Boats in Ancient China

Lots of boats in different shapes and sizes were needed in Ancient China. In Ancient China, there were some very large and important rivers, like the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

People in Ancient China also built many man-made waterways (canals) for trade and transport. Some boats were used for rowing and sport and some were lived on, too.

Well-made boats of different varieties were therefore a necessary part of life. Some of these boats were very large and impressive. Chinese craftsmanship impressed travellers from all over the world who marvelled at their ships.

Junk boats

One type of boat was called a junk. These boats were not full of junk or rubbish! This was another name for a sailing boat. Junks were normally used for transporting lots of food to different places across China. They were made from bamboo.

Junk Boats

Because of their size, these ships were normally avoided for use in wars. They were extremely large and were up to three storeys high! They had three masts and sails. However, their size could vary and so could their use. They could be used to transport goods or for long trips across the ocean. One thing all junks have in common is that they all have three sails.

Junks have been used since the second century AD and can still be seen in use today. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), they were used for long ocean voyages.

Sampan boats

A sampan is a Chinese boat made from wood. These boats are used as fishing boats. They were used for small trips out on a river, or possibly short sea voyages. They were normally not strong enough to withstand a storm. They sometimes had a shelter on them. They could be used as a houseboat on calm waters inland.

Sampan boat

Dragon boats

Dragon boats are a sporting boat, like a canoe, that have been around for 2000 years. Even to this day, competitions are held for rowers of dragon boats. They normally hold around 18-20 people. The smaller boats normally hold between 8-10 people.

Dragon boat racing is thought to have started on the Yangtze River around the same time as the Olympics were held in Ancient Greece. There is a festival celebrated annually called Duan wu jie, Dragon Boat Festival. Traditionally, dragon boat racing took place around the time of the rice harvest.

Louchuan: tower ships

Tower ships were impressive vessels that were built to fight. They were like floating fortresses made from huge towering structures. They were built so there was room for horses and many soldiers on board. They had fighting equipment on them and ways for getting on board enemy ships.

Tower Ship

They were used in the Han Dynasty, the Song Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty.

Pinyin: Chinese treasure ship

Chinese treasure ships were made famous by Zheng He. During the fifteenth century, Zheng He led seven voyages with these big wooden ships.

There were apparently nearly 30,000 men on Zheng He’s voyage, all on 63 ships. There are accounts of these ships from Yemen.

There are reports of the ships being twice as long as European tall ships of the same era. Engineers have doubted these records. If these records were true, it would mean they were the largest wooden ships ever built. It would make them bigger than steel ones built over 300 years later! That would be very unlikely.

Marco Polo (1254-1325) and Ibn Battuta (1330-1369), two travellers who went to China, also reports of large Chinese ships. It seems these large wooden ships impressed people all over the world.

Ancient China