Thursday, February 17, 2011

Talking Tech: Korean Turtle Ships

A reproduction turtle ship in Yeosu harbor (Korealife)

I'm starting a new portion of Multiculturalism for Steampunk called Talking Tech, in which we'll look at a piece of technology from a culture which existed during the Age of Steam. While costuming and food can really give an impression of a culture and learning about traditions will give you context, looking at technology can really inspire people to take it to the next level in steampunk. What would a Chinese lightening rifle look like? Or an airship from Istanbul?

By looking at pre-existing inventions and gadgets, it's my hope that people can get some ideas on multicultural tech, as well as appreciating them for their innovative and artistic value. Today we'll be looking at one of my favorites: Geobukseon, or Turtle Ships of Korea.

Replica of a Turtle Ship in the War Museum of Korea in Seoul (wikipedia)

Adorable name aside, Turtle Ships were some of the most feared vessels on the seas during their heyday, from the 15th century and into the 19th (when a few other ironclad vessels made their appearance). Why were they trawling for so long? An innovative and savvy design. The Koreans were used to the style of naval warfare their enemies (particularly the Japanese) had to offer and developed the armored hull of the Turtle Ship to combat it.

Turtle ships were the brainchild of Korean admiral Yi Sun Shin, who needed a ship capable of taking on the invading Japanese navy in the Seven Years' War (1592-1598). The Japanese used ship-to-ship boarding combat as their preferred tactic, in addition to cannon and other artillery. The Geobukseon were clad in iron plates and the topmost decks featured a roof covered in iron and metal spikes- making boarding a difficult task. A variety of cannon also aided to their air of invulnerability. They continued to be in commission into the 18th century before finally petering off in the early 19th.

Reproduction of the blueprints found in Admiral Yi's war diary (Univ. of Hawaii)

Anatomy of a Turtle (Ship)
Your typical Geobukseon was built from red pine or spruce and composed of three decks, two masts, and a LOT of rowers (considering how much weight was on this vessel, between armor, ammo, artillery, and manpower). The rowers (all 80 of them!) were covered by a roof of metal and spikes, giving the ship a broad, slightly domed shape (hence the moniker 'turtle'). For the foe foolhardy (or misinformed) enough to attempt to board the ship, the Koreans often set a surprise and covered the spike-laden canopies of their top decks with straw or thatch!

The average turtle had about 18 cannon ports, though 16th century sources allude to 115 foot (35m), 72-gun behemoths (I'm a little doubtful, but I'm not going to argue with that many guns...). In addition to cannon-power, turtles also packed heat in their prows, which were shaped like dragon or turtle heads. These figureheads were rigged to do a variety of dazzling acts, including firing rounds, emitting noxious fumes or smoke, and even as flamethrowers. Let me repeat this again: FLAMETHROWERS. There was even iron ornamentation on the keel that could act as an impromptu battering ram in the case of very close combat.

Needless to say, the turtle ships weren't precisely the fastest boats in the ocean, but with dedicated oarsmen they were capable of quick sprints in the event of a charge or retreat. Besides, much like their namesake reptile, slow and packing wins the race... or at least I think that's how the proverb goes.

Inside the topmost deck of a replica geobukseon, roommy innit? (travelpod)

The Age of Steam might also feature the same ship-to-ship combat that the Koreans faced in the 16th century- only in the air. Imagine an impenetrable fleet of armored airships! Just remove the rowers with engines or hydraulic-powered wings... Or perhaps adapt the design of the Turtle Ships for terrestrial use as tanks or land cruisers. The dragon's head at the prow also features many possibilities.

A cutaway model of a Turtle Ship (Allempires community)

Helpful Links
Rob Ossian's Pirate Cove has one of the best write-ups on Turtle Ships, including more information on their evolution and artillery.
The Kobukseon Research Center in South Korea is dedicated to researching and building period replicas of Turtle Ships to educate the public and fo use in commercial/film ventures. The Turtle Ship is considered one of the national culture treasures of South Korea. (In Korean)


  1. . . . okay, if my editor buys the steampunkish proposal currently in front of him, I think I may have to yoink this idea and run off cackling with it. ^_^

  2. Very cool. Thanks for posting this! Since I'm still working on just having something basic to wear, I haven't gotten anywhere on cultural aspects yet, so I hadn't thought a lot about what I could do with accessories. Since L and I don't travel a lot I tend to think of what I can do with our home more than what I can do that's portable. The Asian side of things is doing pretty well on the home front here because I have some furniture from Taiwan, via my Mom. Modern in that I don't think any of it is antique, but traditional design.

    Now I'm thinking maybe something simple like Chinese ornamentation for a watch would be nice, even if it's just the fob. Oh, or maybe a mix of Chinese and Japanese? I have a few um... darn, I forgot the name -- they're like netsuke, but smaller.

    My problem with building gadgets is that I want them to actually work :P

    Anyway, amazing ships!

    Heather G

  3. SimoneTomodachi (at FB)February 17, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    What is interesting to me, separate from the design is that the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese connected the turtle (often referred to as a dragon-turtle, a turtle body with a dragon head) with the direction of North, the element of Water/Ice and the color Black in Feng Shui and pre-Buddhist religion (although some of the aspects of this religion got mixed into Buddhism practiced in these countries too). The Black Turtle of the North was personified as the Black Warrior of the North diety (you often see this in martial arts movies) and in Japanese this warrior/turtle god is called Genbu (based on the old Chinese and you can see how the "Genbu" is carried over into the first part of the Korean word for the Turtle ship "Geo".

    Turtles were very important in the the early cosmology of China, and thus Korean and through them, early Japanese cosmology. The earliest forms of writing of ancient Chinese s found on turtle shells.

    It fascinates me how this Korean general created this type of ship and I wonder if it was a combination of watching turtles in the wild and the associations of them with "The Black Warrior" God, that gave him the idea.

    1. Would argue that "Genbu" carried over to "Geobuk", as turtle in Korean is (I believe) "Geobukee"

  4. As someone who has very little background in Asian history, this has been very helpful and enlightening. Thank you so much!

  5. you are an excellent source of information. thank you

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  9. Thx for wrote about my country's history and culture.