By Junshi Bowuguan
The history of China spans some four thousand years. As might be expected, China has a rich military history that covers internal revolts, external aggression and civil war. The last one hundred years or so have been particularly violent. The first Sino-Japanese War began in 1894. In 1911, a revolution overthrew the emperor and led to decades of war between various warlords. The second Sino-Japanese War began in 1931 with the Mukden Incident and is considered by many to be the actual start of World War Two. The defeat of the Japanese by the Allies led to civil war in China between the Nationalists and the Communists. This lasted from 1945 until the Nationalists were forced to flee to Taiwan in 1949.
The years since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 have brought internal peace to China. In 1960, the Military Museum of the People’s Revolution was opened in Beijing. This museum is housed in a large multi-floor building with over 650,000 square feet of floor space.
While in China recently on vacation, I decided to visit the museum. It is a main tourist attraction and, with its own subway stop, is easy to get to in the western part of Beijing. When I came up above ground, I was directly across the street from the museum. A ticket office is to the right and after paying the five-yuan (approximately $.60) fee, I entered the courtyard in front of the building.
In addition to providing copious space for tour bus parking, the courtyard also contains a number of exhibits that included a small jet plane, a patrol boat, a ballistic missile and two dozen or so cannons. The newer items all appear to be of Soviet design, something that might be expected considering their long Communist association.
Upon entering the building, which is also used for other non-military exhibits, I was confronted by a fifteen-foot tall statue of Chairman Mao. Though not seen in many other places in China, he is very much in evidence in the military museum. Passing around Mao, one of the first exhibits I came to was a rare Japanese Type 97 medium tank. Considering the contentious history between China and Japan, it is obvious why many of the exhibits concern Japan.
The main Hall of Weapons contains all the large displays. These include a wide variety of fairly modern Chinese military equipment including artillery, tanks, aircraft and, more recently, missiles. The periphery of this hall includes displays of mortars (up to 160mm) as well as some rarely encountered 20mm infantry cannon such as the Japanese Type 97, the Breda and the Madsen.
On either side of the main hall there are covered courtyards containing other displays. One contains over one hundred artillery pieces, ranging from pre-World War One types to Korean War vintage pieces. The other courtyard mainly contains what appear to be artifacts of the 1945-1949 Civil War. These include American armor and aircraft supplied to the Nationalists. There is also the remains of an American U-2 spy plane that either crashed or was shot down.
Above the main hall is a gallery that runs along three sides. This is the main area of our interest here as it is where the small arms are displayed. The displays are professionally done, although the glass display cases do not lend themselves to good photography. There are signs in English on the cases, although they are so rudimentary as to be of little help, i.e., “Pistols”, “Rifles”, etc. More extensive identification signs are in Chinese but provide no help unless you are traveling with a guide.
Although Chinese military history literally spans thousands of years, there are few weapons on display older than a Chinese copy of a Remington rolling block rifle dating from the last quarter of the 19th century. It is not hard to assume that the nature of the 20th century wars in China did not leave much in the way of remains. Nonetheless, the small arms displays are extensive. The first display I encountered was of Japanese samurai swords, quickly followed by a display of rocket-propelled grenades, many of them cut-away.
The Chinese rifle display includes a number of Japanese rifles. There is a Federov Avtomat, undoubtedly a gift from the Soviets. Then there are the Mausers. The Chinese obviously liked Mausers as they used and manufactured their own beginning with the Model 1888. They built millions of them in a number of arsenals and numerous variations are on display.
Not only did the Chinese like Mauser rifles, they also loved broomhandle Mauser pistols. A separate display includes dozens of them. Other pistols on display include a rare .32 ACP 16-shot Spanish pistol with tangent sight and fitted for shoulder stock.
There are several displays which include nearly all the small arms carried by the Allied and Axis forces in World War Two. There is a separate Thompson display showing many different models. Another display covers German assault rifles. There is a separate display of weapons, mainly American, that were used in Vietnam.
By far the largest part of the small arms exhibit covers light, medium and heavy machine guns. They range from Chinese copies of Russian Maxims to the native Chinese Type 77 12.7mm machine gun. This, incidentally, was the latest model of any of the weapons I saw on display.
There is an extensive display of large caliber anti-aircraft machine guns and an adjoining display of medium machine guns on tripods. There was also a display of Japanese large caliber machine guns, 20mm and above, that were based on the Browning system. Something which the American ordnance authorities apparently claimed could not be done but which the Japanese had no trouble doing.
In one case I found a Finnish M1931 submachine gun with four-column magazine designed by Aimos Lahti. Another case contained one of his LS-26 light machine guns. I would have never known how it got there except for the fact that I had read about it in the November 1998 issue of Small Arms Review and knew that the Chinese had purchased twelve hundred of them in 8mm Mauser caliber in 1937. Considering that the warlords in the 1920s bought whatever they could find on the international arms market, there seems to be at least one example here on display.
As I made my way around the gallery, I finally came to a hall of statuary. Besides Mao Tse-tung and Zhou En-lai, I doubt if any westerner would recognize any of the other statues.
Going down the stairs back into the main hall, I found a small stand selling souvenirs and books. None of the books were in English and the ones in Chinese did not offer anything of interest.
The museum is open daily from 8.a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Be warned that the museum can be very crowded on weekends, as this is when the local citizens visit this popular attraction.
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