From China to America: The Hsu-Fu Expedition

Section 1

1: Transpacific contact, from Asia to America

2: The bamboo raft-builders of Vietnam

Section 2

1: The Hsu-Fu Expedition: From Hong Kong to Taiwan

2: Into the Japan Current

Section 3

1: Across the North Pacific—almost

2: A 6,500-mile archaeological experiment


Cover of Tim Severin’s account of his expedition on board the bamboo raft Hsu-Fu.






























































































A Taiwanese bamboo raft (after Shun-Sheng, 1956).



Section 1: Transpacific contact, from Asia to America


1: Contact between Asia and America


            In the early 1990s, Irish explorer Tim Severin revived an old hypothesis that Chinese mariners might have reached the Americas two thousand years ago.  In the early 1970s, Kuno Knöbl had been profoundly influenced by his readings of and meetings with Heine-Geldern, one of the main theorists of prehistoric contact between Asia and America.  These contacts had ultimately led to the Tai Ki expedition. Tim Severin was equally impressed when he met with the Cambridge University scholar Joseph Needham.  Needham’s multi-volume work on Chinese civilization had included strong hints of contact between China and the Americas. 

One of the main artifacts cited by the proponents of transpacific contact is the centerboard.  The same guara that stabilizes the balsa rafts of Ecuador acts as a sliding leeboard for the rafts of Asia.  Either the invention was made independently of both sides of the Pacific or, as Heyerdahl and many other have speculated, prehistoric mariners carried the idea for the guara from Asia to Ecuador, or in the opposite direction.  Severin concluded that the most likely method of contact between the two areas was the Chinese bamboo raft.  In 1993, he set out to build a large bamboo raft and test his idea.

Severin traveled to Taiwan to see if the bamboo rafts mentioned by Needham still existed in the place of their birth.  As he observed Taiwanese rafts, it is interesting to speculate whether Severin knew of Ling Shun-Sheng’s article on “[The] Formosan Sea-going Raft and its Origin in Ancient China,” published in 1956.  Shun-Sheng’s article describes in detail the construction of the centerboard-equipped sea-going Taiwanese bamboo raft, and makes a case for the mention of bamboo rafts in the Chinese historical record as far back as 1174 C.E., and legendary notes about rafts in Chinese literature as far back as 3,300 B.C.E.  To Severin’s surprise, he found the Taiwanese raft as common as they apparently were in prehistory, with two jarring exceptions.  The bamboo of Shun-Sheng’s rafts had been replaced by PVC plumber’s pipe as the construction material of choice; and the outboard motor had replaced the sail as the method of propulsion. 



2: The bamboo raft-builders of Vietnam


Forsaking the plastic rafts of Taiwan, Severin discovered that traditional bamboo rafts were still built in the communist nation of Vietnam, where a twenty-year economic blockade by the U.S. had left the fishermen utterly unable to afford luxuries like outboard motors or plastic plumber’s pipe.  In the coastal village of San Son, Severin collected enough information for the British naval architect Colin Mudie—the same man who had designed Santiago Genovés transatlantic Acali raft twenty years earlier—to sketch out a plausible bamboo raft for an attempt to cross the Pacific. 

Of the hundreds of species of bamboo, Severin located the thirty-foot-long, six-inch wide bamboo stalks for his main hull in the interior of the country, along the Laosian border.  Rightly terrified of predictions that any bamboo raft attempting a transoceanic crossing would be eaten by the marine invertebrate teredo navalis—the same organism that had literally eaten the Tai Ki to the bottom of the Pacific—Severin took immense pains to try to protect his raft.  The bamboo was harvested when the sap in them was the least, to protect against a possible infestation by insects that eat the sap and then disgorge eggs into the wood.  His workers coated the hollow logs with layers of laquer, which produced the result of both protecting the raft and inflicting an allergic reaction to the lacquer on the raft-builders.  All but two of the forty raft-builders were affected with swollen eyes and limbs, especially the ones who sought to gain supernatural protection against the lacquer by bravely licking it from their fingers.

The bamboo was lashed together with ropes made from rattan, then heated at selected points to give the raft a characteristic upsweep near the bow and stern.  When finished, the sixty-foot-long raft was delivered to a harbor near Hanoi.  The most curious aspect of the bamboo raft was that, like a balsa raft, waves did not travel over the hull but through it.  This accounted for the raft’s almost uncanny stability.  But being much more flexible that rigid balsa logs, the effect on a bamboo raft was something like standing on board a twisting sieve in mid-ocean as waves swept through the decks, soaking everything in their path.  It made for some interesting speculation as to how transoceanic mariners might have managed to keep themselves dry on voyages of 6,500 miles from Hong Kong to the Americas.  Severin attempted to solve the problem by adopting the idea of the waterproof Vietnamese basket boat and adapting it in the form of two bamboo shelters on the decks of the raft. 

In Hanoi, the raft was fitted with three chesnut masts supporting hand-stitched cotton and silk fan-shaped Chinese junk sails.  Like the bamboo logs, the sails were treated with a natural substance—in this case one made of the boiled roots of an inedible yam—to ward off rot.  A windmill charged a battery that powered a satellite radio.  Severin would be able to transmit his position via fax each day.  If the raft ran into trouble, rescuers would know with pinpoint accuracy where to search for the stranded crew.  Severin named his raft Hsu Fu, after a lengendary Chinese mariner sent off on an expedition into the eastern oceans around the year 219 B.C.E. by China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang.  With the possible exception of Heyerdahl’s Ra II, Hsu Fu was the most beautiful recreated prehistoric raft ever attempted.


Section 2: The Hsu-Fu Expedition


1:  From Hong Kong to Taiwan


On May 17th, 1993, with a crew of northern Europeans complimented by a single Vietnamese raftsman, Hsu Fu rather staggered out of Hong Kong and toward Taiwan, 120 miles away.  A sign of trouble appeared almost immediately.  After all the care in treating the bamboo against teredo navalis, an almost unforgiveable lapse had occurred when bamboo used for the cabins had been selected carelessly.  Once at sea, Severin discovered his cabins in the process of being eaten by beetles, and prayed the infection would not spread to the bamboo logs of the main hull. 

A week into the voyage, with the raft crawling along at little more than one knot an hour, the bamboo mainsail spar snapped and was replaced by one of the spare lengths of bamboo carried on board the raft.  When the winds increased too much, the Chinese sails had to be folded down lest the masts snap.  The constant twisting of the bamboo hull meant that one had to very careful not to let an arm or a leg slip between a temporary opening in the deck, lest one risk amputation.  Other than these weaknesses, Severin was astounded at how the raft responded in a gale.  Where another ship would be rolling and pitching, Hsu Fu remained completely flat and stable in high winds and waves, allowing big rollers to wash right through the decks.



2:  Into the Japan Current


As May turned to June, and the progress of the raft was slow, Severin maneuvered Hsu Fu around the southern coast of Taiwan in an attempt to pick up the Japan Current.  This twenty-mile wide river of fast-moving water was the main “cultural current” of so many Asia to America contact theories.  And Severin found himself in the middle of one of theorist’s favorite scenarios.  The Japan Current was carrying the raft away from Taiwan and, with rapidly diminishing supplies on board, pushing the vessel toward Japan itself.  A helpless crew, drifting on an out-of-control raft.  It was one of the very possibilities Heyerdahl and others had advanced for half a century.

Avoiding pirates and meeting up with a friendly yacht, which took off one crewmember and replaced him with an another, snapping the foremast in a high wind, Hsu Fu managed to sail into a harbor in the Japanese Ryukyus islands on June 12th.   In a layover of nine days, two damaged masts were replaced and a new crewmember taken on board.  As the raft made its way along the Japanese coast amid the worst and wettest weather in forty years, Severin noted that the bamboo deck seemed to be losing its buoyancy.  Moreover, the continual twisting and turning of the entire deck structure served as a constant strain on the rattan lashings. 

In the middle of July, the raft called at the Japanese port of Shingu, where the Hsu Fu of history was said to have landed, and where a shrine had been built in his honor.  Upon leaving, the raft ran into a typhoon, and Severin was bedeviled in his attempts to convince any of the fishermen of a nearby port to help tow the raft or even offer it shelter from the storm.  At Shimoda, the Hsu Fu was stocked with provisions for the transpacific attempt.  The raft had come 2,000 miles from Hong Kong, and 4,500 miles now separated it from America.


Section 3: Across the Pacific—almost


1:  Across the North Pacific


With a crew of five, Hsu Fu drifted away from Japan and out into the North Pacific on August 5, 1993.  Loaded with provisions, the raft rode so low in the water that waves washed right through the cabins.  Valves that Severin had built in Vietnam to allow seawater to drain from the watertight cabins had rotted, allowing the sea to slosh directly into the sleeping areas with each rise and fall of the raft.  Nothing on the decks remained dry.  It seemed like an inauspicious way to begin a voyage across an entire ocean.  Most raft voyages did not have their decks awash until vast stretches of open ocean had been crossed.  By choosing to sail from Hong Kong, Severin had already subjected his raft to as much soaking and punishment as Ra I had endured when it sank out from under Heyerdahl in 1969.  And Severin still had nearly 5,000 miles in front of him.

The raft was tested almost immediately, when Hsu Fu skirted along the outer path of a typhoon toward the end of August.  Two weeks later, a third of the way across the Pacific, Severin himself was knocked down by a swaying mainsail boom and broke two ribs.  As his ribs mended, Severin calculated the raft’s movement eastwards.  Originally, he had thought the raft could make the crossing to America in roughly ninety days, with an average daily run of fifty miles.  But Hsu Fu was crawling along at forty miles a day, a pace that would add another month to the voyage, and add a month to the strain on the bamboo.  The rattan rope was rapidly being used up, and Severin doubted whether enough remained to finish the crossing.  In late September, halfway across the Pacific, he confided his doubts to his private journal:


“Now I am aware that this present voyage is far longer, across more open water, in high and stormy latitudes, aboard a vessel half-sunk before it begins, and subjected day and night to flexing, twisting, and battering of thin-walled bamboo tubes—a grass not even a timber—ropes made of flimsy fibres, masts held up by jungle vines” (Severin 1995, 222). 



2:  A 6,500-mile archaeological experiment


As the raft drifted to within 2,000 miles of the west coast of North America, it became clear to Severin that there was little real danger of the bamboo raft sinking.  The true threat lay in the raft’s constant motion, which was slowly working the intricate rope lashings into dust.  The rattan that tied the bamboo raft together was not up to the constant strain of nearly six months at sea.  Severin told his crew that if he decided that the raft was no longer safe, he would call for rescue and abandon the experiment. 

Yet the raft itself was beginning to deteriorate before their eyes.  Large main bamboos began to work loose from the hull and trail lazily astern.  One thousand miles from the American coast, and nearly 4,000 miles from Japan, the crew watched as several bamboo logs dislodged and drifted away.  The raft was breaking up underneath them.  After more than 100 days at sea, the crew now noticed that teredos were finally making their appearance as well, eating their way through the bamboo. 

With the crew’s spirits flagging and his raft breaking up, Severin in early November gave the order to bring the experiment to a halt.  As he wrote in his journal: “If Chinese mariners made this voyage in ancient times, they came ashore in pre-Columbian America so exhausted they would have been on their knees” (ibid, 277).  On November 12th, a passing container ship picked up the crew, but not before they set all sails, and prepared the raft to drift on unmanned.  Severin tied a note to the raft asking anyone who found it to report its position to the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia.  But Hsu Fu was never seen again.

More than even the voyage itself, Severin demonstrated through the voyage of the Hsu Fu an acute awareness of dozens of seemingly minute yet intensely interesting details attending transoceanic raft expeditions.  Details involved in construction, in sailing, in endurance, in crew reactions and the receptions afforded, or not afforded, to the vessel en route, all of these points of analysis were kept constantly in mind throughout the Severin’s narrative.  What prehistoric treatments might have afforded various woods protection from teredos?  How would a weakened crew have brought a crippled vessel ashore with no help from completely exotic strangers on shore?  Almost nothing is known about these aspects of prehistoric voyaging in any kind of experimental setting.  With his voyage of 6,500 miles on a bamboo raft, Tim Severin had set a new standard for all future archaeological experiments.