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Keeping tradition afloat

DEVELOPED in South China's Fujian Province, the watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks allows the construction of ocean-going vessels with watertight compartments. If one or two cabins are accidentally damaged at sea, water 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 carpentry tools. They are built by applying the key technologies of rabbet-jointing planks together and sealing the gaps between the planks with ramie, lime and tung oil.

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 decreased sharply as wooden vessels were 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.

It was inscribed this year on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

(UNESCO website)


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