*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
With the Yuan Dynasty faltering, competing rebel factions sought to gain a foothold as the next in line. On August 30, 1363, one of the final battles in this epic struggle for the future of China began on the shores of Lake Poyang. The Han, attacking the Ming-held town of Nanchang, started what remains one of the largest naval battles in world history with an assault from the waters of the country’s largest freshwater lake. Six weeks later, the Ming would solidify their position as leading challenger to the throne of the three groups vying for control.
The morning of August 20th seemed straightforward enough: Han armies, seeking to capture more Ming territory, would sail across Lake Poyang and lay siege to Nanchang. Their tower ships, essentially the equivalent of a modern aircraft carrier filled with soldiers, lumbered toward the shoreline intent on making quick work of the opposition. Estimated to outnumber the Ming on shore by more than three to one, it seemed a safe assumption that sheer overwhelming force would be sufficient for the Han to secure the town and advance further into Ming territory.
Nanchang, a city protected by high fortifications and experienced men, nullified the advantage of tower ships. Han forces would have to instead focus on making the breakthrough at ground level. With the throng of soldiers pressing forward, a lone Ming messenger slipped through enemy lines and headed in the direction of Zhu Yuanzhang, hoping to secure reinforcements from his leader’s battles with the Wu (the third rebel group). Unwilling to lose the town but spread thin militarily, Zhu set sail with a comparatively small fleet from his capital of Nanjing.
Chen Youliang, leader of the Han navy, had a decision to make. Captaining a heavy flotilla made more for delivering troops to land and facing the prospect of battle with light Ming ships capable of making swift turns to fight it out on the water, Chen could either continue with the assault — which had proven no easy task — or attempt to crush Zhu and the warships coming to the scene. On August 30, 1363, Chen turned his numerically-superior force on the Ming navy that had floated in the night before and offloaded soldiers to bolster Nanching’s defenses.
Requiring deep water in order to stay alfoat, the Han ships stayed nearer the center of Lake Poyang, concentrating their efforts on chopping off the head of the navy by sinking Zhu’s ship. Ming vessels, zipping along the outside to take a shot a surrounding the Han and boarding their boats, frequently ended up on dry ground. Pushed back into the water for attempt after attempt, the lighter Ming navy had a decided advantage in speed and maneuverability but made little headway.
The next day, the Ming employed a tactic which would end up proving decisive over the next seven weeks: fire ships. With the Han concentrated in the center of the lake, fishing boats were filled with straw and set alight, captained by dummies dressed as Ming soldiers. Once the tiny floating fires reached enemy ships, they inflicted heavy damage, if not forcing the Han to abandon them altogether.
With Nanching secured, Zhu pushed his navy out into a wider formation. Not wanting to face a prolonged battle on the water, both admirals simply waited for the other to move for more than a month, hoping for a mistake that would allow his side to snatch victory. Finally, on October 4th, the Ming used fire ships again — this time alongside squadrons advancing on Han ships. As the flames began to damage the Han fleet once again, a Ming arrow split Chen’s skull. Their leader now dead, the Han surrendered.
The Ming triumphed, just as they would five years later over the Yuan, going on to rule China for nearly three hundred years.