Centipede ships

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  • Chinese: 蜈蚣船 (wúgōng chuán)

Centipede ships was the term applied to a style of ship built in the Ming Empire in the 1520s-1530s. The first Chinese ships to incorporate European design elements, they were built with the aid of Portuguese shipwrights brought to Nanjing by the Ming court for that purpose. The result were ships which made use of long rows of oar ports, new modes of deploying cannon and other firearms, and canvas lateen sails in combination with traditional Chinese sails, as well as adaptations to the keel and overall form of the ship otherwise, making them more maneuverable and more effective in battle than earlier junks. Since Chinese overseas sailing and trade was officially forbidden at the time, the court initially relied upon "barbarian" (yi) crews, pilots, and navigators; Richard Pegg suggests that in this context, "barbarian" likely refers to Europeans.

The centipede ships proved essential to a number of key Ming victories against European ships in the 1520s-30s. By 1534, however, the court ordered that no more centipede ships were to be produced. But the various innovations of their design were then incorporated into junks built from that time forward, becoming exceptionally standard. Investiture envoy Chen Kan ordered two such ships constructed for his embassy to the Ryûkyû Kingdom in 1534, and the Kingdom ordered another six constructed for its use shortly afterward. Junks incorporating these design features became the standard form of junk built and sailed throughout the region - from Fuzhou and Ningbo to Nagasaki and Naha - for nearly the entire early modern period, from the 1530s until the early-to-mid-19th century.


  • Richard Pegg, "For the Record: Chinese Conferment Missions to Ryukyu from 1372-1866," talk given at Okinawan Art in its Regional Context: Historical Overview and Contemporary Practice symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.