Category Archives: Travel

dingyuan

Fatal Firing: The Tragic Story of China’s First Battleship

I’m visiting Weihai this weekend because a beach vacation doesn’t really count unless it’s 30 degrees* outside with a stiff sea breeze.

Weihai is a charmless—but very clean—city set on a historic harbor.  Most of the older structures (including whole villages once constructed using sea weed) have long since been plowed under.  In their place are rows of copy-cat ‘business’ hotels, bath resorts, and shopping malls. If the builders of the Mall of America in Minnesota had chosen to build their monument to American consumerism by leveling Mystic, CT it might look like Weihai.

Weihai is also the where the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Beiyang Fleet of the Qing Empire fought the decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

The flagship of the Beiyang fleet was the Dingyuan 定远. She was an armored warship commissioned by the Qing imperial government and built in Germany in 1881. The Dingyuan was over 300 feet long and with a hull nearly a foot thick around the waterline and carried four 305-mm and two 150-mm guns manufactured by Krupp as well as six 37-mm guns and three torpedo tubes.  The 305-mm and 150-mm guns were mounted in turrets, with the smaller guns placed fore and aft.  The big 305-mm boomers, each with a range of over 6 miles**, were set just forward of amidships, the port side 305-mm gun placed just a bit forward from its counterpart on the starboard side.

All in all, she was an impressive ship with one catastrophic design flaw.  I’ll give you a hint: It had to do with the gun placements.

dygunIn her day she was as imposing as any ship in the Western Pacific. Even after she had been declared sea worthy and ready for delivery, the French asked the British not to allow the Dingyuan or her sister ship (the Zhenyuan) through the Suez Canal. The French were fighting a war agains the Qing and felt that the new ships might tip the balance of power in the South China Sea.  The French  won that war and the Dingyuan had to wait two years before finally arriving into service on the China coast.

A decade later, when the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894, it was  the Dingyuan led the charge against the Japanese fleet, but despite the firepower provided by the Dingyuan and the Zhenyuan, the war proved disastrous for the Qing Empire.

At the Battle of the Yalu River, an early tactical error put the Beiyang Fleet on its heels. The commander of the fleet, Ding Ruchang,  originally lined his ships up in a row, with the Dingyuan and Zhengyuan at the center.  When the Japanese tried to outflank the Beiyang fleet, Admiral Ding realized the center battleships couldn’t fire their main guns on the Japanese ships without hitting the smaller Beiyang ships on the left and right.

Admiral Ding then ordered the captain of the Ding Yuan, Liu Buchuan, to change the course.  The maneuver would have given the battleship an open shot at the Japanese ships but would have exposed the Dingyuan to enemy fire.

What happened next is not entirely clear.

Port turret guns on the Dingyuan
Port turret guns on the Dingyuan

Some say the captain  refused to obey the order to bring the Dingyuan about and instead ordered the main 305-mm guns to fire forward.  It was well known since the earliest sea trials that the Dingyuan suffered  a major design flaw: the main 305-mm guns were mounted on the side of the ship. Bringing those guns to bear directly forward meant they would be firing directly at the support beams of the flying bridge…where Admiral Ding stood commanding the fleet.  The guns fired and the flying bridge collapsed. Several officers died instantly.  Admiral Ding was trapped under the wreckage, his legs crushed by a large piece of twisted metal.

Other accounts say that Liu was ordered to fire the main guns to give cover for the smaller vessels. The collapse of the flying bridge was an unfortunate error and not the deliberate act of a cowardly officer trying to protect his ship (and skin) from an overzealous admiral.  In this version, Captain Liu, as the only senior officer not incapacitated in the accident, bravely took command of the fleet thereby preventing (well, postponing) its total annihilation.

Whatever happened, with the flagship disabled the Beiyang fleet was at the mercy of the Japanese Imperial Navy. The remaining Beiyang ships limped back to the Port of Lushun before they retreated further to the relative safety of the harbor at Weihai.

Shrine onboard the replica of the Dingyuan.
Shrine onboard the replica of the Dingyuan.

120 years ago this month, the Imperial Japanese Navy pursued the remains of the Qing Beiyang Fleet to Weihai.  Rather than test the harbor defenses, the Japanese landed troops, marched them overland, and seized control of the guns defending the harbor. The Japanese soldiers then used the Chinese guns to fire on the Chinese ships.  The result was the complete annihilation of the Beiyang Fleet.

During the battle, the Dingyuan suffered catastrophic damage from both the shore guns and Japanese torpedoes.  Rather than see the his ship fall into Japanese hands, Captain Liu ordered the Dingyuan scuttled. China’s early dreams of being a naval power sank to the bottom of the Weihai Harbor.

Later that evening both Captain Liu and Admiral Ding committed suicide by opium overdose.

The remains of the actual Dingyuan have never been recovered although parts of the ship (the bell, Captain Liu’s desk) were taken as souvenirs to Japan. Today an exact replica of the ship is open to visitors on the waterfront in Weihai. On board there’s a museum to Chinese naval history, along with recreations of the ship’s quarters, officer’s mess, hospital, fire room, and the brig.  Those interested in naval history, or Chinese history, will find her an interesting way to spend a few hours, provided they can ignore the heavy patina of anti-Japanese propaganda.

Dingyuan (Ting Yuen) Warship Tourist Area. Posted admission is 75 RMB but we got in today (off-season) for 30 RMB per person. Admission includes a guided tour in Chinese.  Address: 山东威海海滨北路9号,海港大厦南首 (Weihai waterfront, located near the Haigang Dasha on Haibin Bei Lu) Telephone: 0631-5280718 Website (Chinese only) www.dy1881.com.

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* That’s -1 for you metric folks.

**Once again, as a service to the rest of the world, that translates to 11 km.

Passengers booted off of KLM plane

Anyone who has flown to or from China knows the drill.  Flight attendants on international carriers are often very…particular about following the safety guidelines.  Many upwardly mobile Chinese tend to believe that rules are for other people.  Hilarity often ensues.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines confirmed Friday that one of its aircraft traveling from Beijing to Amsterdam was suspended from taking off after six Chinese passengers quarreled with flight attendants on Wednesday.

The Netherlands airline told the Global Times Friday that “there was an incident with Chinese passengers on board and that the aircraft returned to the gate,” but refused to reveal more details on the incident.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not available for comment by Friday due to the week-long Spring Festival holidays.

Six passengers, all in first class, were late for boarding and refused to wear their seat belts as well as turn off their mobile phones when the aircraft was preparing to take off from the Beijing Capital International Airport for Schiphol Airport, the Beijing-based The Mirror reported on Thursday.

A passenger on board surnamed Lin said in the report that he heard a fierce quarrel and a middle-aged female passenger speaking rudely and threatening to take photos and expose the photos online.

The report said the captain of the flight refused to take off until the passengers were taken away by airport security.

For some, the problem is unfamiliarity with the basic protocols of air travel.* And there’s always going to be a few people who, regardless of nationality, are just assholes.**  I flew back from Kunming this week and as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, the flight attendants were running around playing “whack-a-mole” with passengers who assumed that since the plane was not in a death spiral it was safe to get up and open the overhead bins.  I thought I saw one attendant actually tackle a dude.  And this wasn’t a language issue.  This was Hainan Airlines (one of my favorites) and Chinese passengers.

On Weibo, few are buying the “language barrier” excuse.  Most of the comments are deriding the KLM passengers who were removed from a plane, complaining that such boorish behavior is a loss of face for other Chinese travelers.  Others speculated that they must be members of a corrupt official family.  Still more lamented that money rarely seems to buy good manners among the 暴发户 baofahu, the Chinese term for the nouveau riche.

That said, in a lot of these cases language barriers do make the situation worse.  There are several unpleasant things that recur every year: my annual prostate exam, renewing my visa, and at least once every twelve months willingly placing myself in the surly and sometimes openly hostile embrace of United Airlines.

Say what you will about Chinese carriers, most of the staff speak a foreign language.  They might not speak it well, but they have functional communication skills in important topics like “coffee or tea?” “would you like a newspaper?” and “sit down, sir before your pink wheelie suitcase falls out of the bin and gives somebody a concussion.”   (Okay, I made the last one up but you get the idea.)

United Airlines? Chinese passengers are lucky if even two of the cabin crew speak their language.  Or any language other than English.  The route to and from Beijing must be a primo gig because the crew is always a senior group of hardened and jaded attendants.  You imagine if you met one out on the town, she’d be croaking through her menthol smoke about how she once made out with Neil Young.***

On my last flight on United, there were the usual shenanigans with people ignoring the rules.  I know this pisses off the attendants but the response was hardly a soft power win for the USA.  One attendant asked a passenger to put his seat back up.**** When he didn’t understand her, she — how predictable was this? — just talked louder and slower.  Then she started threatening him.  All the while the dude was looking around to see if anybody could tell him why the women with the horrible bottle dye job was screeching in his general direction.  Finally another passenger — a Laowai — translated for him and he complied.

So it goes both ways.  I have a hunch that the level of entitlement among passengers in the first class cabin on a flight from Beijing to Europe ranks somewhere between “God” and “The guy who has pictures of a naked Xi Jinping holding a goat.”  It’s the same impulse that causes drivers here to speed up when approaching a cross walk. (If pedestrians don’t want to be hit by a car, then why don’t they just stop being poor and buy their own car?) At the same time, international airlines, American carriers in particular, can do a better job about staffing their planes with more people who can communicate across cultural and language barriers.

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* h/t @MissXQ

**Why can’t this be the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

*** YJ once found half of a worm in her salad on a United flight. When she showed it to the flight attendant the response was “that sometimes happens.” After fuming silently for a few minutes, YJ turns to me and says, “Don’t ever bitch to me about ‘Chinese service standards’ again.”

**** By the way, one of my ALL TIME pet peeves — the compulsive recliner. I can’t even speak rationally about this.

Random Sunday Musings…

Random thoughts after three weeks on the road…

Back in Beijing and it’s now fall.  Fall is easily the loveliest time of the year here in the city of imperial dust.  Unfortunately, it’s also the shortest season.  How short? Last year I missed it because I had a meeting that afternoon.

Taking advantage of the weather and the holiday, YJ and I trekked over to Haidian Park for the first day of the Modern Sky Festival.  Coolest moment: braving a short cloudburst with 500 or so Chinese hippies as the band Sound Fragment (声音碎片) played onstage and took us through the rain and out the other side into a (rare) gorgeous sunset behind the Western Hills.

Least cool moment: As much as I (and others) like to complain about Chinese crowd behavior on the subway, in the mall, etc. One place where it kind of works is at an outdoor concert with festival seating.  In fact, the real douchebags pushing and shoving their way drunkenly through the crowd are usually the Lao Wai.

(Yeah, I’m looking at you drunk China newbie with the Jägermeister thundersticks shoving your way to the front midway through Second Hand Rose’s set.)

Funniest moment: Douchebag’s equally drunken Chinese girlfriend not once, but twice, being dropped on her head while attempting to crowd surf.  Fortunately, tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum had spent enough time in the Jäger tent that she was feeling no pain and was up and bouncing around like a meth-crazed jackalope within seconds each time.  How she’s feeling this morning though might be another matter entirely…

Finally a couple of quick observations from my trip out west:

1)      A lot of Uighurs do not like the Han and are vocal about it. My students kind of knew this going in, but were a bit shocked by how often they heard it.

2)      Han Chinese tourists in Xinjiang generally dress and act like they are on safari…which may in some small way play a role in the situation described above.

3)       The food was awesome.  Every night was like eating at Crescent Moon or Tumaris except that it was about half as expensive and the service twice as friendly.

4)      After Xian I was without Internet so I have a couple of posts stored up which I’ll put on the blog sometime later this week.  Xinjiang does have Internet and my students made ample use of the local wang ba to go online. Me? I find Chinese internet bars depressing in a kind of “Atlantic City casino with the old grannies sucking oxygen, chain smoking Merits, and pissing away their social security one quarter at a time” way.  (Lower the age, replace slot machines with World of Warcraft, Merits with Zhongnanhai’s, and ‘quarters’ with ‘education’ and you’re almost there.)

5)     Off to Brunch…