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Shipbuilding in Ancient China

With a long coastline stretching along the broad water areas of Bohai, Huanghai, Donghai, and Nanhai, and bordering the world's largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean, China enjoys a special water environment. Hence, Chinese people began to engage in seafaring activities a long time ago. Chinese shipbuilding boasts an even longer history, as it began in primeval times.

As early as in the Neolithic Age (about 10,000-4,000 years ago), Chinese people had begun to made canoes and rafts, and with their courage and wisdom, had traveled the ocean. Textual research has proved that the ancient Baiyue people, who lived in Southeast China, invented the first water-bound vehicle.

First Shipbuilding Climax -- in Qin And Han Dynasties

During the Qin (221-206) and Han (206BC-220AD) dynasties, China's shipbuilding witnessed the first climax, when the Qin Emperor Qin Shihuang organized a fleet capable of transporting 500,000 shi (1 shi = 170 pounds /71.7 kilos) of grain in a war. As recorded in ancient books, Emperor Qin Shihuang once led a fleet composed of lou chuan (castle ships, or war ships with deck castles) for an assault on the Chu State. After the unification of all of China, he also cruised along inland rivers and navigated at sea.

By the Han Dynasty , the navy mainly composed of castle ships was much stronger. It was said that the Han government could mobilize over 2,000 castle ships and 200,000 seamen for one battle. Various kinds of warships could be found, such as Xian Deng -- an assault ship, Meng Chong -- a narrow warship for striking the enemy's warships, and Ben Ma -- a ship as fast as a galloping horse. However, the assault castle ship was still the most important among all the ships and constituted the main force of the navy. Apart from being famous, the castle ship was also the symbol for the dynasty's advanced shipbuilding techniques.

The development in shipbuilding during the Qin and Han dynasties laid a solid foundation for the progress in shipbuilding skills in the following dynasties. The Wu State of the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) had a prosperous shipbuilding industry and once built a five-story ship that could hold up to 3,000 soldiers. The Southern Dynasty (420-589) could build big ships with a holding capacity of 1,000 tons in the southern areas of the Yangtze River. in order to enhance the ship's speed, the great scientist of the Southern Qi Dynasty (what year; I'm unfamiliar with this dynasty) invented the manpowered paddle wheel ship. Though not as efficient as using the sail, the paddle wheel ship was still recognized as a significant invention, which provided inspiration for the improvement of ship power later on.

Second Shipbuilding Climax -- in Tang And Song Dynasties

China's shipbuilding industry entered a period of maturity, both in quantity and quality in the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. Utilization of many shipbuilding techniques, such as the stern helm, the highly efficient propelling tool - scull, and the sails, were further improved during this period. Besides, many more advanced techniques were also created. The Sui Dynasty, though short lived, enjoyed a highly developed shipbuilding industry, with the capacity to build giant dragon boats. Assembled with mortise-and-tenon joints, the dragon boats were much stronger than those connected with iron nails or bamboo nails.

Ships built during this period were larger in body, more reasonable in configuration, and more complex in techniques. Among the various ships for use on rivers (as opposed for seas or oceans), there were plenty of ships capable of holding 600 to 700 people, with a length of over 20 zhang (about 66 meters). on some ships, vegetables were grown. During the Song Dynasty, a huge ship named Shen Zhou was made, which boasted a carrying capacity of 1,500 tons and a hull length of 31.5 zhang (about 100 meters).

Ship design at that time applied the principle of "curved side boards, broad lateral beams, and loft superstructure." Under this principle, the decks were broadened, and more cabin space was available. The V-shaped bottom greatly facilitated the sailing.

The number of ships also increased by leaps and bounces, with an obvious increase in shipbuilding yards capable of building any kinds of ships, including river boats, sea boats, warships, and so on.

Apart from the above-mentioned features, shipbuilding techniques also experienced enormous advances. Mortise-and-tenon joints were employed in assembling ships, hence greatly improving the ships' strength. China's adoption of this technology was 500 years earlier than that in European countries. The Song artisans were able to make models based on the function and use of the ships to be built, with blueprints being worked out prior to carrying out the actual construction. Ship blueprints did not appear in European until 300 to 400 years later.

The paddle wheel ship, a kind of warship that emerged during the Southern Dynasty, also got improved. The paddle wheel ship got wooden wheels installed on both sides of the hull, which greatly increased the ship's speed. Since the ancient ships were mostly sailing ships that could not easily sail against wind or water, the development of paddle wheel ships solved the problem to a certain extent.

Yuan Dynasty Paves The Way For Shipbuilding Climax

in the early years of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), there were more than 17,900 navy warships. The Yuan emperors would usually order thousands of warships to be built for a battle. Besides, there were a great many civil ships scattered all over the country. Meanwhile, Arabs' shipbuilding and navigation gradually declined. Therefore, Chinese four-mast sea boats could be seen on the Southern Sea and the indian Ocean, taking the lead in navigation and shipbuilding.

The huge development in shipbuilding during the Yuan Dynasty laid an advantageous foundation for the building of five-mast warships, six-mast guest ships, seven-mast grain ships, eight-mast horse ships (which carried horses), and nine-mast precious ships (which carried valuable cargo) during the Ming Dynasty .

Third Shipbuilding Climax -- During The Ming Dynasty

China's shipbuilding reached its third climax during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when an unprecedented number of ships were built by employing the well-developed shipbuilding technologies of the Tang and Song dynasties.

According to some archeological discoveries and historical records, the distribution and scale of the Ming Dynasty's shipbuilding yards represented the highest level in Chinese shipbuilding history. The main shipbuilding yards included the Longjiang Shipyard in Nanjing of East China's Jiangsu Province, the Qingjiang Shipyard in Huainan of East China's Anhui Province, and the Beiqinghe Shipyard in East China's Shangdong Province, all of which boasted a large scale. There were handicrafts workshops that produced ship accessories, such as sails, ropes, and nails, to go with the shipbuilding industry. in addition, there was also a rigorous management system concerning the check, repair, and payment of ships. It was fitting that with such a strong shipbuilding industry, Zheng He ' seven voyages to the western sea became possible.

in a word, after the previous two climaxes, shipbuilding in the Ming Dynasty experienced further improvement in shipbuilding technologies. The great achievements in shipbuilding during the Ming Dynasty represented an enormous contribution by the Chinese people to world civilization and human development.

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