When the People's Republic of China formed, the People's Liberation Army consisted of a variety of American, old Soviet, and captured Japanese tanks. The condition of the forces was atrocious. Many vehicles were in need of major repairs, as well as unification to a single standard to facilitate training, service, and spare parts. China asked the USSR for help, as a result of which China received large amounts of modern tanks, APCs, and SPGs.
In 1956, when China and the USSR were still friendly, the Chinese purchased some T-54As from their socialist comrades. This vehicle made such a good impression that it was decided that it should be produced locally, at factory #617, in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. This could be considered the first tank factory in South-East Asia. There were already factories in Beijing (618), Changchun (636) and Harbin (674), but they only repaired vehicles and produced engines.
Initially, Baotou was meant to produce domestic medium and heavy tanks, but, after receiving documentation and equipment to build the T-54A, along with Soviet experts, the idea was changed. The first mass produced tanks left the conveyor belt in 1957. At that point, they were still exact copies of the Soviet vehicle. In 1961, the tank was assigned a factory designation: WZ-120, also known as Type 59.
The WZ-120 was armed with a 100 mm "59" gun, which was a copy of the Soviet D-10G. This gun could effectively fire at a distance of 700-1200 meters with AP, APCR, HEAT, and HE shells. The gun was equipped with a fume extractor to reduce the amount of gases in the fighting compartment. The gun was vertically stabilized and had a device to prevent firing when the tank was shaken. Aside from the main gun, the tank had two machine guns, a coaxial one, and one in the front plate. A third machine gun, 12.7 mm, was mounted on top of the turret. The hull was welded, and the turret cast. The hull armour was up to 97 mm thick, and sloped at a sharp angle. The turret had non-uniform thickness, up to 203 mm in the front.
The tank was quite agile. It accelerated to 50 kph, could go up a 30 degree incline, over a trench 2.7 meters long, and over a wall 0.8 meters tall. The tank could ford a river 1.4 meters deep with no special equipment, and, later, could ford a river 5.5 meters deep with special equipment.
The tank was modernized in the early 1960s. The armour protection remained the same, but rubber-fabric anti-HEAT screens were added to protect the suspension. The tank received a new 100 mm gun. The ammo rack expanded to 44 shells (early modifications had 34). The gun received a new hydraulic vertical stabilizer. The fighting compartment received a turret basket, easing the loader's work. Another novelty was an automatic fire protection system. The WZ-120A that fought in the Sino-Vietnamese conflict was equipped with a Yantszhu laser rangefinder.
WZ-120, named Type 59, is one of the most numerous tanks in the Chinese army. 6000 vehicles of this type were produced. The tank was produced until the end of the 1980s, with various modernizations. This longevity is not surprising, seeing as China purchased one of the most successful post-war tanks. Even in our days, Type 59 is not fully obsolete. Despite being removed from production, its successor, the Type 80, is not all that different from its predecessor.
Aside from the Chinese, the WZ-120 was used by Pakistan, Thailand, Albania, Iran, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and many more countries.
Original article available here.