Imperial Chinese Navy

From Naval History Archive
Revision as of 09:45, 20 July 2021 by Peter McHugh (talk | contribs) (References)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigationJump to search
Imperial Chinese Navy
Flag and Naval Ensign of China 1889 to 1912.png
Naval Ensign of the Imperial Chinese Navy
AllegianceQing Empire
Part ofMinistry of the Navy
Navy HQShanghai, China
FleetsBeiyang Fleet
Fujian Fleet
Guangdong Fleet
Nanyang Fleet
Political HeadImperial Chinese Navy Secretary

The Imperial Chinese Navy was the modern navy of the Qing Empire established in 1869 [1] and existed in some form until the end of the Qing period in 1912.[2] However Imperial naval forces had existed in China from as early as 1132 when the Song Dynasty established the first imperial permanent national navy called the Song Navy, that was administered by a central government agency.[3]


Although at the end of the Middle Ages China was an indisputable great maritime power – at the time of Zheng He‘s expeditions – in the nineteenth century, Westerners had no trouble imposing their trading posts and exploiting vast coastal territories. Chinese only naval forces consisted of junks armed with medieval-style muzzle-loading cannons more noisy than effective, light years from the steel rifled guns of the Westerners. Several naval skirmishes saw the Europeans victorious with a wide margin. From 1865, with the help of the Americans and the French, the Foochow and Kiangnan Shipyards were able to deliver the first Chinese armed steamers.

In 1874, a Japanese incursion into Taiwan exposed the vulnerability of China at sea. Following this incident a proposal was made to establish three modern coastal fleets: the Northern Sea or Beiyang Fleet, with a remit to defend the section of coastline closest to the capital Beijing, was prioritised it was to defend the East China Sea, the other being the Yellow Sea, and the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. In 1875 the Empress authorised the establishment of a naval budget for the maritime provinces, and minister Li Hung Chang was the first to set up a modern navy in 1880.

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. 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 admiralty or naval board (haijun yamen) was established in 1885. 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). 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. 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.


The Imperial Chinese Navy consisted of four fleets assigned to Northern, Eastern and Southern commands headquartered at major ports of China. They included the following;

# Ensign Name Command Area HQ Notes/Ref
1. Flag and Naval Ensign of China 1889 to 1912.png Beiyang Fleet Northern (Yellow Sea) Port of Weihaiwei
2. Flag and Naval Ensign of China 1889 to 1912.png Nanyang Fleet Eastern (East China Sea) Port of Shanghai
3. Flag and Naval Ensign of China 1889 to 1912.png Guangdong Fleet Southern (South China Sea) Whampoa, Port of Canton (now Guangzhou)
4. Flag and Naval Ensign of China 1889 to 1912.png Fujian Fleet Eastern (East China Sea) Port of Fuzhou (founded in 1678 as the Fujian Marine Fleet)

Bases and Shipyards

# Naval Establishment Date/s Notes/Ref
1. Foochow Shipyard (1866-1912) [4]
2. Wei Hai Wei Shipyard (1866-1898) leased to Royal Navy as Wei Hai Wei Dockyard.
3. Kiangnan Shipyard (1865-1949) renamed Jiangnan Shipyard.

Naval Ensigns and Flags

Flags shown are for the Imperial Chinese Navy during the period 1909 to 1911:[5]


  1. Mao, Haijian (2016). The Qing Empire and the Opium War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-107-06987-9.
  2. Chau, Donovan C.; Kane, Thomas M. (2014). China and International Security: History, Strategy, and 21st-Century Policy [3 volumes]: History, Strategy, and 21st-Century Policy. Santa Barbara, California, United States.: ABC-CLIO. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-4408-0002-3.
  3. O. Jones, Marcus (2011). "Song Dynasty". New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Seventeenth McMullen Naval History Symposium Held at the United States Naval Academy 15-16 September 2011. Mainz, Germany: PediaPress. p. 180. ISBN 9781935352280.
  4. Chu, Samuel C.; Liu, Kwang-Ching (1994). Li Hung Chang and China's early Modernisation. Armonk, New York, United States.: M.E. Sharpe. p. 254. ISBN 978-1-56324-458-2.
  5. Li, Miles. "Imperial Chinese Navy Flags (1909)". CRW Flags, 24 May 2007. Retrieved 12 March 2017.