Rise of the Dragon:
Imperial China’s Navy, Part One

Between the mid-1850’s and mid-1860’s, Imperial China suffered a series of defeats, disasters and humiliations. Britain and France invaded China, occupied the capital and forced the Chinese to legalize the opium trade, open ports to foreign merchants and allow Christian missionaries to spread their faith. The Russians sliced off Outer Manchuria, the present-day Maritime Province. Armed insurrections, including but not limited to the massive Tai’Ping Rebellion, wracked the empire as well.

In response, the new Regent, Prince Kung, turned to a group of Confucian scholars known as the Self-Strengthening Movement. The Movement had little interest in reforming Chinese society; rather, they hoped to adapt Western technology and methods to build China’s military and economic strength while otherwise maintaining traditional ways. The Tai’Ping rebels had called for even greater adaptation to Western ways, and the Self-Strengthening Movement hoped to pick and choose the methods that would restore Chinese power without impacting Chinese Confucian culture.

Prince Kung also took personal control of the new Zongli Yamen, essentially a foreign affairs ministry, and the Maritime Customs Service, which soon became the leading source of government revenue. To enforce those regulations, and to assist in the struggle with the Tai’Pings, the regent decided to establish a modern, steam-powered navy to replace the armed junks that had been effortlessly pushed aside by the British during the just-concluded Second Opium War. Prince Kung outsourced direct supervision to a junior British diplomat, Horatio Nelson Lay. In 1862, Lay went about buying a paddle steamer and a number of steam-powered gunboats, hiring a British naval captain, Sherrard Osborn, to command them.

Lay set up a command structure where the imperial court would give him orders, and Lay would pass those on to Osborn only if he agreed with them. When the little flotilla arrived in China, the prince and other Chinese officials insisted on appointing a Chinese commander; Lay and Osborn refused. Prince Kung fired Lay and refused to pay for the ships or to pay the crews; the vessels were eventually sold off in India. Lay eventually moved his grifting to Japan, engaging in a massive bond-fraud scheme in the name of the Meiji Emperor.

Having seen the problems of a mercenary fleet, the Chinese turned instead to building up a naval infrastructure. In 1864 the provincial government bought a small American-owned machine shop in Shanghai, and began a rapid expansion into a full-fledged naval arsenal and shipyard. Soon over 1,300 workers labored in the Kiangnan Arsenal, which expanded to include a naval training college as well. Additional shipyards at Fuzhou in Fukien Province and Whampoa Island adjacent to Guangdong followed, along with a major arsenal at Tientsin. Naval bases began construction at Wei-hai-wei and Port Arthur in the north. All of these establishments included large numbers of well-connected officials on their payrolls in do-nothing jobs, part of the price of doing business in the corrupt Qing Empire.

The main drydock at Kiangnan Arsenal.

To man the new fleet, the Chinese also established a whole series of naval colleges in the shipyards, bases and arsenals, teaching both leadership and technical specialties. American, British and French officers were hired as instructors, and the course of study included English and French language lessons. A small number of graduates went to Britain for further study at Greenwich and training aboard Royal Navy warships.

Kiangnan began building warships with a series of wooden-hulled steam gunboats, the first of them hitting the water in 1868. In the early 1870’s the yard also built a pair of larger wooden steam frigates. The Fuzhou yard followed with more wooden gunboats. All of these ships were obsolete when laid down, with the Chinese well aware of this fact and eager to obtain more modern warships as they became aware of the threat posed by the newly-emergent Japanese Empire.

Fuzhou Arsenal.

More impetus came in 1874, when a Japanese expedition landed on Taiwan to punish local tribes who had beheaded 54 sailors from the Ryukyu Islands. The Chinese had claimed to have no jurisdiction in the affair, which ended up cementing the Japanese claim to the Ryukyus and bringing China’s very loose rule over Taiwan into question. It was the first deployment of Japanese forces outside the Home Islands since the Meiji Restoration, and showed the Chinese that they faced a new, aggressive neighbor. When China eventually paid compensation to the Japanese for the expenses of the operation, it showed the new government that the old empire could be bullied fairly easily.

In response, the Chinese laid out plans for three modern fleets, to cover the northern, central and southern coastal sectors. They would be known as the Beiyang, Nanyang and Yueyang fleets, respectively. The Beiyang fleet, facing Japan across the Yellow Sea, would have top priority for new vessels and trained manpower.

To equip the fleets, the Chinese began to order modern iron- and steel-hulled warships in Britain and Germany, and to rebuild the Kiangnan yard to build such ships at home. A Sea Defense Fund, drawing on Maritime Customs receipts, would provide the cash but still left the Chinese at a disadvantage compared to Japan, which spent more on naval armaments even before subtracting the massive graft intendant on every Chinese transaction. Initial Chinese purchases included mostly Rendel gunboats, inexpensive ironclad vessels sporting a single very large cannon and intended to gang up on larger enemy ironclads.

Li Hung-chang, commissioner of the Beiyang fleet and the official charged with buying warships, remained dissatisfied. The gunboats could only defeat the new Japanese armored warships in very special circumstances, he believed, and so China needed cruisers and battleships that could challenge the Eastern Sea Devils on the high seas – preferably, with more powerful ships than those fielded by Japan.

He purchased a pair of “Rendel cruisers” in Britain, essentially enlarged versions of the Rendel gunboat with a heavy gun at either end. But the British government would not authorize the sale of larger ships, for fear of antagonizing the Russians. However, the newly-established Chinese legation in Berlin reported that the Germans didn’t care what the Russians thought, and the Vulkan shipyard of Stettin was eager to make a presentation.

The German-built Chinese battleship Chen-yuan.

With Vulkan prepared to build modern steel battleships, the Chinese at first proposed ordering a full dozen of them, eventually scaling the program back to three ships, one of which was replaced with a smaller protected cruiser. The three ships apparently were built on the same slipway, laid down one after another (with the battleships first) starting in March 1881. In addition, the Chinese ordered several torpedo boats.

The two battleships each carried four 12-inch guns in a pair of twin barbettes, within a common armored citadel. They had a pair of 5.9-inch guns, in single armored turrets at either end of the ship, and a handful of light guns plus three torpedo tubes – torpedo boat attack was not yet recognized as a major threat to heavy ships, and battleships of the period usually did not carry an extensive secondary battery. They could make 15 knots, and had thick armor around their citadel and barbettes. Each ship carried a pair of small torpedo boats as well. The cruiser, considered a very modern design, had a pair of 8.2-inch guns in an armored barbette sited forward.

Meanwhile, the Fuzhou yard built a series of composite cruisers, with iron frames and wooden planking, an armored citadel and usually two 8.2-inch Krupp heavy guns. The frames, armor and weapons came from Germany, as did a pair of copies built with all-steel hulls. These cruisers were less expensive than the battleships (about a third of the cost), and their construction in a Chinese yard gave many more Chinese officials access to graft opportunities. The ships themselves were obsolete before they had even been laid down, but did help bulk up the numbers of the Fuzhou fleet. That apparently gave the Chinese an unrealistic view of their naval strength, which would soon lead to a disastrous confrontation with an unexpected enemy.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.