I find that when it comes to Chinese naval history, Zheng He's treasure fleet tend to eclipse every other time period, which unfortunately is at the cost of every other time period. I will attempt to make an account of Central Plain navies between the Spring&Autumn period to the Warring States, although I may use later texts when contemporary ones are lacking.
The earliest naval battles occurred during the Spring&Autumn period. Of the myriad states, the Wu and Yue of the southeast were the most advanced in shipbuilding. The Wu were described as "not being able to last a day without relying on its ships". As for the Yue, they were said to have "paid tribute in ships" back when the Zhou dynasty was still the clear hegemonic power of all outlying states. Naval engagements occurred in rivers, lakes, or near the coastline. However, records tend to only give the combatants as well as the victor, but lacks detail in the order of battle. For example, the Zuo Chuan recorded the first naval campaign (549 BC) as this: "The prince of Chu made himself admiral to attack Wu, disregarding Military Governance (a lost book about military strategy). He returned without merit." The first true sea battle occured in 485 BC, in which the Qi repulsed a Wu fleet at the Yellow Sea. However, during this period the sea led nowhere for the most part, so canals functioned not only for trade, but also for transportation of warships. By 506 BC, the state of Wu created a canal named "Yi river", after its advisor Wu ZiYi. It stretched over 100 li, and the Wu navy used it to achieve a victory over the Chu. It was later expanded to 185 li under king Fuchai, and the Wu again used the canal to attack in 484 BC. This time the victim was the state of Qi, and the Wu navy scored two more victories. But what were their navies composed of? The most revealing passage came from a quote of Wu ZiXu's. Ho Lu (king of Wu, -514 to -496)had an interview with Wu Zixu about naval operations. Wu Zixu replied: 'The (classes of) ships are named Great Wings, Little Wings, Stomach Strikers, Tower ships, and Bridge ships. Nowadays in training naval forces we use the tactics of land forces for best effect. Thus Great Wing ships correspond to the army's heavy chariots, Little Wing ships to light chariots, Stomach Strikers to battering rams, Tower Ships to mobile assault towers and Bridge ships to light cavalry.' A more detailed description is as follows.
Wing ships: These ships most likely lasted through the Warring States period but were never mentioned again afterwords. Wu ZiXu described them as taking the role of chariots. Chariots during his period were used as skirmishers. For the most part, they would only engage an enemy when the opposing army was either in chaos or near the breaking point (As according to the Secret Teachings of Jiang Tai Gong, a Warring States mmanual). If the Wing ship took a similar role, then it must have avoided direct confrontation with other ships, but instead picked off enemy rowers or marines at a distance. The ship was described to be equipped with four "long hooks". This hints that the Wing ships could be used for boarding, preferably after the crossbowmen whittled down the enemy deck. The word used for Wing is Yi, which could also be translated as the flank of an army. It is not too far to believe that this implies where these ships were located in a typical naval formation. The Wing ships are the only ships described that was defined with any detail by surviving contemporary sources. The Tai-Ping reign period Imperial Encyclopedia of 983 contains an excerpt of the now lost Spring and Autumn Wu ZiXu's Manual of Naval Tactics. The passage claims that Great Wing ships of Wu had a length of 10 zhang (23.1 meters) and a beam of 1 zhang 5 chi 2 cun (3.58 meters). Mid-Wing ships were 9 zhang 6 cun long and 1 zhang 3 chi 5 cun meters wide. Small Wing ships are 9 zhang long and 1 zhang 2 chi wide. However, the size of these ships did not seem to be standardized between different states. In the Records of Yue, Great Wings were described with a length of 12 zhang (27.72 meters) and a beam of 1 zhang 6 chi (3.7 meters), which was somewhat bigger than the Great Wing ships of Wu. The Records of Yue also described the composition of a Wing ship. These ships carried 26 marines, 50 rowers, and 3 sailors. The crew was accompanied by 4 pikemen, 4 long-distance shooters, and 4 officers, making a total crew size of 91 men. Great Wing ships came with 4 long hooks, 4 spears, 4 long-handled axes, 32 crossbows, 3300 bolts, and 32 suits of armor. The length to beam ratio of the Wu and Yue Wing ships correspond unsurprisingly close to the galleys of the rest of the globe. These ships probably looked very similar to a two decked peteconter(which also had 50 oars).
Click the image to open in full size.
Click the image to open in full size.
Stomach Strikers: These were described as battering rams. I assume they were used for ramming other ships. If so, they probably became the predecessor to the Han dynasty Covered Swoopers. These were the ships Huang Gai used to to incinerate Cao Cao's massive fleet in the famous Battle of Red Cliff. The Shi Ming (100 AD) described Covered Swoopers as follows: "(Vessels that are) long and narrow in appearance are called Covered Swoopers; they dash against the ships of the enemy." Tang dynasty texts (Canon of the White and Gloomy Planet of War by Li Quan, 759 AD) described them in more detail: "These are ships which have their backs roofed over and (armoured with) a covering of rhinoceros hide....... also both fore and aft, as well as to port and starboard, there are openings for crossbows and holes for spears. Enemy parties cannot board (these ships), nor can arrows or stones injure them. This arrangement is not adopted for large vessels because higher speed and mobility are preferable (for the Covered Swoopers), in order to be able to swoop suddenly on the unprepared enemy. Thus these are not fighting-ships (in the ordinary sense." The word for "swoop" is "chong", which could also be translated as "to charge".
Considering the text above as well as Wu ZiXu's analogy, Stomach Strikers must have been the predecessor to Covered Swoopers. I suspect that Li Quan's information about Covered Swoopers must be from an earlier source. Rhinos were near extinct in China during his lifetime, so the "rhinoceros hide" he mentioned would not fit with his time period.
Tower Ships: These ships were equated as mobile siege towers. The implication is obvious enough. Tower ships were used to board enemy ships just like how siege towers were used to "board" enemy walls. There is no detailed contemporary description about early tower ships. However, a Tang source from 759 by Li Quan mentions them as thus: "These ships have three decks equipped with bulwarks for the fighting-lines, and flags and pennants flying from the masts. There are ports and openings for crossbows and lances, [and at the sides there is provided felt and leather to protect against fire], while (on the topmost deck) there are trebuchets for hurling stones, set up (in appropriate places). And there is also (arrangements for making) molten iron (for throwing in containers from these catapults). (The whole broadside) gives the appearance of a city wall. In the Jin period the Prancing-Dragon Admiral, Wang Jun, invading Wu (280 AD), built a great ship 200 paces (276 meters) in length, and on it set flying rafters and hanging galleries on which chariots and horses could go. But if [all of a sudden] a violent wind is encountered, (such ships are likely to) get out of human control, so they were judged inconvenient in practice [for warlike action]. But the fleet cannot fail to be furnished with such ships, in order that its overawing might may be perfected."
Bridge ships: The bridge ship has the most obscure description of all, as it was equated with light cavalry. Cavalry during the Warring States was used to flank enemy armies from the sides and rear. But they could also be used to cut off an enemy's retreat (As according to the Six Teachings of Jiang Tai Gong). The "bridge" in its name implies that they were similar in function to Roman corvus(bridge) ships of the First Punic war. The corvus allowed men to board enemy ships. I assume bridge ships were used to board retreating ships that the lumbering Tower Ships could not catch up to. Needham speculates that bridge ships were just civilian ships press ganged into service to be parts of a pontoon bridge. If this was the case then I fail to see the analogy between pontoon bridges and light cavalry.
Notice the pattern that Wu ZiXu used to describe the classes of ships: First the Wing ships(for skirmishing), then the Stomach Strikers(for ramming), then the Tower Ships(for boarding), and lastly the Bridge Ships(for pursuing). If the above interpretations for the ship functions are correct, then Wu ZiXu must have listed the ship types as in the typical order of deployment in battle. The Wing Ships would engage first to skirmish with the opposing navy, thinning enemy numbers. Then appear the Stomach Strikers, whose function is to ram into enemy ships, hopefully breaking enemy formations. The Towers Ships follow up by boarding and capturing the now disorganized enemy vessels. As the battle ends the Bridge Ships would pursue those that are left.
A ship that Wu ZiXu didn't mention was the dagger-axe ship. There are no detailed descriptions, but Needham believes that the Mojing describes the invention of these ships:
Here is the Mojing's account of a naval battle in 445 BC: "Formerly the people of Chu and the people of Yue had a battle on the river. The Chu forces advanced with the current in their favour, but it was against them when they wanted to retreat. With success in sight they came on, but when defeat threatened them they found withdrawal quite difficult. Conversely the Yue forces had to advance upstream but could retreat downstream. In favourable conditions they could push sloly forwards but if the luck of battle turned they could get away quickly. With this advantage the Yue people greatly defeated those of Chu.
Master Kungshu then came south from Lu to Chu and began making naval warfare implements called 'hook-fenders' (gou qiang). When an (enemy ship) was about to retreat, one used the hook (part); when an (enemy ship) came on, one used the fender (part). The length of this weapon was adopted as a standard for the ships, so that the vessels of Chu were all standardized while those of Yue were not. With this advantage the Chu people greatly defeated those of the Yue.
Master Kungshu was proud of his ingenuity and asked Master Mo, saying: 'My warships have the hook-fender device. Do you have anything like this in your (philosophy of) righteousness?' Master Mo replied: 'The grappling-and-ramming device in my (philosophy of) righteousness is much better than your war-boat gear...'
Mo Tzu continues into a philosophical debate on how Master Kungshu's device gives an incentive for people to harm each other, whereas Mo Tzu's devices do the opposite. The entire conversation is probably fictional, but the tools described were most likely very real. Needham speculates that the hook-fenders were very long dagger axes implemented horizontally onto the ship itself. When approaching an enemy ship, these polearms would drop down, locking itself onto the enemy deck. This would prevent the enemy ship from escaping, or at the same time provide a comfortable distance for exchanging crossbow fire. The hook-fender could also be lowered to fend off enemy ships from closing in. I speculate that they may be used to overturn and capsize smaller crafts. Here is a passage from the Wan Chi Lun (+220)
When Wu and Yue were fighting on the Five Lakes, they used ships with oars, which butted into each other as if with horns. Whether handled bravely or timidly all were overturned, whether blunt or sharp all capsized.
Most of my information came from Needham, but I took the liberty to change some of his translations/interpretations. For example, his units of conversion were out of date.