Saturday, December 4, 2010

Maritime Superpowers: China

Early centuries. The earliest accounts of Chinese seafaring go back to the eleventh century BC when, after the collapse of the Shang dynasty, some sources report that a quarter million troops under General You Houxi scattered to the South Pacific and the Americas. In the sixth century BC the monk Fa Xian travelled by sea to India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and upon his return to China published an account of his travels among the "Buddhistic Kingdoms." Meanwhile, various Chinese states were building their first navies. By the third century BC China was engaged in trade with Hellenistic Egypt on a sea route that would later become known as part of the Silk Road.

Seafaring innovations. About the same time, Chinese mariners were perfecting the use of the lu, or scull, which greatly improved efficiency and vessel speed over previous forms of oar. Some Chinese sources indicate the use of a dedicated rudder several centuries before European vessels were outfitted with them. Most striking is evidence that Chinese vessels used steam engines and paddle wheelers as early the fifth century AD. Joseph Needham, in Science and Civilisation in China, noted that British officers were astonished to run across paddle-wheel powered vessels during the Opium War of 1839-42.

The Chinese were also pioneers in many aspects of ship construction: the first to build bulkheads in below-deck compartments as a means of controlling flooding, the first to shore-up ribs with cross-beams, and the first to rig vessels so the sails could be raised and lowered without going aloft.

The Battle of Lake Poyang. The five-week battle in the fall of 1363 lays claim to being the largest in naval history in terms of number of combatants: 850,000 men, more than four times the number that fought at the Battle of Salamis 1700 years earlier. The battle was decisive in the founding of the Ming Dynasty that would rule China for three centuries.

The Treasure Fleet. There is some disagreement as to how big the 15th century Treasure Ships of Admiral Zheng He were. Marco Polo, among others, reports ships carrying 500 to 1,000 people, consistent with claims that the Treasure Ships were more than 400 feet long and 180 feet wide. If true, these would have been the largest wooden vessels ever built (the model in the Lars Plougmann photo above compares one of the Treasure Ships to Columbus's Santa Maria). Some naval historians and architects argue that, while vessels of such size may have been built for coastal or river navigation, ocean voyages were probably made by vessels only half that size. And while a few writers have claimed Zheng He circumnavigated the world in the 1420s, touching every continent along the way, it is more likely he stuck to established trade routes ranging from Indonesia to Africa. The Treasure Fleet disappears from history after Zheng He's seventh and last voyage. China would remain a regional maritime power for the next 500 years, but would be only a minor player on the world's maritime stage.

Today. With the industrialization of China following the communist revolution, China has grown into a major world shipping power. Only Panama and Liberia have more vessels flying under their flag than China (more than 1,800), and only Japan and Germany have a higher combined total of vessels registered and vessels owned but registered in another country (3,600). These totals don't include the 1,100 vessels registered in Hong Kong and 32 registered in Taiwan.

The port of Shanghai is the world's busiest port, moving nearly 600 million tons of cargo in 2009.

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