The Chih Yuen marked Beiyang Fleet’s glory days and sud­den fall

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YANG [email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

Al­though the Chih Yuen was one of China’s short­est-lived bat­tle­ships, it re­mains one of the coun­try’s best-known sym­bols of brav­ery and pa­tri­o­tism.

The 2,300-ton ves­sel was com­pleted by the Arm­strong Ship­build­ing Co in New­cas­tle upon Tyne, Eng­land, on Oct 20, 1885. One year later, it joined the Beiyang Fleet of the Im­pe­rial Chi­nese Navy of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) as one of its ma­jor bat­tle­ships.

A Chi­nese crew trained in New­cas­tle upon Tyne and sailed the ship to Xi­a­men, Fu­jian prov­ince, with three other ves­sels — one built at the Arm­strong plant, and the other two by Bre­mer Vulkan, a ship­builder in Ger­many.

Dur­ing a five-hour bat­tle in the Sino-Ja­panese War (1894-95) on Sept 17, 1894, the Chih Yuen and three other bat­tle­ships of the Beiyang Fleet were sunk by the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Navy in the Yel­low Sea off Dan­dong, Liaon­ing prov­ince.

But the Chih Yuen has at­tracted more at­ten­tion than the other three be­cause of its at­tack on the Ja­panese flag­ship Yoshino be­fore the Chi­nese ves­sel sank af­ter a boiler ex­plo­sion. Only seven of the crew of about 250 were res­cued.

The Beiyang Fleet in­cluded 105 ships of var­i­ous types, in­clud­ing at least 10 world-class cruis­ers and bat­tle­ships. It her­alded not only the start of China’s mod­ern navy, but also ranked ninth glob­ally in terms of ton­nage.

The Sino-Ja­panese War, in which the en­tire Beiyang Fleet was lost, marked a turn­ing point that di­verted the na­tion’s at­ten­tion on na­tional de­fense from the land to the sea.

The Chih Yuen, as the “pearl” of the Beiyang Fleet, be­came a fo­cal point for both its glory days and sud­den fall.

His­to­ri­ans said that un­der orders from the ves­sel’s cap­tain, Deng Shichang, who be­came a na­tional hero, the Chih Yuen at­tempted to ram the

Yoshino at full speed while com­ing un­der heavy fire. The Ja­panese ship was dam­aged in the same bat­tle.

But their ac­count has been chal­lenged by re­cent dis­cov­er­ies from the wreck of the Chih Yuen, which lies about 20 me­ters below the sur­face of the ocean near Dalu Is­land off the coast of Dan­dong.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered some 120 items from the ship­wrecks as well as other sunken ships. It was or­ga­nized by the Na­tional Cultural Her­itage Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Un­der­wa­ter Cultural Her­itage Pro­tec­tion Cen­ter and the Liaon­ing In­sti­tute of Cultural Relics and Ar­chae­ol­ogy.

The dis­cov­er­ies in­cluded dam­aged weapons, items for daily use and a bro­ken porce­lain plate bear­ing the name Chih Yuen in both ro­man let­ter­ing and Chi­nese char­ac­ters. This has been viewed as di­rect ev­i­dence prov­ing the iden­tity of the wrecked ship.

The un­der­wa­ter re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion was led by Zhou Chun­shui, a re­searcher at the Un­der­wa­ter Cultural Her­itage Pro­tec­tion Cen­ter in Bei­jing. He said that parts of the Chih Yuen’s boiler lay scat­tered in the muddy depths over a large area, in­di­cat­ing an ex­plo­sion had oc­curred be­fore the ves­sel sank.

Many parts of the ship, most of them buried in 3 me­ters of mud, were dis­tended and dam­aged, and it ap­peared that a large fire had been ex­tin­guished sud­denly.

Zhou said, “Un­ex­pect­edly, we found a tor­pedo with its det­o­na­tor, in­di­cat­ing that the Chih Yuen had not lost its com­bat abil­ity as his­to­ri­ans claimed. Plant­ing the det­o­na­tor meant the tor­pedo was ready to be launched at any time.”

Sa Su, a his­to­rian who stud­ies wars be­tween China and Ja­pan, said the new find­ings also show there is a pos­si­bil­ity that Deng, the cap­tain, had not in­tended to ram the Yoshino, but had aimed to move as close as pos­si­ble to it to in­crease the ac­cu­racy of a tor­pedo at­tack.

“This would have been a fa­tal gam­ble as well, since it would have ex­posed the ship to close fire from the Ja­panese fleet. It is highly pos­si­ble that its boiler was hit dur­ing this time,” Sa said.

In 2014, the Un­der­wa­ter Cultural Her­itage Cen­ter signed a co­op­er­a­tion agree­ment with Dan­dong Port Group, fund­ing it to pro­tect the ship­wrecks for the next five years. Since then, at least one tug­boat has been sent to pa­trol the wa­ters near both wrecks ev­ery day.

Song Peiran, the group’s vice-pres­i­dent who is in charge of the pro­tec­tion work, said the com­pany is re­quired to pro­tect cultural relics, as the ship­wrecks were found in wa­ters near the port.

Ac­cord­ing to Chen Yue, chair­man of the So­ci­ety of Chi­nese Navy His­tory, the Ja­panese navy re­turned to the wa­ters on Sept 18, 1895, in an at­tempt to salvage two sunken war­ships, in­clud­ing the Chih Yuen, but failed. It used a tor­pedo to sink a half-sub­merged light cruiser aban­doned by the Chi­nese navy dur­ing the war.

Res­i­dents of Dalu Is­land, which cov­ers 6.6 square kilo­me­ters and is just over 18 km from the scene of the Chih Yuen sinking, said their grand­par­ents told them that in 1894 they had saved the lives of many wounded Chi­nese sailors.

They also said the Ja­panese navy sailed to the area in 1937 — when a diver from Ja­pan died in the salvage at­tempt — and also in 1938 to dis­man­tle iron and steel parts from the wrecks. The parts were piled on the is­land be­fore be­ing taken to neigh­bor­ing Dalian, Liaon­ing, for re­cy­cling to make new weapons for Ja­pan dur­ing the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1931-45).

Yu Kaichen, a fish­er­man from Dalu Is­land, said his grand­par­ents had told him that be­fore the Ja­panese ar­rived in 1937, the main masts of some sunken war­ships could be seen when the tide ebbed. Fish­er­men had to steer clear of the wa­ters in case their nets be­came en­tan­gled in the wrecks.

Li Manx­ian, an­other fish­er­man from the is­land, said his fa­ther was em­ployed by the Ja­panese to sup­ply oxy­gen to a div­ing ma­chine. He told Li that Wang Xu­nian, a diver from Dalian, had been hired by the Ja­panese to in­stall ex­plo­sives to break up the iron and steel parts.

Records show that Wang found a skele­ton in the

Chih Yuen’s wheel­house and brought this back to Dalu Is­land, where it was buried and wor­shipped by lo­cals who be­lieved it to be that of Deng, the cap­tain. The tomb be­came a tourist at­trac­tion in 2002.

But Chen said there are no records in Ja­pan of the salvage at­tempts made in 1937 and 1938, and ac­cord­ing to wit­ness ac­counts, Deng was on deck while his ship sank, and he drowned to­gether with his dog, who was try­ing to save him.

The divers’ find­ings match ac­counts of the Ja­panese salvage at­tempts by the is­landers, as only the

Chih Yuen’s hull re­mains, with all the equip­ment on deck be­ing de­stroyed, said Li Feiyan, who took part in the un­der­wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Li also said some sailors’ re­mains were found in the hull. Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the TV play Beiyang

Fleet in the 1990s, many peo­ple do­nated money and urged the cen­tral govern­ment to salvage the wreck of the Chih Yuen. How­ever, due to a lack of tech­nol­ogy and fund­ing, the project was un­able to go be­yond lo­cat­ing the wa­ters where the ship sank.

Chai Jun, a re­searcher with the Chi­nese Na­tional Academy of Arts and one of the project ini­tia­tors, said, “Sup­port­ers said we were sal­vaging the soul of the na­tion, but we un­der­es­ti­mated the dif­fi­culty of the work.”

Zhang Zongyi, who chairs the Dalu vil­lage com­mit­tee, said, “If the Chih Yuen was sal­vaged to­day, all the 3,400 res­i­dents of Dalu Is­land would sup­port this, be­cause it would pro­vide the is­land with a golden op­por­tu­nity to de­velop tourism.”

Some ex­perts also sup­port sal­vaging the wreck of the most leg­endary war­ship in China’s naval his­tory.

Xu Hua, a re­searcher of the Sino-Ja­panese War with the Chi­nese Mil­i­tary Mu­seum, is one of them. He said an im­por­tant rea­son that the stud­ies on the war have made no progress over the years is a lack of source ma­te­ri­als and items, mean­ing that re­searchers can only rely on old files.

“Sal­vaging the Chih Yuen would pro­vide a large amount of first-hand ma­te­rial to pro­vide a break­through in re­search on not only the war but also China’s naval his­tory,” Xu said.

How­ever, sal­vaging the ves­sel is not on the Na­tional Cultural Her­itage Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda.

Zhou said the fo­cus is now on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey work, which is dif­fer­ent from a salvage op­er­a­tion or prepar­ing for one.

“A large-scale ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey has not been started. It takes a long time to pump out sand and mud, and screen this care­fully for any valu­able items. Only com­ple­tion of an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion will pro­vide sug­ges­tions on whether or how to salvage the wrecks,” Zhou said.

He added that those parts of the Chih Yuen’s hull that re­main were dam­aged by ex­plo­sions, fire and Ja­panese “ex­ploita­tive” salvage ef­forts, mak­ing re­cov­ery work dif­fi­cult.

How­ever, such work is tech­no­log­i­cally pos­si­ble, as China has mas­tered the ad­vanced salvage tech­nol­ogy that is re­quired, and ac­cu­mu­lated a cer­tain amount of ex­pe­ri­ence in re­cent years dur­ing dif­fi­cult re­cov­ery work on ship­wrecks that hap­pened nearly 1,000 years ago.

Wu Yan­liang, head of the Liaon­ing In­sti­tute of Cultural Relics and Ar­chae­ol­ogy, said it will not con­sider sal­vaging the wrecks un­til all “con­di­tions are right to make sure it is 100 per­cent safe”.

Wu said: “The Na­tional Cultural Her­itage Ad­min­is­tra­tion has mo­bi­lized top ex­perts in un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion to take part in the on­go­ing sur­vey of the Chih Yuen shipwreck. We are work­ing on a more de­tailed plan that will make the project more ef­fi­cient and pro­duc­tive while pay­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion to pro­tect­ing the ship.”

Cui Yong, head of the un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­ol­ogy cen­ter at the Guang­dong In­sti­tute of Cultural Relics and Ar­chae­ol­ogy, who is work­ing on the project, said that al­though China has the tech­nol­ogy to salvage the ves­sel, an as­sess­ment is still re­quired on whether it is bet­ter to leave the wreck on the seabed.

Mu Zhonghuai, deputy sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Liaon­ing So­ci­ety of Sino-Ja­pan War Stud­ies, said, “The Chih Yuen has been there for more than 120 years, and will prob­a­bly col­lapse in the process of sal­vaging, as sea­wa­ter has se­ri­ously eroded the hull. Al­low­ing it to rest on the seabed is ap­par­ently a bet­ter op­tion.”

But Mu said the Liaon­ing au­thor­i­ties should do more to re­search the war and de­velop tourism.

He cited the ex­am­ple of Wei­hai, Shan­dong prov­ince, a port city at the tip of the Shan­dong Penin­sula on the Bo­hai Strait that was home to the Beiyang Fleet. Wei­hai has been a re­search and tourism cen­ter for the war for decades, even though most of the ship­wrecks are in wa­ters off Liaon­ing, and most of the naval bat­tles took place near the Liaodong Penin­sula.

Dan­dong is prepar­ing to build a mu­seum on the war, and a life-size replica of the Chih Yuen, spon­sored by lo­cal busi­ness­peo­ple, was com­pleted in the city in late 2016 as a tourist at­trac­tion.

Ye Weili, the fifth-gen­er­a­tion grand­son of Deng, the Chih Yuen cap­tain, stressed that fu­ture salvage work, if pos­si­ble, must be car­ried out in a sci­en­tific way to pro­tect the ves­sel and its cultural relics.

“I hope a mon­u­ment to all the 3,000 or so sailors in the naval war can be built so that their de­scen­dants can visit it,” Ye said.


A de­sign for the Chih Yuen is kept in archives in New­cas­tle upon Tyne, Eng­land.



Top and above: Items found from the wreck of the Chih Yuen about 20 me­ters below the sur­face of the ocean.

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