The term “junk” is derived from the Chinese word “chuán” and means ship. This refers to a certain type of ship common in China. Junks were used on rivers, coastal waters and the high seas and were used as merchant and cargo ships, as fishing boats or as houseboats.
Junks were characterized by a simple construction in box form. They were double-walled and therefore particularly watertight. They had no keel, a flat bottom and vertically raised side walls. The deck was divided into several chambers or cabins depending on use. The planks were made of soft wood in clinker construction. With many junks the bow was drawn up a little bit. Depending on the size, junks had two to four masts for one sail each. The sails were stretched over bamboo poles, which enabled easy handling from the deck and an optimal distribution of forces. Due to their construction, junks were considered to be particularly robust, safe and fast.
From the 1st century onwards junks were equipped with stern rudders, and in the 2nd century longitudinal bulkheads were added. From the 8th century onwards leeboards were used to improve direction stability. In northern China junks were built with rectangular sails and a blunt bow, which seemed a bit more unwieldy due to their shape. As from the construction of the Han Canal in 486 B.C., narrow river junks with only one mast became popular. Ocean-going cargo and passenger ships from the 12th century could carry 300 passengers, 600 crew members and 400 crossbowmen. The largest junks in use in the 15th century were treasure ships which sailed as far as the east coast of Africa. From the 16th century onwards, the development of junks stagnated. Even today, river ships are still in use in China whose construction style is similar to that of junks.
In Europe, junks became famous through Marco Polo, who used such a ship in 1294 during his return journey from China to the Strait of Hormus and described it in detail in his travel reports. The French author Jean de la Varende, who also designed ship models, praised the manoeuvrability and safety of this type of ship. In his opinion, Chinese junks were 500 years ahead of European shipbuilders.