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The Watertight Bulkhead Technology of Chinese Junks

Last updated by Coconut at 2014/4/19

Enrollment on UNESCO List

In November 15, “the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks”, submitted cooperatively by Jiaocheng District, Ningde City in Fujian Province and Jinjiang City in Fujian Province, was inscribed in 2010 on the “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” by the UNESCO.

Brief Introduction

"The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks” is a core traditional skill in making wooden vessels in the coastal areas of Fujian Province in South China. The junks are mainly made of camphor, pine and fir timber, and assembled by applying key technologies such as rabbit-jointing and seam-caulking, so that the cabins are watertight and are independent from each other. The construction of the wooden vessels is directed by a master craftsman whho oversees a large number of craftsmen working on close coordination. This technology is considered a great invention in the history of making ships, and played a revolutionary part in improving the safety of navigation.

"The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks” is a core traditional skill in making wooden vessels in coastal areas of Fujian Province in South China. This technology uses bulkheads to separate the ship cabin into several independent compartments, that is to say, these compartments are unconnected and watertight. The effect of this kind of structure is that, if one or two cabins are accidentally damaged in the course of navigation, seawater will not flood the other cabins or even the whole vessel, and the vessel will remain afloat. The ship can still go on navigation as long as the damaged cabin is repaired. In addition, because the vessels’ main fuction is the carriage of cargo, on watertight-bulkhead vessels, cargos can be stored in different cabins, which is convenient for management, loading and unloading.

Fuchuan (literally meaning “Fujian-built ships”. “Fu” is the short name of Fujian Province while “chuan” means ship) is the common name for ancient sharp-bottomed ships made in the coastal areas of Fujiang Province and Zhejiang Province. The whole ship is full of aesthetic elements. Fuchuan has flat decks and V-shaped bottom; the prow is sharp, the stern is wide, and both ends of the ship rise upwards. The “watertight-bulkhead” means that bulkheads are used to separate the different compartments within the ship, and there are usually 8 or 13 compartments within the ship. This technology is a great invention in China’s shipbuilding, which inhances the anti-sinking ability of ships, and also strengthens the safety of oceangoing voyages. The building of Zhangwan Fuchuan (Zhangwan is a town in Jiaocheng District, Ningde City of Fujian Province) has well inherited this ancient technology. Nowadays, watertight-bulkhead technology, a traditional craftmanship of China which is unique and rare, has come to the verge of extinction, with only three masters can claim full command of this technology.

Distinctive Features

Zhangwan Fuchuan has generally inherited the watertight-bulkhead technology of ancient Fuchuan shipbuilding (Fuchuan means “Fujian-built ships”). The ships are made with exquisite workmanship, and has good floodability, maneuverability, rapidity and stability. Fuchuan has the following distinctive features:

1. Scientific structure

Fuchuan’s safety and reliability mainly lies in its structure using watertight-bulkhead technology. The “watertight-bulkhead” means that bulkheads are used to separate the different compartments within the ship. There are three advantages of this technology. Firstly, because the the cabin has been seperated into several unconnected and watertight compartments, even if one or two of them are accidentally damaged during the course of navigation, seawater will not flood the others so that the ship can remail afloat. The ship can still go on navigation as long as the damages are reparied. Secondly, on watertight-bulkhead vessels, cargos can be stored in different cabins, which is convenient for management, loading and unloading of cargos. In case of marine losses, it can also help minimize the loss to a certain degree. Thirdly, because the compartments are seperated by the bulkheads layer by layer, and the thick, solid bulkheads are closely stapled with the shell plating, which actually can serve as ribs for the vessle. Therefore, there is no need to build ribs for the vessel, and thus can simplify and stabilize the vessel and improve floodability of the whole vessel.

2. Aesthetic Shape

The smooth hull, the mild transition from the cambered surface to the flat surface, the tightly hooped keel, and the upturned both ends of the ship, all are full of aesthetic elements and make the ship look graceful when sailing ahead. When sailing without wind, the side sculls elevate and fall, the mast and rigging gears fabricate symmetric and hollowed-out patterns, together with the powerful sail, all form a functional and coordinated ensemble.

3. Rich Folk Customs
For hundreds of years, villagers at Qihou Village of Zhangwan Town have lived on shipbuilding, and now there are abou 40 people engaging in shipbuilding. Just as they are passing down the shipbuilding technologies that their elder generations accumulated, they are also passing down the exotic local customs and traditions at the same time. The aim of these customs and traditions is to pray for the safety of both the sailors and the ship, so that under the blessing and protection of divinities, sailors will get good luck and considerable earnings. The various praying ceremonies during the course of shipbuilding, the painted totems on the ships, though they are to certain extent absurd and superstitious, they retain the folk customs and rules of this industry and are of distinctive regional characteristics.

Main Significances

1. Historical significance

China has adopted watertight-bulkhead technology in wooden vessel building since Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), and from the 18th century, this technology began to be adopted and and used for reference by many other countries. Watertight-bulkhead technology, which is now on the verge of becoming extinct, can still be found in Zhangwan Town, Ningde City of Fujian Province. At present, people can build 3-mast wooden sailing boat capable of 60 shipping tons with this ancient technology, which is rather precious and rare and deserve to be called “living fossil”. The research, preservation and protection of the original Zhangwan Fuchuan is of great value in preserving and developing the folk craftsmanship.

2. Cultural significance

Firstly, from the shape of Zhangwan Fuchuan to its smooth streamline design, all fully retain and reflect the characterstics of ancient Fuchuan (Fujian-built ships), and they are of certain value for research of ancient aesthetics and art design. Secondly, the bizarre folk customs of shipbuilding and navigation with strong regional features are precious legacies of traditional customs and culture.

3. Scientific significance

Watertight-bulkhead and helm are two important inventions of China’s ancient shipbuilding, and are the two features of “Fuchuan”, while Zhangwan Fuzhuan perfectly possess these two features. Although nowadays people build engine-powered ships, the hull is adapted from the wooden vessels, and the watertight-bulkhead and the position of the helm remain, only the motivating force has been changed to engine. Both the sail and the engine are used: the sail is lifted when there is wind, while the engine is turned on when there is no wind, so the watertight-bulkhead ships nowadays are still very scientific and practical by using both engine and wind forces. They are undoubtedly of special status is the scientific technology.

Endangered Status

The watertight-bulkhead shipbuilding technology is now facing the following difficulties.

1. Shortage of master builders

The experience and working methods of watertight-bulkhead shipbuilding technology are transmitted only within the family and to male offsprings. Therefore, there are only a few people master this technology, and the old masters who are experienced and skilful are even fewer. The ageing problem of the transmitters is quite serious; because the young people nowadays are reluctant devote the time necessary to master the trade, very few people under the age of 30 in Zhangwan Town can command it.

2. Reduction of Ground for Shipbuilding

Due to the intrusion of sea water and the construction of village roads, the ground for shipbuilding is continuously reducing, which makes it impossible to build large-tonnage wooden vessels. In addition, because of the impact of ocean tide, every month there will be several days that the shipbuilding ground is flooded and unable to be used for shipbuilding.

3. Out-of-Date Business Model  

It is hard for watertight-bulkhead technology to survive in the market economy under the current business model of individual operation, which will count against the integration of technology and resources. In addition, the production cost in high with marginal added value, this shipbuilding technology will not be able to withstand turns of the market. Therefore, this technology is in dire need of preservation.

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