A man, his dog, and the sinking of the Beiyang Fleet

Statue in Weihaiwei of the captain of the Chih Yuen, Deng Shichang, and his faithful dog.

Statue in Weihaiwei of the captain of the Chih Yuen, Deng Shichang, and his faithful dog.

It might have been a Hollywood ending. Emotional music swells as the hero aims his crippled ship at the enemy frigate in a desperate act of bravery. Thrown in the water as his doomed vessel sinks below the waves, the courageous captain cannot believe his eyes as he sees his faithful dog, his most trusted friend, braving the swells to rescue him. The dog grabs his master and begins to swim them both to safety…

But this is Chinese history and NOT a tearjerker Disney dog movie. Apparently, in the actual story Deng Shichang, captain of the doomed cruiser Chi-yuen, was so committed to going down with the ship that he shoved his dog away and they both drowned.

Oh yes, and the bad guys were Japanese. We can’t forget that.

Earlier this month, Chinese marine archaeologists announced that a steel hull discovered off the coast of Liaoning Province in 2013 is that of the famous doomed 19th-century warship the Chih-yuen. In a two-month salvage operation which ended last week, divers retrieved over 120 artifacts including portholes, machine guns, and dinner plates, the latter still bearing the ship’s name and matching a set made for the Chi-yuen’s sister ship.

The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 was pretty much a fiasco from start to finish. The Battle of the Yalu River between the Beiyang Fleet, a modernized naval squadron and the dream of the Qing official

Li Hongzhang, against the Japanese Imperial Navy, was to be a test of the Qing Empire’s efforts to strengthen and update its military. On paper, the Beiyang Fleet seemed to have an edge. The Beiyang ships had been built in the best shipyards of England and Germany. The Chih-yuen was 236 meters long, armored along its topside against explosive shells with Krupp cannons on its front and rear decks.  The Japanese ships were faster but lacked the size and firepower of the Qing fleet.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not the about the size or heft, but about how you use what you got.

During the battle, tactical errors, communication and signaling problems, plus a puzzling lack of coordination and command allowed the swifter Japanese ships to avoid the large cruisers and concentrate on picking off smaller and less well-armed ships in the Beiyang squadron. Many of the Beiyang captains, facing heavy fire, retreated from battle to save their vessels. Deng Shichang bravely — some might say foolishly — took the Chih-yuen directly into the heart of the enemy fleet to engage the Japanese flagship.  Too far in front to call on support, a counterattack surrounded the Chih-yuen, inflicting massive damage, and forcing Deng Shichang into his final act.

The Chih-yuen at sea.

The Chih-yuen at sea.

Deng ordered the 2300-ton Chih-yuen to ram the Japanese cruiser Naniwa. Japanese witnesses record that the Chih-yuen was already doomed, listing so far to the starboard that one of its propellers was visible above the water line. In any case, it never reached its intended target. Hit in the bow by another volley of enemy fire, or possibly a torpedo; a massive explosion sank the Chih-yuen before it could close on the Naniwa. 245 men (and one dog) went down with the ship.

Today the Chih-yuen lies 23 meters below the surface off of the port of Dandong. According to Zhou Chunshui of the National Center of Underwater Cultural Heritage, who organized the underwater excavation of the Chih-yuen, the wreckage is in bad condition, buried under three meters of silt.

Nevertheless, plans are being made for further exploration and excavation of the wreck.

Chen Yue, a historian with the Navy History Study Society, said the relics of daily living necessities are of great value to those studying the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).

Additionally, Chen said: "I am looking forward to finding the seal of the ship or the captain. The ship seal was invariably made of good materials and stored in a sturdy box. It is highly possible that we can find it."

The archaeologists also found a unique machine gun from the Zhiyuan's rear mast.

"The machine gun's data plate indicates its date of production, model and manufacturer. And all of this information coincides with the historical record of the Zhiyuan's arms," said Chen.

The archaeologists believe they can find some remains of the sailors' bodies. Lin Qihao, a descendant of one of the Beiyang Fleet's crew members, said: "I hope the government can make good use of the salvage findings and build a museum in Dandong."

So far the remains of seven bodies have been recovered from the site.

Deng Shichang is remembered as one of the few heroes of a disastrous war for the Qing Empire. Those ships which escaped the Battle of the Yalu River would ultimately be destroyed in the Battle of Weihaiwei, one of the most ludicrous and lopsided defeats in military history. The Weihaiwei debacle provided the final cherry on the turd sundae of military incompetence which marked China’s first major effort to build a modern navy.  A statue of Deng — and his dog — sits quietly in a seaside park in Weihai, Shandong. His legacy fodder for films and TV miniseries. Dying heroically at the hands of the Japanese being a good career move for obscure historical figures looking for state-sponsored media immortality.

A museum is being planned in Dandong to commemorate the Battle of the Yalu River and to display relics from the Chih-yuen and other ships of that era.