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

Our story began in Part One.

France had seized southern Vietnam in 1862, forming the colony of Cochin China, and over the next two decades began to exert their influence in Annam (central Vietnam) and Tonkin (northern Vietnam). By the early 1880’s, the influence of merchants and missionaries had become direct military intervention, and the Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc turned to the Chinese warlord Liu Yongfu and his Black Flag Army, a criminal organization controlling trade between Vietnam and Yunnan. The Chinese Qing government soon answered the call as well, agreeing to supply its own troops and arm the Black Flags.

The Sino-French War would not be formally declared, but soon involved a French invasion of Taiwan and a series of naval battles. While the Chinese did surprisingly well on land, inflicting a number of defeats on the French, the French Far East Squadron led by Admiral Amédée Courbet destroyed the Fukien Fleet in a battle at Fuzhou. Li Hung-chang, commissioner of the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet and also serving as Chinese Grand Secretary, blocked moves to deploy his more powerful Beiyang Fleet to face the French, citing aggressive Japanese moves in Korea. The French, for their part, successfully convinced the German government to slow-walk delivery of the modern new warships ordered there.

The defeat actually spurred further naval development, despite the destruction of the Fukien Fleet. China had fought a European power, won battlefield victories (though on land, not at sea) and lost no actual Chinese territory, only the tributary state of Vietnam which became a pair of French protectorates. More money flowed to the naval buildup, to continue to strengthen the Beiyang Fleet and replace the losses of the Fukien Fleet.

A British weekly’s view of the Battle of Fuzhou, 1884.

These included more gunboats, gunboat-sized composite cruisers, and gunboat-sized steel cruisers, all for the Fukien Fleet. These were built in the Fuzhou naval shipyard, which despite French claims of total destruction had only been lightly damaged by Courbet’s bombardment during the recent war.

For the Beiyang Fleet, Li Hung-chang received authorization from the Sea Defense Fund for four new cruisers built in Germany, but he and his officials could not decide whether these should be armored cruisers with a full belt, or protected cruisers with less armor but greater speed. In typical fashion for Imperial Chinese bureaucrats, they split the difference, ordering two small armored cruisers in Germany and two small protected cruisers in England.

A fifth armored cruiser was laid down at Kiangnan Dockyard, to an odd design built around a single 10.2-inch gun, making the very low speed of 10.5 knots. This ship, named Ping Yuen, was the first armored ship built in China, and it’s unclear whether she was simply meant to be a slow armored ship, or if the locomotive boilers that powered her engines had been intended to generate more than the 2,400 horsepower they actually put out. She would also be the last ship added to the fleet before war came again.

In 1889, Emperor Guangxu reached the age of 18, married and took full governing powers. That meant that the regent, Dowager Empress Cixi, lost her control over the Sea Defense Fund. Before that happened, she looted the fund to pay for rebuilding the Summer Palace, burnt by French and British troops in 1860, and to set aside funding for a lavish 60th birthday pageant for herself, due in 1894. The fund at the time had enough cash on hand to build somewhere between three and six modern first-line battleships, but Imperial China had built her last battleship.

At least Cixi built one ship with her embezzled naval funds: the Summer Palace’s famed Marble Boat.

By this point, the Navy didn’t need more battleships – it needed facilities to support the ones it already had. The new cruisers and battleships had to go to Hong Kong of Japan when they needed drydocking, but after a massive 1886 brawl in Nagasaki between Chinese sailors and Japanese dock workers in which several police were killed, the Chinese were banned from Japanese ports after the Qing government refused to apologize. A drydock finally opened in the new Chinese naval base at Port Arthur in 1890, and the Chinese also improved the anchorage at Weihaiwei on the opposite shore of the Yellow Sea.

Meanwhile, the Japanese had embarked on their own fleet-building program; as with the Chinese fleet, at this stage of industrial development almost all of the major warships were purchased abroad – some of them sister ships of Chinese vessels. The new Imperial Japanese Navy was structured to fight the Chinese, and soon enough it would get its chance to do so.

The Sino-Japanese War erupted in 1894 following nearly two decades of rising tension between China and Japan over the future of Korea. The proximate cause was a massive peasant rebellion in Korea, sparked by high taxation rates and governmental incompetence. The Koreans asked for Chinese military support, which was granted; the Japanese sent their own troops, which the Koreans had not requested. Seeing that the Koreans had the rebellion under control, the Chinese were already leaving when the Japanese seized Korean King Gojong, replaced his government with pro-Japanese puppets, and poured in more Japanese troops. This, of course, meant war with China.

On paper, the Chinese held most of the advantages at sea. They had two battleships; the Japanese had none (their first two battleships, ordered in England, were far from complete). They had more ships and more guns and more sailors. The Japanese had training, leadership, morale, tactical acumen and quick-firing guns in their favor, and these factors would prove decisive.

The empires declared war on one another on 1 August 1894, and for the next six weeks the Japanese pushed the Chinese out of Korea, besieging most of the Chinese forces in Korea at Pyongyang. The Chinese formed a reinforcement convoy with more troops, escorted by the Beiyang Fleet, and eventually directed it to the mouth of the Yalu River, the next Chinese defense line after Pyongyang fell to the Japanese.

The Chinese battleship Ting Yuen at the Battle of the Yalu River.

The Battle of the Yalu River was a crushing defeat for the Chinese; damage to the flagship Ting Yuen (accounts differ as to whether this came from Japanese fire or her own guns) badly injured fleet commander Admiral Ting Ju-ch’ang and destroyed the signaling mast. It went downhill from there: Ting had chosen a wedge formation apparently taken from the Austrian approach at the 1866 Battle of Lissa, the last fleet action fought on the high seas. That allowed the Japanese to cross in front of them in line-ahead formation and use their superior rate of fire to shoot up the oncoming Chinese. A slow rate of fire combined with a huge number of dud rounds hampered the Chinese ship’s ability to hit back at the enemy.

The Chinese lost five of their 14 ships, mostly from fires; the two battleships each absorbed over 200 small-caliber hits but remained in operation. The Japanese had six ships damaged but none had been sunk. Chinese losses came to about 850 men, compared to 300 for the Japanese. The troop convoy unloaded safely, so Ting’s fleet accomplished its mission, and the Japanese did not pursue the defeated Chinese fleet.

The Chinese fleet moved from the well-stocked Port Arthur to the bare (but fortified) anchorage at Weihaiwei; the Japanese captured Port Arthur in October and merrily massacred between 2,700 and 20,000 of the civilian inhabitants. After a 23-day siege in January and February 1895, Weihaiwei fell to the Japanese and with it the remnants of the Beiyang Fleet. More of the ships had been sunk during the siege, but one battleship and several other vessels were eventually refitted and added to the Japanese fleet.

The war ended with China excluded from Korea, and also ceding Taiwan and the Liaotung (with Port Arthur) to the Japanese. Russia, France, and Germany exerted diplomatic pressure to return Port Arthur to China, and three years later the Russians leased the peninsula from the Chinese. Disgusted by the Port Arthur massacre, the British government refused to support Japan’s position and instead exerted their own diplomatic muscle to take Weihaiwei for themselves along with the New Territories on the mainland adjacent to Hong Kong Island. The French took Kwangchow Bay in south China, but the Qing government laughed off Italian demands for a similar concession.

On the positive side, the outcome of the war did force Empress-Dowager Cixi to cancel the birthday celebrations whose funding had helped put the Beiyang Fleet in such a perilous state of unreadiness.

With the Beiyang Fleet having been annihilated, the Nanyang Fleet moved northward to take its place – once Port Arthur had been regained, the Imperial court felt it imperative that China station a fleet there. The Japanese had been concerned about the Nanyang cruisers intervening against their supply lines during the war, but as in 1884 the Chinese fought the war with just one of their three fleets.  They returned to the south once the Russians took over Port Arthur.

Launching the British-built cruiser Hai Chi, January 1898.

While Li Hung-chang had lost most of his positions in the wake of the defeat, he somehow emerged from the bureaucratic scrum with his foreign affairs portfolio intact and the task of rebuilding the Chinese Navy. Li had hoped to order new battleships, but the Sea Defense Fund remained badly depleted and instead he ordered three small protected cruisers and four destroyers from Vulkan, and two more protected cruisers from the Armstrong yard in England. He conducted a world-wide diplomatic tour funded by the shipbuilding budget, setting the model for the 1908 proposed naval program. At home, the Fuzhou yard laid down a class of modern torpedo gunboats.

China appeared on the way to an improbably naval revival, but in 1898 Empress Dowager Cixi seized power again, and the “Boxer” movement allied to the Empress gained sway. That in turn sparked foreign intervention to rescue their Beijing legations from the Harmonious Fists; the Beiyang Fleet responded by steaming up the Yangtze River to escape possible foreign attack. The intervention forces did seize the four destroyers, dividing the spoils among themselves.

A new attempt to revive the Navy began in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, with Chinese personnel sent to Japan for training in 1905, and a small squadron dispatched to show the flag in East Asian ports, also a first. Efforts remained limited until 1908, when the Empress-Dowager died – though not without first arranging the murder by arsenic poisoning of Emperor Guangxu, lest he resume his reform programs after her death. Soon enough, the new Regent Prince Chun, father of the toddler-emperor Puyi, would be looking at a much more ambitious fleet revival.

You can order Rise of the Dragon (second edition) right here.
Please allow an extra three weeks for delivery.

Prince Chun’s Dreadnoughts
            Russo-Japanese War (Playbook)
            Rise of the Dragon (2e)
Retail Price: $99.98
Package Price: $80.00
Gold Club Price: $64.00

You can order Prince Chun right here.

Please allow an extra three weeks for delivery.

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. His Iron Dog, Leopold, could swim very well.

Want to keep Daily Content free of third-party ads? You can send us some love (and cash) through this link right here.



Jutland 2nd Edition
Buy it here

Dogger Bank
Buy it here

Russo-Japanese War 2e
Buy it here

Remember the Maine 2e
Buy it here