Ancient China Boats

Ancient China boats were an important part of society. Boats were needed to transport goods and people.

Ancient China boats were made of wood and were the first boats in the world to use a rudder. A rudder helped a boat steer easier.


The rudder was invented by the ancient Chinese. The rudder was placed on the stern or back of the boat.

The rudder was a unique device that helped steer a boat easier. Before the rudder was invented boats were steered with poles or oars.

Building materials

Ancient China boats were constructed of wood. Smaller boats were made from bamboo. Larger boats were constructed of hard woods.

Sails were used on most boats. Sails were made of materials such as silk, hemp or cotton. Silk sails were more elaborate and used on boats of the emperor or noble families.

Hemp was a durable and rigid material that could withstand more wind. Cotton eventually replaced hemp because it was lighter and an easier material to sew.

Small Boats

Small boats were necessary in ancient China. The small boats were called kakams. These boats were primarily made of bamboo.

Bamboo was the perfect material for making boats. Bamboo is light, strong and easy to shape when wet. The small boats were used to fish and transport people like a modern day taxi.

Medium Boats

Medium sized ancient China boats were called zaws. Zaws were constructed like larger boats but on a smaller scale. The boats had one or two sails.

The sails were made of silk or other textiles. Zaws also used a rudder to steer. The medium sized boats were used to transport goods along the river ways until they unloaded their cargo on land or on a larger boat.

Large boats

Larger boats in ancient China were called Junks. Junks were the largest boats made in the world during ancient times. Junks first sailed in the Han Dynasty.

These ancient China boats had three to four sails. The masts were made of bamboo and were usually three stories in height. Junks were able to navigate because they used a rudder to steer.


Flat bottom boats in ancient China were called sampans. The boats were mainly used for travel on river ways and by fishermen.

The boats were propelled by oar or pole. Many sampans had a shelter built on the deck. Sampans were also used as floating homes along the river ways.

The boats stayed close to land as they could not withstand rough waters or weather. Today, many sampans are propelled by outboard motors attached to the deck.

Important facts about ancient China boats

  • The rudder was invented in ancient China.
  • Bamboo was used for constructing many parts of ancient China boats.
  • Sails were made of silk, hemp or cotton.
  • Small boats in ancient China were called kakams and were propelled by poles or oars.
  • Junks were large boats with three or four large sails and used to transport goods and sometimes soldiers.
  • Sampans were flat boats that were also used for homes on a waterway or river.
  • Zaws were medium sized boats that had one sail and were steered by a rudder.
  • Boats were used as water taxis in ancient China.



1. Sails on ancient China boats were made from what type of material?

Silk, hemp or cotton

2. Large boast in ancient China that transported goods were called?


3. Flat bottom boats in ancient China were named?


4. What did the ancient Chinese invent to help boats steer easier?