Watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks

Inscribed in 2010 (5.COM) on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding

Country(ies): China



Watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks

Developed in South China’s Fujian Province, the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks permits the construction of ocean-going vessels with watertight compartments. If one or two cabins are accidentally damaged in the course of navigation, seawater will not flood the other cabins and the vessel will remain afloat. The junks are made mainly of camphor, pine and fir timber, and assembled through use of traditional carpenters’ tools. They are built by applying the key technologies of rabbet-jointing planks together and caulking the seams between the planks with ramie, lime and tung oil. The construction is directed by a master craftsman who oversees a large number of craftsmen, working in close coordination. Local communities participate by holding solemn ceremonies to pray for peace and safety during construction and before the launch of the completed vessel. The experience and working methods of watertight-bulkhead technology are transmitted orally from master to apprentices. However, the need for Chinese junks has decreased sharply as wooden vessels are replaced by steel-hulled ships, and today only three masters can claim full command of this technology. Associated building costs have also increased owing to a shortage in raw materials. As a result, transmission of this heritage is decreasing and transmitters are forced to seek alternative employment.


Decision 5.COM 5.2

The Committee (…) decides that [this element] satisfies the criteria for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, as follows:

  • U1: The watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks is recognized by coastal Chinese communities as a core traditional skill and transmitted orally through the generations from master to apprentice; reflecting their knowledge of nature and the universe, it is the focus both of community identity and of local ceremonies;
  • U2: Despite the historical importance of this shipbuilding technology, its continuity and viability are today at great risk because wooden ships are replaced by steel-hulled vessels, while the timber for their construction is in increasingly short supply; apprentices are reluctant to devote the time necessary to master the trade and craftspeople have not managed to find supplementary uses for their carpentry skills;
  • U3: Safeguarding measures designed to sustain the shipbuilding tradition include State financial assistance to master builders, educational programmes to make it possible for them to transmit their traditional knowledge to young people, and the reconstruction of historical junks as a means to stimulate public awareness and provide employment;
  • U4: National and provincial authorities have committed themselves to create favourable conditions to support safeguarding of the watertight-bulkhead technology and the leading craftspeople have been involved in the nomination, having provided their free, prior and informed consent to it;
  • U5: In June 2008, upon approval of China’s State Council, the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks was included in the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage administered by the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture.



© 2009 by Huang Yanyi

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