In Sailing, what is a Junk?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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A junk is a type of ship which is closely associated with China, its nation of origin. Contrary to the implications of the name, a junk is anything but. In fact, junks were quite novel for their time, and they were superior to anything produced in Europe for centuries; the Chinese junk also integrated a number of innovations which continue to be used in ship building to this day. Despite the fact that junks were developed around 200 CE, and are therefore quite old, these ships continue to be widely used throughout Southeast Asia today, and you can see many fine examples under full sail in this part of the world.

Like other early ships, the junk is a sailing ship. However, the junk rig is extremely flexible and versatile, allowing people to sail junks into the wind, and to control the ship with a minimal crew. The ship is controlled with a rudder, another innovation, and the hull of a junk is broken up into compartments. Although the thought of a compartmentalized hull might sound obvious to you, it was a strictly Chinese invention, and didn't appear widely in European ships until the late 1700s, when numerous people including Benjamin Franklin recommended building compartmentalized ships “in the Chinese style.”


A junk is designed to carry a wide assortment of goods in compartments which can be easily inventoried and organized. The compartmentalized design allowed captains to divide goods easily, diving them by type, owner, and other categorizations. The design also helped to prevent junks from sinking, and in the event that the hull was breached, it reduced the damage to the compartments breached, rather than allowing it to spread across the whole ship.

In addition to being used quite successfully in and around Southeast Asia, evidence suggests that the junk has also historically been used for long sea voyages. These durable, sturdy, versatile ships helped China dominate the sea trade in Asia for centuries, and they continue to be extremely useful methods of transportation for people and goods.

If you find yourself traveling along coastal Asia, chances are very good that you will see a junk or two. Junks can also be seen in numerous paintings; the Chinese frequently depicted junks in their art, as did intrigued European visitors. You may note that many junks are bedecked with flags, especially red flags. These flags are said to protect the crew and cargo from demons, ensuring a safe and pleasant journey.


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Post 3

@Mor - You probably are better off going on a working junk if you can. I've found ones which are for tours are often just fancy looking motor boats with decorative sails.

If you are going to have a look at some beautiful landscapes, you want to do it without a loud boat motor in your ears the whole time.

A working vessel will use the sails because it's cheaper and they aren't trying to please tourists who are in a hurry to get for lunch.

Post 2

I think junk boats are really beautiful. I'm hoping to go to China in the next couple of years to teach English and I'd love to be able to sail in one of those ships.

I'm pretty sure that I could just go up to the harbor in the early morning or evening and hire someone to take me out.

I had a friend go to Vietnam a few years ago and she was able to go sailing in a junk boat which she said was one of her favorite parts of the trip. It was like stepping back in time.

Although she took a package tour instead of going on a working vessel. If I can, I'd prefer to go on a junk that's actually still used for fishing or something like that.

Post 1

You're right that you can still see junk ships along the coast of China. They are still very common over there.

In fact, every time I see a movie, whether it is based in historical times or now, the way they identify China is to sweep over the ocean and show a few junk ships. They are very distinctive looking, especially when they have sails that look a bit like fans.

You usually only see the smaller ones now although back in the day they had ships capable of carrying hundreds of people and often used them to go to war.

In fact I believe at one point Taiwan was conquered using junk ships.

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