christoph Swoboda had a 65 feet (LoA) Bedar built by the boatyard of Che Ali bin Ngah on Duyong island in the estuary of the Terengganu river on the East coast of Malaysia. The Bedar is one of the two types of Malay junk schooners traditionally built there. He sailed this junk with his family and one friend to the Mediterranean and then continued with changing crew to finally finish a circumnavigation in 1998. He sold this vessel in 2000 and in 2004 he started to build a new junk in Duyong with the same craftsmen: the Pinas (or Pinis) Naga Pelangi, in order to help keep this ancient boat building tradition alive. This boat finished to be fitted out in 2010 and is working as a charter boat in the Andaman and the South China Sea.[94]


  1. ^ Tanja sails, in the early European reports, are called lateen sail. Also, this type of sail may looked like triangular sail when sighted from afar.
  2. ^ A kind of Portuguese coin with a diameter of 3.8 cm.
  3. ^ See definition of butt  Until the 17th century, ton referred to both the unit of weight and the unit of volume - see A tun is 252 gallons, which weighs 2092 lbs, which is around a ton.

See also


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Works cited