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The Imperial Chinese Navy was the modern navy of the Qing Empire established in 1875. An Imperial naval force in China first came into existence from 1132[1] during the Song Dynasty and existed in some form until the end of the Qing period in 1912. However, the "Imperial Chinese Navy" usually only refers to the Qing navy which existed between 1875 and 1912.

Imperial Chinese Navy
Country China
AllegianceImperial standard of the Qing Emperor.svg Emperor of China
FleetsBeiyang Fleet
Fujian Fleet
Guangdong Fleet
Nanyang Fleet
Ensign of the Imperial Chinese NavyFlag of China (1889–1912).svg




Prior to the 12th century, Chinese naval ships were not organized into a uniform force. The end of the Song dynasty in 1293 was marked by the Battle of Yamen, where a 1000-ship Song fleet (most of which were transport and support ships) was defeated by a 50-ship Mongol fleet.

The Mongol Yuan dynasty was able to assemble and command fleets of unprecedented size. Yuan fleets were used in the invasions of Vietnam in 1258 and then the 1280s, Japan in 1281, and Java in 1293.

During the early Ming dynasty, Admiral Zheng He commanded the Treasure fleet, a large expeditionary fleet, during his voyages in the 15th century. However, the Ming empire then turned inwards. Nevertheless, the reduced Ming coastal fleet was able to dominate other Asian navies and hold its own against marauders. In 1521, at the Battle of Tunmen a squadron of Ming naval junks defeated a Portuguese caravel fleet, which was followed by another Ming victory against a Portuguese fleet at the Battle of Xicaowan in 1522. In 1633, a Ming navy defeated a European fleet during the Battle of Liaoluo Bay, when a fleet of 50 large junks, equipped with British-made guns, aided by 100 fireships, defeated a fleet of 20 Dutch East India Company ships and 50 pirate ships.

The continuing "sea ban" policy during the early Qing dynasty meant that the development of naval power stagnated. River and coastal naval defence was the responsibility of the waterborne units of the Green Standard Army, which were based at Jingkou (now Zhenjiang) and Hangzhou.

In 1661, a naval unit was established at Jilin to defend against Russian incursions into Manchuria. Naval units were also added to various Banner garrisons subsequently, referred to collectively as the "Eight Banners Navy". In 1677, the Qing court re-established the Fujian Fleet in order to combat the Ming-loyalist Kingdom of Tungning based on Taiwan. This conflict culminated in the Qing victory the Battle of Penghu in 1683 and the surrender of the Tungning shortly after the battle. The Second Opium War showed the complete futility of the pre-modern Chinese fleet when facing modern European navies, when 300 Chinese naval junks, armed with British-made guns, did almost no damage to 56 British and French ironclads. In the 1860s, an attempt to establish a modern navy via the British-built Osborn or "Vampire" Fleet to combat the Taiping rebels' US-built gunboats was aborted due to disagreements over command and staffing.[citation needed]

Establishment of the Qing navyEdit

In 1865, the Jiangnan Shipyard was established.

In 1874, a Japanese incursion into Taiwan exposed the vulnerability of China at sea. A proposal was made to establish three modern coastal fleets: the Northern Sea or Beiyang Fleet, to defend the Yellow Sea, the Southern Sea or Nanyang Fleet, to defend the East China Sea, and the Canton Sea or Yueyang Fleet, to defend the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The Beiyang Fleet, with a remit to defend the section of coastline closest to the capital Beijing, was prioritised.

Chinese ironclad battleship Dingyuan, the flagship of the Beiyang Fleet
Sister ship of the Dingyuan, ironclad battleship Zhenyuan

A series of warships were ordered from Britain and Germany in the late 1870s, and naval bases were built at Port Arthur and Weihaiwei. The first British-built ships were delivered in 1881, and the Beiyang Fleet was formally established in 1888. In 1894 the Beiyang Fleet was on paper the strongest navy in Asia at the time. However, it was largely lost during the First Sino-Japanese War in the Battle of the Yalu RIver. Although the Zhenyuan and Dingyuan modern batttleships were impervious to Japanese fire, they were unable to sink a single ship and all eight cruisers were lost.[2]The battle displayed once again that the modernisation efforts of China were far inferior to the Meiji Restoration. The Nanyang Fleet was also established in 1875, and grew with mostly domestically built warships and a small number of acquisitions from Britain and Germany.

The Nanyang Fleet fought in the Sino-French War, performing somewhat poorly against the French in all engagements.

The separate Fujian and Guangdong fleets became part of the Imperial navy after 1875. The Fujian Fleet was almost annihilated during the Sino-French War, and was only able to acquire two new ships thereafter. By 1891, due to budget cuts, the Fujian Fleet was barely a viable fleet. The Guangdong Fleet was established in the late 1860s and based at Whampoa, in Canton (now Guangzhou). Ships from the Guangdong Fleet toured the South China Sea in 1909 as a demonstration of Chinese control over the sea.

After the First Sino-Japanese War, Zhang Zhidong established a river-based fleet in Hubei.

In 1909, the remnants of the Beiyang, Nanyang, Guangdong and Fujian Fleets, together with the Hubei fleet, were merged, and re-organised as the Sea Fleet and the River Fleet.

In 1911, Sa Zhenbing became the Minister of Navy of the Great Qing.

Sailors from the Hai Chi of the Imperial Chinese Navy, on parade in New York.

One of the new ships delivered after the war with Japan, the cruiser Hai Chi, in 1911 became the first vessel flying the Yellow Dragon Flag to arrive in American waters, visiting New York City as part of a tour.[3][4][5][6]


After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the Imperial Chinese Navy was replaced by the Republic of China Navy. The People's Liberation Army Navy was established in early 1949 by the Communist Party of China, and after the establishment of the People's Republic of China later that year became the main navy of China.



  • Beiyang Fleet: Liugong Island, Weihaiwei (1888-1895); occupied by Japan 1895-1898, leased to Britain 1898-1940 (until 1930 as part of Weihaiwei); re-occupied by Japan 1940-1945; used by Communist forces from 1945
    • Tianjin, home to the Tianjin Naval Academy
    • Lüshunkou, Dalian (1888-1895); occupied by Japan 1895-1898, leased to Russia 1898-1904; occupied by Japan 1904-1945; leased to Soviet Union 1945-1955; returned to China in 1955
  • Nanyang Fleet: Shanghai, Nanjing
  • Fujian Fleet: Foochow Arsenal, near Fuzhou (1866—1884) - fleet base of the Qing navy and naval yard and School of Naval Administration in the late 19th century; ancient shipbuilding centre
  • Guangdong Fleet: Whampoa, Canton


In 1885, after the Sino-French War, the Qing court set up a Navy Office to oversee the navy. In 1910, as part of the reform of the Qing government structure, the Navy Office was replaced by a Navy Ministry, headed by a Navy Secretary.[8]

The highest ranks of the navy after the merger of the fleets in 1909 were:

Ship typesEdit

Pre-19th-century ships were wood and of various sizes.

  • fu po (warship) - 19th-century ships
  • hai hu or sea hawks
  • combat junks
  • louchuan (樓船) - tower ships of the Ming dynasty
  • mengchong or covered swoopers (艨艟): leather-covered assault warship - ships of the Three Kingdoms period
  • river boats - Song Dynasty
  • wugongchuan, or centipede ship - 16th century galley based on Portuguese types
  • yu ting or patrol boats
  • zhan xian or combat junks
  • zou ge or flying barques

Following the First Opium War, the Qing improved their naval fleet with modern ships from Europe:


Coastal Defense Ships:




Flags shown are for the Imperial Chinese Navy during the period 1909 to 1911:[9]

Notes:The Commodore was not a substantive rank, but rather a captain commanding a squadron.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3, Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei:. Caves Books Ltd. p. 476.
  2. ^ Mark Peattie, David C. Evans (1997). Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy. United States: Naval Institute Press. p. 44. ISBN 9780870211928.
  3. ^ "Flag, Pearl & Peace". Time magazine. July 17, 1933. Retrieved 2010-12-18. The cruiser Hai Chi ("Flag of the Sea") earned in 1911 the distinction of being the first Chinese war boat ever to visit the West when she steamed as near as possible to the Coronation of King George V, discharged a cargo of Chinese emissaries in gorgeous silken robes. Built in 1897 the Hai Chi and the equally venerable Hai Shen ("Pearl of the Sea") were still listed last week as the only cruisers in China's Northeastern Squadron.
  4. ^ "Chinese Cruiser Welcomed To Port. First Ship Flying the Yellow Dragon Flag to Anchor in American Waters". New York Times. September 11, 1911. Retrieved 2010-12-18. Who cruiser Hai-Chi of the Imperial Navy of China, the first vessel of any kind flying the yellow dragon flag of China that has ever been in American waters, steamed into the Hudson yesterday morning and anchored in midstream opposite the Soldiers and Sailors' Monument, at Eighty-ninth Street.
  5. ^ "Men Of Chinese Cruiser Hai-Chi Are Entertained". Christian Science Monitor. September 12, 1911. Retrieved 2010-12-18. Officers and men of the Chinese cruiser Hai-Chi, which arrived at this port Monday, are to be given ample opportunity to see New York during their stay of 10 days here. ...
  6. ^ New York Tribune September 12,1911
  7. ^ Li, Guotong (Sep 8, 2016). Migrating Fujianese: Ethnic, Family, and Gender Identities in an Early Modern Maritime World. BRILL. p. 71. ISBN 9789004327214.
  8. ^ Li, Miles. "Imperial Chinese Navy Flags (1909)". CRW Flags, 24 May 2007. Retrieved 12 March 2017.
  9. ^ Li, Miles. "Imperial Chinese Navy Flags (1909)". CRW Flags, 24 May 2007. Retrieved 12 March 2017.


  • Cole, Bernard D. The Great Wall at Sea: China's Navy in the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed., 2010)
  • Graff, David Andrew and Robin Higham (2002). A Military History of China. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Miles Li, (2007) "Fujian Arsenal" temporary exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence.
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3, Civil Engineering and Nautics. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.

External linksEdit