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Influence and Evolution:  The Development of the Batten Lug Sail

Timothy Joseph Kane
Thesis: August 2006
Chair:  Castro

   With its ease of reefing, subtle control, and unmatched ability to generate thrust effectively in both severe and minimal weather, the Chinese batten lug is perhaps one of the most sophisticated sails in history. However, its development remains unclear, as its relatively sudden appearance in the iconographic record as a mature technology, and its seeming lack of affinity to other Chinese sails, gives no indication of a regional evolution.

    An analysis of the batten lug suggests that it likely descended from some simpler sail. As it is separated from the most rudimentary square rig by several key features, the batten lug's development probably occurred in an incremental, or stepwise, fashion. But, no intermediate form representing such progression of the batten lug has yet been discovered in China, or even in the greater Pacific basin. An examination of iconographic evidence from India and the western reaches of the Roman Empire, however, suggests that sails bearing battens or possessing lug morphology existed in these regions prior to the emergence of the batten lug in China. The question therefore arises whether it is possible that these sails were ancestral to, or in some way influenced the development of, the more sophisticated Chinese sail.

    In an attempt to answer this question, this thesis considers the significance of diffusion as a mechanism for the dispersal of ideas, both today and in antiquity. It also presents a review of the numerous artifacts and textual accounts that suggest commercial and cultural exchange occurred between the Roman Empire, India and China during the Imperial and early Medieval periods. As a result of these evaluations, it seems possible, and even probable, that the technologies of these regions influenced each other. Considering this possibility, the likely evolution of the batten lug, and the distribution of potentially ancestral forms, this thesis concludes that the development of the batten lug in China may indeed have been influenced or inspired by the sails of India and the western Roman Empire.

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