New Page 1

Home About Membership Contact Despatches Supplies Forum Gallery News


A trip to the "Ting Yuen" and the

Pre-Dreadnought Battlefields of the Yellow Sea


Peter Hunt


The ensign of the Imperial Chinese Navy flies over its newest battleship.

These days you do not get many chances to tread the decks of a brand new pre-dreadnought battleship.  Especially one that was sunk 110 years ago.  Chances to see mighty Krupp guns standing guard over craggy cliffs defending naval bases, just as they did in 1890, are almost as scarce.  But you do not need a time machine to do these things, just tickets to Wei Hai (formerly Port Edward), and to Lushan (formerly Port Arthur), which are situated on opposite sides of the Yellow Sea in North China .

There are a few preserved pre-dreadnoughts and ironclads out there but not many.  So the good people of Wei Hai’s idea of building a 1:1 scale replica of the Ting Yuen, the flagship of the Chinese Beiyang, or Northern, Fleet during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, struck me as a feat of imagination that was well worth supporting with my tourist dollar.  All the more so since the trip can easily be combined with visits to the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese battle sites at Wei Hai and Lushan.

Getting There

Wei Hai can be reached by air or train from Beijing; or by car from Jinan (six hours) or Qingdao (three hours) both of which have flights from Hong Kong.  Lushan is less than an hour’s drive from Dalien which has good international and internal flight connections.  There is also a ferry between Wei Hai and Dalien.  

The western entrance to Wei Hai Wei ~ Liu Kung Dao as seen from the He Qian Hotel

In Wei Hai I commend the He Qian Hotel to you.  It has nice rooms, good food and excellent service, but, for the pre-dreadnought buff, its location, at the end of the promontory that makes up the land side of the deep water entrance to the bay, right on top of what used to be the base’s main defence fort is another key selling point.  Nothing today remains of the six 24 cm and two 21 cm Krupps guns that were here, except for the grassed terraces on which they stood, but the views are fantastic.  Dalien has lots of nice hotels.  We stayed in the Swissotel which has good views of the harbour that you can pour over with your maps of 1904.

A Bit of Background

The hero of this piece is Admiral Ting Ju-chang, the commander of the Beiyang fleet.  He was not a great Admiral, but then, since he was a cavalry officer this is understandable.  He was, however, brave, honest, loyal and dependable.  In short he was a gentleman.  It is China’s tragedy that he had to take his orders from, the villain of this piece, the Empress Dowager Tz’u-hsi.  After China’s humiliation in the Second Opium War a Sea Defence Fund had been instituted, using customs revenues to build a modern battlefleet.  The Ting Yuen and her sister represent the best use of this fund.  By the end of the 1880s China had the largest, best equipped, and one of the best trained fleets in Asia.  Unfortunately during the 1890s Tz’u-hsi dipped into the fund for her own personal use, most notably to rebuild the Summer Palace, to include a concrete paddle steamer.  Estimates of her peculation vary, but it was in the range of 10 to 21 million Taels, enough to buy three to seven of the best battleships in the world. Unfortunately the Ting Yuens were the first, and only, battleships that China bought.  By that time that war came with Japan in 1894 the Empress Dowager had a very nice palace, but her battlefleet was short on pay, ammunition and sea-time.  To make matters worse Tz’u-hsi exhibited the same sort of strategic direction in the Sino-Japanese War that she did in the later, equally disastrous Boxer Rebellion.  Completely out of touch in the Forbidden City, and basing her judgement on information from ill-informed and self-serving sycophants, she never appreciated the reality, nor the gravity, of the situation she was in.  As a result of this wishful thinking the hapless Admiral Ting was given totally unrealistic “rules of engagement”.  

The Ting Yuen today

But first, the ship.  When I visited the Mikasa I was struck by how Nelson might have found that ship from a hundred years after his day very familiar in places, especially on the long, open tertiary gun decks where the guns fired through open ports on the broadside.  Neither Nelson from 80 years before, nor a sailor from 120 years later, would find much to be familiar with in the Ting Yuen.  This is because she is a representative of a short, narrow and soon extinct branch of battleship evolution that is best described as the central citadel turret (or barbette) battleship.  The design of these ships came from applying a sort of “Occam’s Razor” methodology to the problems of dealing with the great improvements in armour protection and gun penetration that were taking place in the late 1870s and 1880s.  The thinking went something like this:

  • Only the very heaviest armour was useful, as anything else could be penetrated. 

  • Only the very heaviest guns were useful, as anything lighter could not penetrate heavy armour.

  • Because of the weight there could not be much heavy armour, nor many heavy guns.

  • Therefore the solution was to concentrate the vitals of the ship ~ her machinery, magazines and guns ~ in a central citadel which could be heavily armoured.  The rest of the ship was left unarmoured except for a protective deck at the waterline.  Whether the main guns were in armoured turrets or open barbettes was a matter of national taste and weight. 

The model shows the layout of a central citadel battleship ~ main guns and propulsion concentrated amidships

The Italians were the originators of the design and built three classes for a total of seven ships.  The British responded with three classes of five ships.  The two early American second-class battleships gave more than a passing nod to the design theory too, and two were built for Brazil as well.  The fad for these ships lasted from the late 1870s to the late 1880s, so when Ting Yuen and her sister Chen Yuen were ordered in 1881 and 1882 they were considered state of the art vessels at the cutting edge of battleship design.

Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen were built in the Vulcan Yard at Stettin Germany, now Szczeczin, Poland.  They displaced 7,670 tons and their armoured citadel was covered by 14” of compound (steel over iron) armour.  They mounted four 12” breach loading guns in a barbette amidships, with the guns on two turntables surmounted by thin, but complete, shields that gave the impression of turrets.  Right forward and aft were armoured turrets mounting one 5.9” gun each.  They also carried six 37 mm Hotchkiss multiple barrelled guns and three torpedo tubes.  In keeping with the fashion of the time they also carried two second class torpedo boats each, to provide for attack and defence, especially at night time.  They could make nearly 16 knots when new.  All-in-all they were very nearly equivalent to the later British “Edinburgh” class which, for their time, were considered to be first class battleships, although the Ting Yuens were rather smaller and a bit slower with shorter calibre main guns.  The Ting Yuens were certainly better ships than their British contemporaries the Agamemnon class which had only muzzle loading guns.  

Ting Yuen's stern and 5.9" turret

The central citadel turret battleships were criticized in their day on two counts.  Firstly mounting the two turrets in the middle of the superstructure, instead of one each end of it in the conventional manner, severely restricted the arc of fire of the turrets on their opposite broadsides.  The type’s supporters claimed that since both turrets could fire fore and aft this would compensate for the lack of wide broadside arcs of fire.  Secondly it was argued that the unarmoured ends of the ships would be vulnerable to even relatively small guns and shot to pieces in battle, leading to fire and flooding which would result in the loss of the ships even if the citadel remained inviolate.  Although the British “Inflexible” fought at the bombardment of Alexandria and one of the Brazilians was involved in a civil war this was hardly a good test for the design.  However Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen were in heated action for four hours at the Battle of the Yalu in September 1894 so they were truly tested.  Their experience there proved the type’s critics right about the arcs of fire, but wrong about the vulnerable ends. 

At the Yalu the Ting Yuen’s very first shot, fired almost straight ahead, missed the enemy.  But the blast from the gun demolished the flying bridge upon which Admiral Ting and his British advisor, W. F. Tyler, were standing, knocking the admiral out for two hours and deafening Tyler for life . . . obviously the useful arc of fire of the guns was limited!  

12" barbette and the (literally) flying bridge above

On the other hand the Ting Yuen was hit 200 times during the battle and Chen Yuen 150 times, but, although their superstructures were peppered, their citadels were not penetrated.  And whilst they were badly knocked about, they were not endangered.  The Chen Yuen was shipping some water but the main reason for Admiral Ting’s withdrawal was because his ships had used up most of their ammunition.  Since it is the aim of a battleship to dish out punishment, rather than take it, then the design can be considered a success if the ships survived to dish out all the punishment that their ammunition supply allowed.

Sadly for Ting and his sailors the punishment that they dished out was much reduced because of the pernicious effects of corruption in the Chinese government and naval suppliers which resulted in much of their ammunition being old, substandard or even filled with cement rather than bursting charges.  Consequently the Battle of the Yalu saw five Chinese ships sunk for four Japanese ships crippled.  With better ammunition the balance could easily have swung in China’s favour.

After repairs at Lushan, and re-ammunitioning (again with sub-standard rounds) at Tiensien, Admiral Ting moved the Beiyang fleet to Wei Hai.  The ships still constituted a powerful enough “fleet in being” to constrain Japanese movements.  But then the Chen Yuen ran aground and, although able to fight her guns, became unseaworthy.  Since the two battleships constituted China ’s main material superiority over the Japanese the crippling of Chen Yuen swung the balance of naval power firmly in Japan’s favour.

Even whilst the Beiyang fleet was still in being the Japanese took a major risk and despatched an expeditionary force to Lushan.  The base fell to Japanese assault in one day.  The army under General Nogi pierced the defences whilst the Japanese Navy’s torpedo boats broke into the harbour and supported the land troops with their small calibre, quick firing guns.  The attack on Lushan was followed by three days of looting and rapine by the Japanese.  Oddly enough the modern Chinese version of this atrocity stresses the resistance of the garrison and the civilian population.  This appears to me to be a “reinterpretation” in line with the Maoist theory of “people’s war”.  It is clear from contemporary accounts, and the time frame, that the atrocity was not provoked by a civilian guerrilla campaign but was a Nanjing style excess where the Japanese army was let out of control and acted in the most bestial manner.

After the fall of Lushan the Japanese turned their attention to Wei Hai and Ting’s fleet.  Lushan had been built up as the main base for the Beiyang fleet, complete with a dry dock and workshops.  Wei Hai was best described as a protected anchorage.  The bay is protected by the island of Liu Kung Dao on which was located the Beiyang fleet administrative headquarters and coal stocks.  Ten modern forts protected the island and bay from seaward, whilst six, considerably weaker, positions secured the landward approaches.  The Japanese launched an army to take Wei Hai from the landward side and the situation turned into a precursor of the 1942 Singapore debacle.  Wei Hai’s main defences faced seaward and Ting found that instead of the batteries defending his fleet his ships had to fire to defend the batteries.  When the batteries fell to Japanese attack the fleet had to maintain the fire to prevent the captured guns being turned against them.

To keep up the pressure the Japanese launched a series of torpedo boat attacks into the bay.  Some were thwarted by the freezing winter weather, some by friendly fire, and some by confusion.  But, after six attacks the Ting Yuen and three other ships in the fleet had been sunk or crippled.  Chinese counter-fire against the Japanese blockaders was hamstrung by their poor ammunition.  Just as at the Yalu, Japanese ships were hit several times by shells that didn’t explode.

With the Japanese army and navy tightening it’s grip the days of the Beiyang fleet were numbered.  A sortie by the fleet’s torpedo boats was quickly mopped up by the Japanese.  Without serviceable ships and with no hope of relief, Ting accepted the inevitable.  On 12th February 1895 the Beiyang fleet surrendered.  Some commanders turned over their ships intact in the hope of placating the Japanese and thus averting another atrocity like Lushan.  Others were made of sterner stuff and the Ting Yuen and some other ships were destroyed by their own crews.  The senior commanders of the Beiyang fleet were mostly honourable men, and many of them, including Admiral Ting, committed suicide.

The Ching dynasty was rapidly approaching its nadir.  With the Beiyang fleet destroyed China was even more open to imperialist exploitation.  Under the peace treaty Japan took no territorial rights outside of Korea but imposed a swinging indemnity on China and sought economic dominance.  To thwart the Japanese the Chinese leased the Kwangtung Peninsula, with Dalien and Lushan to Russia.  Acting on the pretext of protecting missionaries the Germans seized Qingdao.  The Russian and German presence in North China was not welcomed by the British, who then leased Wei Hai to keep an eye on them.  The lease conditions specified that the British would leave the town if the Russians left Port Arthur.

British dreams of a Hong Kong on the Yellow Sea were still born.  The location and economics were wrong.  “Port Edward” became a base for the British and Chinese navies, a moderately successful Treaty Port, and a convenient place for the Hong Kong and Shanghai expatriates to escape the heat of summer.  As if to highlight this recreational aspect, whilst Hong Kong and Singapore both had cricket pitches in the middle of town, Port Edward went one further with a full sized golf course as its centrepiece!

The future of Port Arthur, as Lushan was renamed, was far less pacific.  The Chinese economic and military withdrawal from the North-East brought Russia and Japan into an almost inevitable conflict.  Learning from the Chinese experience the Russian’s strengthened the defences of Port Arthur and installed a powerful fleet which the Japanese matched as described in my article on the Mikasa.

The Japanese started the 1904 war undeclared with torpedo boat attack on Port Arthur followed by naval bombardments.  When the decisive fleet battle did not materialize the Japanese Third Army under General Nogi, the victor of the 1894 attack, was given the job of reducing the town.

Whilst Nogi was in command of both Japanese assaults on Port Arthur, the 1904-5 battle was very different to that of 10 years earlier.  The easy victory of 1894 was not repeated and the siege dragged out over six months, in what is now regarded as a precursor of the trench warfare and appalling casualties of World War One.  Unable to reduce the land defences the Japanese made three attempts to block the narrow harbour entrance by sinking ships in the channel but this was also ineffective.  Eventually the Japanese seized Hill 203, some three miles from the harbour, and from this position they could direct 11” coast defence howitzers to drop fire on the Russian fleet.  With the fleet destroyed and after nearly 60,000 Japanese and 31,000 Russian casualties Port Arthur finally surrendered on 2nd January 1905.  The battle cost Nogi his reputation and his own son.  Only a direct order from the Emperor prevented him from committing ritual suicide to acknowledge his responsibility.  Nogi lived on with his loss until the Emperor died and then, released at last from his order, took his own life.

With the Japanese in possession of Port Arthur and the Korean Peninsula, and between 1915 and 1922 Qingdao as well, the Yellow Sea became a Japanese lake.  Thus Port Edward, rather than being a strategic balance for the British, became a strategic liability.  Although the lease condition was changed to allow the British to remain until the Japanese left Port Arthur the British knew that this was wishful thinking.  Port Edward had outlived its use as a pawn in the Imperialists’ game and in 1930 was amicably returned to China .

Port Arthur remained under Japanese occupation until 1945 when the Russians re-took it and once again established an ice-free naval base on the Yellow Sea.  As the Cyrillic graffiti on the various Japanese monuments show, the irony of this turn of events was not lost on the Soviet soldiers and sailors who remained there until 1954 when Lushan was finally returned to Chinese sovereignty. 

The Ting Yuen Today

The Ting Yuen had its “soft” opening on May Day 2005.  When I visited in mid-May the ship had a wonderful, wet paint smell, but the landside facilities and a few things on the ship were still not finished.  Not to worry ~ in my opinion the 50 RMB, (US$6) admission was a bargain.  The ticket price gets you an illustrated brochure, and guides (Putongwha only) in Beiyang fleet ordinary seamen’s uniforms, to show you around and answer questions.  But if, like me, your Putongwha does not extend much further than ordering beers, you are free to wander at will.  

One of the guides and a kotchkiss

The upper deck and the officers’ quarters on the main deck have been recreated in good detail, right down to the rigging, the torpedo boats, the tertiary armament and the cutlery in the wardroom.  I was interested to note that in addition to the as built armament given in the standard sources she is shown with two additional 6 lber and four more 12 lber anti-torpedo boat guns on the weather deck.  

Most of the main deck and the lower deck are given over to exhibition areas.  The former concentrating on the original ship itself and the building of this replica, and the latter on the Beiyang fleet and the Sino-Japanese War in general.  This includes models of all the ships on both sides and also a diorama wargames table of the Battle of the Yalu with the ships in about 1:300 scale (big beasts!).  This was still under construction when I visited but the ships will float on real water when it is finished ~ neat or what?  

The, still dry, wargames table.

The Chinese ships are inaccurately shown in "Victorian" livery; in fact, they were in two-tone grey.

One touch that I particularly liked is that the side spaces on the museum floors, which on the original would have been coal bunkers, have been turned into life sized representations of the parts of the ship that could not recreated ~ a galley, a mess deck, a magazine and a stokehold.  Further forward one of the torpedo rooms is recreated and it’s well worth a look.  I, for one, never realized that the “fixed” torpedo tubes that you read about were actually trainable over an arc of about 30 degrees.  There is a helpful photograph of the original installation there for disbelievers.  

The trainable torpedo tube

Overall I was very impressed with the Ting Yuen.  Clearly a lot of attention has gone into recreating her and a very good job has been done.  The staff are all friendly and helpful and seem to take a real pride in their endeavour.  As you wander around her it is easy to feel you are treading in Admiral Ting’s footsteps even though this Ting Yuen is a creation of the 21st century, not the 19th.  She is a fine experience and if, like me, you can find functional beauty in these war machines, a fine sight.  This sight can best be savoured from some little dai pai dongs just across the bay where you can sit with some fresh seafood and a bottle of Yan Tai beer, and gaze on the world’s newest pre-dreadnought battleship.  

The view from the dai pai dongs


go to Part II


back to other periods


back to expeditions