A junk is a type of ship which is closely associated with China, its nation of origin. Contrary to the implications of the name, a junk is anything but. In fact, junks were quite novel for their time, and they were superior to anything produced in Europe for centuries; the Chinese junk also integrated a number of innovations which continue to be used in ship building to this day. Despite the fact that junks were developed around 200 CE, and are therefore quite old, these ships continue to be widely used throughout Southeast Asia today, and you can see many fine examples under full sail in this part of the world.
Like other early ships, the junk is a sailing ship. However, the junk rig is extremely flexible and versatile, allowing people to sail junks into the wind, and to control the ship with a minimal crew. The ship is controlled with a rudder, another innovation, and the hull of a junk is broken up into compartments. Although the thought of a compartmentalized hull might sound obvious to you, it was a strictly Chinese invention, and didn't appear widely in European ships until the late 1700s, when numerous people including Benjamin Franklin recommended building compartmentalized ships “in the Chinese style.”
A junk is designed to carry a wide assortment of goods in compartments which can be easily inventoried and organized. The compartmentalized design allowed captains to divide goods easily, diving them by type, owner, and other categorizations. The design also helped to prevent junks from sinking, and in the event that the hull was breached, it reduced the damage to the compartments breached, rather than allowing it to spread across the whole ship.
In addition to being used quite successfully in and around Southeast Asia, evidence suggests that the junk has also historically been used for long sea voyages. These durable, sturdy, versatile ships helped China dominate the sea trade in Asia for centuries, and they continue to be extremely useful methods of transportation for people and goods.
If you find yourself traveling along coastal Asia, chances are very good that you will see a junk or two. Junks can also be seen in numerous paintings; the Chinese frequently depicted junks in their art, as did intrigued European visitors. You may note that many junks are bedecked with flags, especially red flags. These flags are said to protect the crew and cargo from demons, ensuring a safe and pleasant journey.