Rivers and boats: unsung subjects

This glorious picture of a seagoing junk under sail makes one wonder, after the first flash of delight, why such a painting should come as a surprise. The reason is, of course, that the Chinese, superb artists though they have always been, were seldom marine painters. This particular work is not properly "Chinese" -- it was done about 1835 by an anonymous artist of the Chinnery School, either a transiet Westener or a local man who had mastered European techniques.

China was never enraptured by the sea as the West has been. For all its long coastline, its people have been essentially land-locked, land oriented, as their literature bears witness. Enormously proud and fond of their witness, lakes and canals, the distant oceans never captured their imagination. In their marvelous riverine scrolls, some over 400 inches long, the swift and lovely deliniations of junk and sampan were always subordinated to the larger context. This was true too in the pictures of fishermen angling or scholars dreaming in tittle craft: the vessel is not emphasized, the theme being far more intangible.

Yet how beauriful the junks were, with their romantic splendor, their Elizabethan panache, their high poops and warm tinted sals, glowing brown or blue above the shining varnished hulls with great painted eyes! Sometimes they looked clumsy, being flat-bottomed, wide, and with a prominent square prow, but these characteristics made for comfort; whole families lived aboard, cultivating gardens in pots, harboring pet birds.

Sailing down the China coast on a day of dense fog you could hear, suddenly, out of the mist, the thin, heralding note of a conch shell, and all at once a junk would appear below the deck of your steamer, as though enveloped in a bubble of clear air. A man would be standing in the prow, blowing an instrument older then time. In a moment the vision would disappear into the fog; the listener, entranced, straining forward over the rail, hoping to catch more of the eerie music.

During the equinox the Ch'ien-and river (near Hangchou) becomes a tidal wave racing upstream. At these times a line of bold and confident junks exercise a traditional skill by breasting the turbulent water, their sails spread, starting in their dramatic beauty.

The Chinese were the first to discover the magnetic needle (which they called "south-pointing") and were early very clever in designing a suspended, perforated stern-post rudder. They were also quick to take advantage of the strength and flexibility of the bamboo, using in the rigging, and to brace their lug sails.

By the 11th century the had already made long journeys far to the West; during the Ming (1368-1644) their sea power reached its zenith. They then possessed 20 squadrons of vessels and controlled the sea lanes down their own coast and deep into the south; they went freely across the Indian Ocean and into the Arabian Sea. They were known in Malacca and Hormuz; they captured the kings of Palambang and Ceylon. Exotic tribute dame to the court of Peking -- ostriches, zebras, giraffes.

This was in the time of the great Admiral Cheng Ho. He led many expeditions west-ward; on one of these he commanded 63 ships and nearly 30,000 men. Then a power struggle developed in the Forbidden City, and, the Admiral's enemies prevailing, the Imperial policy underwent an abrupt change. The sea arm was disbanded, for reasons which even now are not fully understood. Had it not been for this reversal, the course of history might have been very different; China and the West might have avoided those long centuries of mutual isolation, ignorance and suspicion.

This painting also bears its mystery. It is not known why it should be called a "Korean War Junk." Though it carries the flag of the Hermit Kingdom, that ensign dates from a quarter of a century later than the purported time of the painting. Nor does the vessel have the shape of a true Korean junk. Junks were subject to the vagaries of their own waters, and their builders were extremely skillful in adapting them to the tides, currents and winds they would most frequently encounter; a Yangtze junk, for instance would differ in many ways from one built to work on the Min River in Fukien. the ship we see here is not typical, its stern is low, it is hard to place. But none of these anomalies detracts from its beauty as it rides the brilliant blue-green water with all the verve and grace of a powerful vessel.

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