Boats in ancient China probably originated as simple floatation devices appearing earlier than rafts and dugout canoes. They were the earliest water-going devices in human history. The materials used to make floats included fallen trees, branches, and such common objects as bamboo and reeds. As the buoyancy provided by single tree trunks, bamboo stems and reeds was insufficient, they were often bunched together when in use. Dried gourds were particularly light in weight and provided good upward thrust; therefore, a long time ago, people would often band three or four of them together onto a belt which they secured around their waists before wading into the water. These provided just enough buoyancy for people to tread water and paddle through the waterway. This kind of floatation device was called a “waist boat.”
According to written records, in the time of the Fuxi (traditionally the first Chinese ruler), people mainly used rafts to float over bodies of water. It was not until the time of Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) that boats appeared. Dugout canoes existed no later than 7,000 years ago. In the beginning, they were fairly simple in construction. People would find a section of dead tree and carve out its interior, or they would cut off a section of a live tree, whittle off the side branches and shoots, and make it into a canoe. Boats made from wooden boards not only evolved from canoes, they also preserved the shape of the whole tree trunk.
Catamarans, which appeared as early as the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–771 BCE), were made by pairing two boats together side-by side. Catamarans were slower than ordinary boats, but were steadier. They were used by the imperial clans and the noblemen and were often lavishly decorated which is why they are commonly described as “painted catamarans.” There are few documentary images of them. The earliest occurs in the painting Luoshen fu (Rhapsody on the Luo River goddess) by Gu Kaizhi (348–409) of the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420).
In the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods, powerful vassal lords had their own shipyards, especially those whose territories bordered large rivers and the sea, such as Chu, Wu, and Yue along the Yangtze River and Qi on the Shandong peninsula. The shipbuilding capacities of Wu and Yue were quite impressive.
With the opening of the Grand Canal in the Sui dynasty (581–618), the shipbuilding industry flourished. Emperor Yang (r. 604–618) of the Sui dispatched staff to the south of the Yangtze River to procure lumber for the manufacture of such large craft as dragon boats, yellow dragon ships, red warships, and multi-storied ships. In the first regnal year of Daye (605 CE), the emperor himself led an entourage consisting of his queen, concubines, and hundreds of officials in a fleet of dragon boats along the newly built Grand Canal from Luoyang to Jiangdu (modern Yangzhou, Jiangsu province). The number of vessels in the fleet exceeded five thousand, and formed a line more than 200 li (one li equals 500 meters) long. This demonstrated the prosperity and the enormous shipbuilding capacity of the time.
For thousands of years, from the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), barges (a kind of flat-bottomed boat) have been used to transport goods, mainly grain. Before the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), there were a myriad kinds of grain transport. Whether they were river barges or sea-going sailboats, as long as they were flat-bottomed with shallow draft, had large cargo holds and moved fairly fast, they could be used to transport grain.
Sea-going vessels were commonly used to carry merchandise for long distances on the open sea. At the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907), gigantic Chinese sea-going ships became well-known internationally. Records show that the hulls of large Chinese ships had deep drafts which prevented them from using the navigation lanes in the Persian Gulf which were relatively shallow. It is on account of this that Chinese ships had be anchored in south India while smaller ships were hired to transport their goods to Arabia. Because these Chinese ships were bulky and tall, they were safer and more comfortable than smaller boats. Many Arab merchants preferred to travel on them.
The designs of Chinese ships were passed from masters to apprentices and from fathers to sons over the generations. Abundant and practical knowledge was gained from actual work. Craftsmen learned about the structure, proportion, characteristics, and functions well. Some were able to record rudimentary blueprints and use simple notations and legends.