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From a verb, yao lu, meaning ‘to shake the oar’, and of ancient origin, probably going back to the Han dynasty which was established in 206 bc. It is a form of long oar or sweep used over the stern by Chinese boatmen to propel sampans and the smaller junks. It is usually made in two parts, either scarfed and pegged or lashed together, giving the yuloh a distinct bow which causes the blade to be very whippy or flexible and which makes the inboard end parallel with the deck. It is mounted loosely over a peg on the boat's stern, and the loom, or inboard, end is attached to the deck by a length of line. This allows the loom to be roughly waist high, while the blade on the outboard end enters the water at an angle of about 30°. By alternately pushing and pulling the loom of the yuloh athwartships the sampan man or girl causes the blade to flex from side to side in the water with a fish's tail motion, or sculling action, and so drives the vessel forward.

In the 15th century the yuloh was used on much larger junks, as the description by the Arabian traveller Ibn Battutah shows: ‘There are in the junk about 20 very great oars, like masts, each of which have about 30 men to work them, standing in two rows facing each other. The oar, like a club, is provided with two strong cords or cables, and one of the two rows of men pulls on the cable then lets it go, while the others pull on the second cable.’

Subjects: Maritime History.

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