Chinese Junks and Portuguese Lorchas – Old and New

Wenchow Fisher from Donnely

The descriptions of mid-19th century Chinese junks, Portuguese lorchas,  and other native vessels that merit first billing in Yankee Mandarin are based primarily on more recent works by Worcester, Donnely, and Needham. Worcester’s 1971 The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze is the authority the others go to. Donnelly’s 1924 Chinese Junks and Other Native Craft discusses the burning of joss money, “paying chin-chin-joss,” and Ningpo traders that appear in the first few pages of the novel. Needham’s 1971 Science & Civilization in China, Vol. 4, Part 3, compliments Worcester with what little information there is about old junks in the Chinese language.

Hangchow Bay Trader from Donnely

The extensive and detailed studies of the design and construction of junks in these sources may be taken as an expression of an abiding Western fascination with the unique character of the Chinese junk. Such interest may have begun with the astonishment of naval officers of the British expeditionary force in 1842, mentioned on p. 402-a of Needham, at Shanghai junks having 141-foot mainmasts 11½ feet in circumference, supporting 111-foot yards, with no shrouds or stays at all for support.

Junks had watertight compartments centuries before the Titanic, and were further distinguished by their flat bottoms, high stern, and forward-raked masts. Their battened “balanced lugsails” of bamboo matting attached to a single yard hung obliquely on each mast and were raised and lowered by a halyard run through a block at the top of the mast. An altar was set aside for offerings to any of several manifestations of the goddess of the sea, and an eye, or “oculus,” was placed on each side under the bow. Worcester says on p. 39, “In fishing junks the eyeball is often set low in the white so as to be on the alert to observe the fish, unlike the trading junk, wherein the eye looks straight ahead so as to perceive and avoid distant perils invisible to mortal sight.”

The Big-eyed Chicken 大眼雞 junk is said to have been the last of the old junks seen in Hong Kong harbor.

Their watertight compartments rendered junks difficult to sink. With a wind on their beam their flat bottoms caused them to make unwanted leeway, they sailed well before the wind but had to be towed, tracked or sculled against the wind, and their sails were difficult to raise but came down like lead shot. Their variety approached infinity because they were built to varying specifications for specific work everywhere along the China coast.

Worcester is also noteworthy for comprehensive descriptions of the reaches of the Yangtze River, from its mouth to well past Chungking. Many fascinating details of the life and beliefs of junkmen and their families, and the Shanghai and Woosung anchorages, the Huangp’u (Whangpoo) River, Soochow Creek, and the lower reaches of the Yangtze west to Wuhoo, found in Yankee Mandarin, come from Worcester.

Imperial Chinese Flag

In 1860, the imperial flag flown from Chinese vessels, and above the stern of the Chinese war steamer Confucius in Yankee Mandarin, was triangular in shape, with a rampant four-clawed dragon in the center (five-clawed dragons were reserved for use by the emperor alone).

Portuguese Lorcha from Donnely

The Portuguese lorcha was essentially a junk with a Western-style hull and Chinese sails. Portuguese first built lorchas in Macao. Junk sails made the lorcha easier to handle, sail and repair, all with a smaller crew. Because the Western-style hull made it faster, a lorcha could outrun pirate junks and so were safer as well, until the pirates started sailing lorchas.

“They were built invariably at the Inner Praya at Macao — usually of teak and camphor wood. They were flat bottomed and of very light draft. The stern and rudder were of Chinese design and the craft well adapted for tacking. The Lorcha unlike other native craft is always built with a straight keel that has no sheer fore and aft. The bowsprit which was undoubtedly made use of by the Portuguese for setting a forestay upon is still found on every vessel of this type but no use whatsoever is made of it; it would appear that the Chinaman using no stay finds this superfluous but nevertheless for ‘olo custom’ has left it as it was. A relic of Western influence!

The Lorcha Macau from Associação Nacional de Cruzeiros

“Another feature of this vessel is its colouring—the Lorcha is invariably painted a dirty red colour with a bright yellow poop and forecastle, while the prominent white deckhouses no doubt are responsible for the name by which she is known to the Chinese ‘Bai ao ch`iao’ (白鰲殼) or ‘White Fish Shell’ [or ‘White Turtle Shell;’ Donnely, Ivon A., Chinese Junks and Other Native Craft, Kelly and Walsh, Shanghai, 1924].” Compare this image of a Portuguese lorcha from Associação Nacional de Cruzeiros to Donnely’s Hangchow Bay Trader pictured above and the coloring, pointed bow and short bowsprit of the lorcha can be clearly seen.

The traditional old junks are a rarity now unless built new for films, but the popularity of the junk style persists, and today there are many more models of modern junk rigs. The article on the Junk Rig at Wikipedia is quite comprehensive, with many detailed illustrations of sail components and assembly, running rigging, points of sail, and sail handling. Junk rig configurations are more numerous now and sound like the several varieties of clipper ship rigs from the 1860s.

Junk Sail Configurations at Wikipedia

  • “The catboat, characterized by its single mast and sail, is easiest to handle and is most likely seen on sailing dinghies and small boats, including the sampan.
  • The ketch, characterized by a two mast configuration with the largest main mast forward and the smaller mizzen mast aft. Both sails in the ketch are driving sails. For larger boats, this breaks down the sailing canvas into two smaller panels that are easier to handle compared to one huge sail.
  • The yawl, characterized by a two mast configuration with the largest mast forward, is distinguished from the ketch by the smaller size of the mizzen mast, typically aft of the rudderpost in traditional sailing craft, but is not a driving sail. The mizzen mast is used to assist steering the boat and balancing the helm.
  • The schooner, characterized by a two or three mast configuration, with the smallest mast forward and the main mast aft. The schooner rig is suitable for larger boats because it breaks down the sail into smaller canvas which is easier to handle. Some hybrid schooner rigs exist, for example the Colvin rig, which combine a fore-and-aft jib sail with junk-rigged main and fore sails. It is sometimes asserted that this improves the rig’s ability to sail to windward.
  • The ship rig, consisting of at least 3 masts, is suitable for the largest sailing craft. Modern junk rigged ships have multiple masts of equal size, where traditional Chinese sailing junks have 3 masts with a dominating main mast in the center.” [Junk Rig, Wikipedia]

Ningpo Trader from Donnely

The first junk met in Yankee Mandarin is Fokie Tom’s pirate junk, a Ningpo Trader. “This junk was a weathered old Ningpo trader prowling in the China Sea, scudding over ocean the color of dried blood. Her grimy deck stretched aft eighty feet, from a low stem to a high, turret-like deckhouse perched above the stern. Bright blue eyes bulged under her bluff prow – one eye grafted to each side so she could find her way when her feckless pilots could not. Each huge oculus, hand-carved from camphor wood, had a stark white iris midst its lustrous blue orb. Her stern was painted blue with red facings – but without the lawful inscription for port of registry. A black-bordered red flag flew atop the tallest of her three ancient masts, and she displayed the rare extravagance of hand-carved teak railings. In the twilight, the junk’s brown and yellow sails, tall and slender rectangles of woven rattan matting and bamboo battens, were silhouetted black against the orange afterglow of the sunset. … The junk’s old eyes, wasted and worm-eaten beneath new paint, had sailed over empires of ocean. In their youth, the eyes had gazed down into the sea for quarry, like an archipelago fisher, but years of drought and famine had passed since this predator wanted fish. Now they peered straight ahead, searching for dragons disguised as mountains beneath the sea, for grasping shoals haunted by drowned ghosts waiting to clutch at passing prey, for shifting eddies that betrayed swift tidal currents and shallow depths. For imperial war junks, too – and British gunboats.”

When the clipper Essex starts upriver to Shanghai, she comes upon a variety of junks from Worcester and Donnely. “Essex passed the junk anchorage at Woosung, the swollen terminus of the straggle of anchorages that accompanied the left bank of the river all the way up from inside the outer bar. Large sea-going trading junks from the north lined up stem to stern with iceboats, pigboats, ungainly Foochow junks loaded with thousands of poles, cotton freighters built at the tongue-of-the-river – Tsung-ming Island – and numerous other brightly painted junks, lighters and sampans packed into the narrow spaces of the anchorage.”

And again at Shanghai… “Junks and sampans thronged off Soochow Creek, many more than at the Woosung anchorage. Shanghai lighters hugged the stone quays together with Ningpo ice-boats stinking of the catch from the fishing grounds, Tsung-ming cotton junks, white-hulled Fukien traders, black-hulled Soochow junks, and disheveled lorchas, all with bulwarks painted in the bright colors of their ports of origin. Brick-boats, wine-boats, firewood-boats, and fishing-boats jammed tightly together left little room for the dense traffic in and out of the creek.”

Elegy for the traditional junk at Hong Kong.

This entry was posted in Writer's Corner, Yankee Mandarin and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chinese Junks and Portuguese Lorchas – Old and New

  1. says:

    An amazing amount of info in this post. As a fore and aft rig, the junk was surely thousands of years ahead of the west in design, thus able to go to windward long before the caravel made the Portuguese masters of navigation. Though shallow waters in Macao made flat bottoms necessary, the big breakthrough of the lorcha was surely the long, deep keel of the western style hull, reducing lee way and enabling the vessel to sail closer to the wind. In his great work Joseph Needham must have commented on the efficiency of the junk rig. Its strengths included the ‘fully battened’ sails which eliminated twist such as suffered by even a modern sloop and the ability to tack without any need to release and refasten sails, enabling it to be sailed short handed (once the sails have been raised). A Western superiority complex conditioned perhaps by the capacity of steam gunboats such as the Nemesis to blast wooden junks out of the water tends to look down on the traditional junk rig. It was in fact thousands of years in advance of the West, as China was in so many ways. It took someone like Needham to print thousands of pages making this point.

  2. jmm210 says:

    Have you ever come across a converted houseboat called The Rob Roy circa 1860 on the Yangtze?

    • Administrator says:

      Nope, can’t say as I have. All I know of houseboats on Chinese waters comes from Bland’s Houseboat Days, which gives something of a feel of the Shanghai and Jiangnan backwaters as a foreigner might view them back in those days..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.