In October 2007 I was travelling in China and I just had to make a visit to the The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing. The museum displays a great collection on the history of the communist guerilla fight under Mao Zedong (December 26th, 1893 – September 9th, 1976) to take over control of China from the Japanese in World War Two and also during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950 – although skirmishes and conflict between the two nations continued on and off into the 1960’s) against the Nationalist ruling government. The Nationalists were commanded by Republic of China leader Chiang Kai-shek (October 31st, 1887 – April 5th, 1975).
During the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and throughout World War Two,, the communists and Nationalists were working somewhat together to fight the common enemy in the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (fought from July 7th, 1937 to September 9th, 1945 this was a bloody and horrific conflict that is said to have made up a large percentage of the casualties of the Pacific War 1941-1945) but following the Japanese defeat, full-scale fighting in the Civil War soon resumed in 1946. The Nationalists conceded defeat on the mainland and retreated to Formosa Island and established Taiwan in 1949 (officially the Republic of China). The Communists then formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China in 1949.
Within the Hall of Weapons are many military aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), including Chinese designed variations of Soviet jets, along with tanks, missiles and weaponry are on display within the museum and its grounds. The military hardware is accompanied with historical displays and artefacts detailing all the various conflicts and struggles of the communists to gain control of China.
During the conflict in World War Two and the early period of the Cold War relations between the Peoples Republic of China and the Soviet Union were strong and China received much support from the Soviets including military equipment and aircraft (many were built under licence). By the 1960’s though Sino-Soviet relations were strained due to ideological differences (China began to see the Soviet Union as the biggest threat it faced) and by 1969 the nations were at each others throats. This break down in relations resulted in the Sino-Soviet border conflict which ran from March 2nd, 1969 to September 11th, 1969. It was an undeclared war which resulted in border skirmishes and brought the nations to the brink of a full-scale war. Tensions eased but the Sino-Soviet split was well and truly in place for the rest of the Cold War until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (apart from a brief respite in the mid to late 70’s following Mao’s death which broke down again during the 1979 Sino Vietnamese War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).
The result of the Sino-Soviet split was that China needed to develop its own military equipment, some of which were straight out copies of Soviet aircraft, through to their own developments of existing types. Examples of such developments in aviation technology were the Chengdu J-7 Fishbed fighter (introduced in 1966 and modernized versions are still in PLAAF service) which was basically a reverse engineered Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21 Fishbed and the Shenyang J-8 Finback-A all-weather interceptor which used the MiG-21/J-7 as a basis to develop a much larger twin-engined fighter (a small number of the original J-8 variant entered service in 1969 but the improved J-8I type did not enter service until 1980/1981 and was again a limited production run. The J-8II Finback-B which was produced in the 1980’s has a redesigned fuselage, an enclosed nose and side air intakes. The later type continues to operate in the PLAAF today). Both of these designs are on display with a number of other earlier Soviet/Chinese aircraft.
The other aircraft on display during my visit were a Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot (this example was manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1949, the type was used in the Korean War 1950-1953 and is displayed in North Korean markings but is also in the markings of Chinese Korean War air ace Wang Hai, with a claimed 9 victories represented by the red stars. The Chinese imported close to 2,500 MiG-15 and the improved MiG-15bis fighters plus MiG-15UTI trainers between 1950 and 1958, the last examples were not retired until 1986!), Shenyang J-5/F-5 Fresco (Chinese version of the MiG-17 Fresco which was an advancement on the MiG-15 design and operated from 1956 to 1992) and the twin-engined Shenyang J-6/F-6 Farmer (Chinese version of the MiG-19 Farmer operated from 1962 into the late 1990’s). Classic PLAAF combat aviation indeed!
Obviously everything in The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution has a very “anti-imperialist” and biased feel to it, but this just makes it more interesting to get the communist take on things (be it right or wrong!). If in Beijing, the museum is well worth a visit for any military history enthusiast and my understanding is that the museum has been greatly expanded since my last trip to China, with more tanks and aircraft on display.