Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Chinese Junk
This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the origami design now known as the Chinese Junk. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other information that should be added. Thank you.

The Chinese Junk design appears in various versions in different places with either blunt or pointed ends. In his article 'Is the Junk Chinese?', now available as part of the Lister List on the British Origami Society website, David Lister states that in Japan the Chinese Junk design is known as the tenmsen (cargo boat) or treasure ship (takara-bune) and has pointed ends (whereas most of the European versions of the design have blunt ends). It also occurs with one blunt and one pointed end. The significance of these differences is not completely clear although Koshiro Hatori, writing in an article entitled 'History of Origami in the East and West before Interfusion', which can be found in the proceedings of 'Origami 5: Fifth International Meeting of Origami Science, Mathematics and Education' says, 'This difference is, in my opinion, so critical that I am sure the Chinese Junk and takara-bune developed independently on opposite sides of the world.' I am not sure, however, that the evidence is able to support that conclusion.

A distinctive characteristic of all versions of the design is the final 'pull-out' move that turns a flat paperfold into a three-dimensional boat. On the basis of this move, but of no other evidence, in his book 'Complete Origami', Eric Kenneway makes a connection between the Chinese Junk and Chinese funerary paperfolds (otherwise known as Yuan Bao) and concludes that 'its similarity to a Chinese ceremonial fold places it firmly in the Chinese tradition.' If this is true then the Chinese Junk is not originally a boat at all.

David Lister also notes that in Spain the design is known as the Ship of the King and Queen but does not provide any evidence of antiquity in this respect.

'Origami from the Classics' by Satoshi Takagi, published in 1993, shows a drawing of a kimono decorated with the takara-bune which dates from 1704.

The earliest known drawing of the design in Europe (which has one blunt and one pointed end) occurs in the Dutch picture book "Hanenpoot" which Willem Bilderchijk wrote and illustrated for his young son Julius Willem in around 1806. In the caption accompanying this drawing the design is referred to as a paper boat rather than the Chinese Junk and it is possible that the name Chinese Junk had not attached itself to the design at this stage. On his website 'Bits of Smith', John Smith gives the reference for this discovery as Papiervouwen, De geschiedenis van een cultuur, }Elsje van der Ploeg published by Uitgeverij Helmond bv, Tilburg. July 1990, ISBN 9025293573.

In his article 'The history of paperfolding: A German perspective' David Lister states that among the designs which appears in a list of paperfolds in the Frobelian book 'Manual Pratique des Jardins d'Enfants' edited by J-F Jacobs, which was written in French and published in Brussels and Paris in 1859, is 'the gondola with seats', which sounds like an alternative name for the Chinese Junk. Unfortunately the book does not contain an illustration of the design, so that we cannot be sure of this identification.

There is an untitled drawing of a Chinese Junk in Elise Van Calcar's book 'De Kleine Papierwerkers', which was published by K H Schadd in Amsterdam in 1863.

Victor Hugo's story 'The Man Who Laughs', published in 1869, contains the following words. 'The ship moored to the wharf was a Dutch vessel, of the Japanese build, with two decks, fore and aft, and between them an open hold, reached by an upright ladder, in which the cargo was laden. There was thus a forecastle and an afterdeck, as in our old river boats, and a space between them ballasted by the freight. The paper boats made by children are of a somewhat similar shape.' This may well be a reference to the Chinese Junk design.

In his article cited above David Lister states that Gershon Legman's Bibliography of Paper Folding (1952), cites T. de Moulidars' "L Grande Encyclopedie des Jeux", published in 1888 (but previously published in 1880 as "Un million de jeux et de plaisirs") as the earliest European source for the Chinese Junk. This statement is clearly no longer true.

Diagrams can also be found in Cassell's Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, published in London in 1882. In these diagrams both ends of the design are blunt. This is also the first occasion I know of where the design is called the Chinese Junk. It is perhaps worth noting that a real chinese junk, the Keying, had sailed from Hong Kong in December 1846 and arrived in London, via New York, Boston and Jersey in March 1848, where she proved to be a considerable tourist attraction, so that many people in Europe and America would have known what a chinese junk was, and looked like, at this time.

David Lister also states that he had found the Chinese Junk in "The Kindergarten Principle" by Mary J. Lyschinska, which was published in 1886.

On his website 'Bits of Smith', John Smith notes that in the The Magic of Lewis Carroll, Nelson, 1973, the editor John Fisher, quotes a passage from Lewis Carroll's diaries which reads. "We were playing on the fort at Margate, and a gentleman on a seat near asked us if we could make a paper boat, with a seat at each end and a basket in the middle for fish." This sounds like a description of the Chinese Junk. No date for this incident is given, however this clearly raises the possibility that the folded paper fishing boats referred to on several other occasions in Lewis Carroll's diaries may be Chinese Junks rather than, as I have always previously assumed, the much simpler paper boat design made from the newspaper hat. One of the earliest of these references is from June 1889 and reads, 'Once at luncheon I had the Duchess (of Albany) as neighbour and once at breakfast, and had several other chats with her, and found her very pleasant indeed. Princess Alice is a sweet little girl. Her little brother (the Duke of Albany) was entirely fascinating, a perfect little prince, and the picture of good-humour. On Sunday afternoon I had a pleasant half-hour with the children, telling them "Bruno's Picnic" and folding a fishing-boat for them.'

Diagrams for the Chinese Junk also appear in:

Murray and Rigney's Fun with Paper Folding, first published in 1928 (both ends blunt).

Margaret Campbell's Paper Toy Making, first published in 1936 (both ends blunt).

Robert Harbin's Paper Magic, first published in 1956 (both ends blunt). Also contains diagrams for various modern modifications and the information that similar designs can be folded from 'practically any paper box without a lid' and from other rectangles as well as from squares.