Until the end of the 17th century, China was practically isolated from the outside world. Because of this, China maintained its unique culture, and remained a local superpower. On the other hand, this isolation led to a lack of historical context, and slow development. When European colonists expanded into China, there was very little possible resistance.
At first, the Chinese did not see a threat in the "round-eyed barbarians". The Europeans were seen as yet another race, come to willingly accept the wisdom of the Chinese emperor. In time, everything took its place, and China began a struggle that could only end in its defeat.
As much as the Tsin dynasty tried to protect China from foreigners, doing this was impossible. Jesuit missionaries snuck into the country, converted the population, and studied the government structure: effectively scouting out the region. The British, wishing to expand their empire, started importing opium. Its prohibition and struggle with contraband brought about the Opium Wars, in which China was defeated, and turned into a half-colony. Britain, France, Germany, and China all got a chunk. The Russian Empire also got a piece of the pie, albeit a small one. Its relations with China were very benign, sometimes even friendly.
The beginning of the 20th century brought many changes to China. The Xinhai Revolution created the Republic of China in 1911-1913. In 1913, a so called Second Revolutions occurred, led by Sun Yatsen. This revolution was suppressed, and a military dictatorship led by Yuan Shikai arose. In 1915, an attempt was made to rebuild the empire with Shikai at the throne, but this novelty lasted only a year. In 1916, Shikai abdicated, and died shortly after. After his death, China found itself home to many militaristic political groups. A number of them were supported by Japan, some by the English or the Americans.
From 1912, the Kuomintang party led by Sun Yatsen existed in China. Ten years after that, the first Communist party formed, led by Chen Dusu. From 1922 to 1927, the Communists and Kuomintangists were allied against the militarist groups. At this time, China was supported by the USSR and Germany. The USSR sent military advisers, which trained the local armed forces, while Germany sent various machinery and industrialized the country.
In 1927, Kuomintang and the Communist party parted ways. Kuomintang's forces pushed the Communists to the northern provinces. The Kuomintang party, led by Chang Kaishek, Yatsen's successor, completely seized power.
In 1937, China and Japan went to war. For many years, the relations between the countries were hardly neighbourly, but now the conflict reached full force, and would stay there until Japan's defeat in 1945.
In this period, all Chinese forces used armour manufactured in other countries. Tanks were either bought or captured. Here are some examples of tanks used by the Chinese armies.
Britain, with its original view of tank concepts, managed to ignore a relatively decent tank for the time, the 6-ton Vickers. Due to this, most tanks produced for Britain, were exported. China was one recipient, along with the USSR, Poland, Finland, Argentina, and many others. The French supplied China with another famous vehicle: the Renault FT-17. This tank was very influential, since it was the first to have a layout now known as classic: engine in the rear, a central fighting compartment, a gun placed in a rotating turret.
Since China was at war with Japan, it was inevitable that captured Japanese tanks appeared in Chinese armies. Around 1940, the Japanese Chi-ha were first seen with Chinese flags. These 15-ton tanks had a 57 mm gun, were armoured against bullets, and could traverse cross-country terrain at 19 kph. This wasn't so great for a European tank, but for Japan, the Chi-ha was a very advanced design. Starting with WWII, China received American M5s. A very large amount of these tanks were supplied under the Lend-Lease program. While these tanks were too weak for the European theater, they were sufficient for China.
After WWII ended, China and the Soviet Union were friendly enough that Chinese leaders requested help developing their tanks. China was supplied with IS-2s, T-34-85s, SU-100s. The real birth of the Chinese tank building school was in 1957, when China received a number of T-54 tanks, and documentation for its manufacture.
The T-54 was a very good tank. The Soviet Union kept them around for 30 years, a very significant lifespan for the swift technical development in the 20th century. China was very lucky to start their independent tank manufacturing with this vehicle.
China produced the Type 59 tank, based on the T-54. The initial manufacture was set up in the city of Baotou, in the province of Inner Mongolia. Soviet specialists assisted with the construction of the factory, and the tanks' construction. The first vehicles were straight up clones of the T-54, but were later modified to simplify manufacture, and adapt the tank to functioning in South-East Asia.
Six types of Type 59s were released over the years, designated by alphanumerical indexes.
The Type 59-I, released in the early 1960s, was equipped with a new 100 mm gun, targeting system, IR night vision, and a gun stabilizer. In the 1980s, this tank received a laser rangefinder. However, it was located in an unfortunate place, outside the gun mantlet, which made it vulnerable to bullets and shrapnel.
Later, the Type 59-II was released. Instead of a Soviet D-10T clone, the tank received a very accurate Israeli 105mm gun. Norinco developed special subcaliber fin-stabilized ammunition for it. Even at 2500m, these shells could pierce 150mm of armour, at a very sharp angle. There were also prototypes with 120mm guns, with the aid of British engineers. Today, the Chinese Army uses the Type 59D, equipped with active armour, an advanced targeting system, and a gun capable of penetrating up to 400mm of armour.
In 1963, the Type 62, a 20.5 ton lighter version of the T-54, was developed. 1200 of these tanks were built, not only for the Chinese army, but several others. 11 countries currently use it.
Other curiosities include the WZ-111 tank. This tank was developed in the 1960s as a replacement for IS-2 and IS-3 tanks that, while still used by the Chinese army, were deemed obsolete. Even though the need for a heavy tank was debatable at that point, Chinese engineers designed a tank that was reminiscent of the IS-3, with its piked front and a 122 mm gun with a 2-part loading process. This project only produced one prototype with a fake turret. It can be seen in the National Liberation Army Museum in China.
While China launched its tank industry very late, it started using tanks much earlier. Almost always, they used tanks that were, in their time, considered among the best. When China started making its own tanks, they didn't simply copy someone else, they actively modernized and improved tanks, using their potential to the fullest. As a result, the Chinese version of a tank was superior to its prototype. Today, the PRC produces high quality armoured vehicles, which some consider some of the best in the world.
Original article available here.