Ancient Chinese Maritime Technologies: How did the Ancient Chinese Sail the Seas?


With Asia having a rich maritime history, The HEAD Foundation presented a unique opportunity for its guests to discover more about the history of the region and the technical innovations, which allowed the Chinese to venture far and make an indelible mark in world history.

Also, despite the well-known advances and great efficiencies of their maritime technologies, like the Chinese sailing junks, it is also intriguing to address why the Chinese lost their competitiveness in sea trade during the 19th century.

Naval architect, marine artist and maritime historian Mr Chung Chee Kit gave the audience a peek into the era of trans-ocean travel and trade before the availability of modern technology. He began his talk by referencing the well-known seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He during the Ming dynasty.

Interestingly, Zheng He likely travelled through the Singapore Straits as old Chinese almanacs identified what was known as Dragon Teeth Gate (or Lot’s Wife) as a sailing reference in the course from China to Malacca.

Considering the immense scale of Zheng He’s fleet and the distance he was said to travel, his voyages give a good indication of what the ancient Chinese were capable of.

However, in discussing Zheng He’s voyages, Mr Chung brought up the need to be discerning between history and myth. For example, was Zheng He’s treasure ship truly 400 feet long (much larger than Columbus’ St. Maria which was 85 feet long) and was this even feasible? On this note, he presented the differences between the ratios found in official historical records and other contemporary records, which logged measurements that were more technically feasible.

Mr Chung then presented some of the many ingenious designs and features found in various Chinese vessels like the sailing junk, which he characterises as seakindly and economical. He showed how it could adapt to stormy weather, was easy to maintain, and easier to maneuver compared to Western ships.

The ancient Chinese have also adopted innovations from other countries, such as the use of celestial navigation through the Qian Xing Bang, a distance and angle measuring device most likely inspired by what Indian sailors used.

Though at the forefront of maritime technologies, the Chinese maritime industry eventually declined in the 19th century. To Mr Chung, one possible reason is the emergence of Western steam vessels that made sea voyages less reliant on weather conditions and thus opened up more opportunities for trade. In contrast, Chinese ships at the time had to rely on good weather, making them less competitive. On this note however, Mr Chung cautioned that more studies must be done to better explain this part of China’s maritime history.

Video excerpts of Mr. Chung’s lecture can be viewed here.