Chinese P.L.A. (1950-1979?) Medium Tank
1800+ Supplied (T-34-85)
Unknown Number Converted (‘Type 58’)

The Chinese Upgrade of the T-34-85

‘Type 58’ is a perhaps unofficial name which refers to the mysterious Chinese upgrade package to the T-34-85. All T-34-85s came to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the USSR between 1950-1955, along with all types of military materiel as part of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (1950). These were briefly the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) most numerous tanks, but once license production of the T-54 MBT began in 1958 (I.e. the Type 59), the T-34-85 appears to have been relegated over time to lesser roles in the PLA. Nevertheless, seeing as though they were still in active service, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, it appears as though most T-34-85s were given an upgrade package which has come to be known as the ‘Type 58’. Little is known about the details of this package, and what is known is only obtained through photographic evidence. What is evident, despite varying stories from different sources, is that the PRC never produced the T-34-85 or any sort of variant of the design.

Image result for Chinese T-34-85

Chinese T-34-85 ‘406’ in the Beijing Tank Museum, 2013. On the left are two IS-2s. Source: Wikipedia

Context: Tanks of the PLA as of 1st October 1949

The PLA held a major victory parade to mark the foundation of the PRC on 1st October 1949 in Beijing (with lesser parades in other major cities). All types of military materiel took part on this parade, including tanks. However, by 1949, most of these tanks were outdated and were in need of replacement. Perhaps the majority of these tanks were ex-Japanese which were mostly captured by the NRA (National Revolutionary Army – the army of the Nationalists – the Kuomintang / Guomindang, KMT / GMD) during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and then captured by the PLA during the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949). Most of these Japanese tanks were the Chi-Ha, Chi-Ha Shinhoto, and the Ha-Go, but other types were in service in lesser numbers such as the Type 94 TK, Type 95 So-Ki, and so on.

The PLA also captured many of the NRA’s M3A3 and M5A1 Stuart tanks, along with other American vehicles such as the LVT(A)-4, LVT-4, M3A1 Scout Car, and many others. These were originally supplied via Lend-Lease to the Chinese Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the Burma Campaign (1942-1945) but were retained and used in the Civil War. The CEF’s M4A4 Shermans were all confiscated by the USA after the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War for fear that they may be used aggressively and not defensively, thus sparking a civil war (a war which came nonetheless).

The PLA also fielded some rarer vehicles, such as an M4A2 Sherman, and a T-26 M1937.

As such, one can understand just how desperate the Chinese PLA was to obtain new tanks. Therefore, the PRC turned to its Communist ‘ally’, the USSR, for aid. Despite ideological differences and a chequered history of relations between the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), under the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (1950), the USSR agreed to supply the PRC with all the assistance that a new Communist state would need to prosper (although this fell short of nuclear weapons technology, despite persistent Chinese demands).

Context: Soviet Arms Sales to the PRC, 1950-1955

In the years 1950-1955, the PRC purchased a huge variety of weapons and military equipment of all types from the USSR to replace their outdated weapons. Over 3000 vehicles are reported to have been supplied to the PLA from the USSR 1950-1955.

  • 1950 – 300 T-34-85s, 60 IS-2s and 40 ISU-122s (to be clear, the original model armed with the 122mm A-19S, not the later ISU-122S with the 122mm D-25S), which were organized into 10 regiments (30 T-34-85, 6 IS-2 heavy tanks, and 5 ISU-122s in each).
  • 1951 – 96 T-34-85s, and 64 SU-76s, which were organized into 4 regiments.
  • 1952 – 312 T-34-85s, and 208 SU-76s, which were organized into 13 regiments.
  • 1953 – 480 T-34-85s, and 320 SU-76s, which were organized into 13 regiments (based on a total number of 40 regiments at this point).
  • 1954 – 649 T-34-85s, 320 SU-76s, 22 IS-2s, 99 SU-100s, 67 ISU-152s, and 9 ARVs (at least 2 of which were based on the ISU chassis, the others likely being based on the T-34).
  • 1955 – No figures are available, but there were known shipments in 1955. Based on varying estimates for the number of T-34-85s in China, 127 T-34-85s might have been included in this shipment, but this is not confirmed.
  • 72 additional ARVs and engineering vehicles were also supplied in this period.

Total 1950-1954: 1837 T-34-85s (some estimates suggest as many as 1964 by 1955), 82 IS-2s, 40 ISU-122s, 67 ISU-152s, 99 SU-100s, and 704 SU-76s. This gives a total of 2829 tanks, (excluding ARVs and engineering vehicles) organized into 67 regiments between 1950 and 1954, although some estimates suggest that 3000 armoured vehicles were sold to the PRC between 1950 and 1955. No T-34/76s are known to have been supplied to the PRC, even though many were supplied to North Korea.

These T-34-85s were a huge mixture of tanks from different factories including Krasnoye Sormovo 112, Omsk 174, and UTZ 183.

Chinese Production of the T-34-85?

Whilst sources on early PRC tanks are sketchy (and likely untrustworthy), there is a story which circulates across various modern Chinese sources that suggests T-34-85 was intended for production in the PRC before the T-54 was accepted instead. This is not the same story as typically derived from western sources, which suggest the ‘Type 58’ was a Chinese copy of the T-34-85. The story is more or less as follows:

In 1954, the PRC asked the USSR for permission to produce the T-34-85 indigenously by 1958. This is because the Chinese leadership felt that the PRC should be self-sufficient in producing its own military material, as well as maintaining it. The USSR agreed to this request, seeing as though they had superior replacements for the Soviet Army in production anyway (namely the T-54 and its variants). The PRC had managed to translate all the documents of the vehicles provided to them and therefore began to organise license-production of the T-34-85 in the same year with the designation ‘Type 58’. However, production was slow to start.

The simple fact is that the PRC was unprepared for any form of large scale industry in the years following the Communist victory in 1950 because industry across the country was in many respects never ready for serious tank production beyond a few workshop conversions.

Despite the poor state of Chinese industry, some workshops had managed to produce a set of tracks in 1955. By May 1956, a gearbox was also successfully made. Finally, in February 1957, a prototype V2-34 diesel engine was made, meaning that the PRC was ready to organise production lines for the T-34-85 and was due to begin manufacture of the tank in 1958.

However, as the trials for manufacturing T-34 parts had gone on for so long, negotiations for the licenses and relevant documents to produce the T-54 had come to fruition and the T-54 was accepted for production instead. This is supposedly just shortly before a completely Chinese-made T-34-85 prototype was produced, OR just before trials of Chinese-made prototype T-34-85 were complete (evidence for which is lacking), OR just after a short production run of Chinese-made T-34-85s had been complete (evidence for which is certainly lacking). There is even a suggestion that ‘Type 58’ was to be the name for the indigenously produced T-34-85, but evidence for this is lacking. Whatever the case may be, once production of the T-54 (or more accurately, ‘Type 59’, as the locally-produced Chinese variant was known) began, Chinese production of the T-34-85 was abandoned and only replacement parts were made for their repair facilities.

A more likely story…

Whether this story of the PRC producing T-34-85s is true or not remains a mystery. However, it is the author’s belief that sources with this story have, at best, simply confused various true events, and at worst circulated pure rumours and inaccuracies.

It is certain that the Chinese wanted repair facilities for the T-34-85, which they made (with one major center being in Beijing). These facilities would have needed spare parts to be produced in the PRC including replacement tracks, engines, lights, electronics, gearboxes, and so on, which is close to indigenous production of the T-34-85 (but is, of course, not the same thing). Furthermore, it is highly plausible that production of these parts began as early as 1956, seeing as though some tanks would have been in service for over six years and would need replacements. It is also plausible that it took until 1957 for all to be ready, seeing as though Chinese industry needed rebuilding after the civil war – something which took time. However, it is doubtful that all of this would have been part of an attempt for the Chinese to produce the T-34-85 in full production runs.

There are four key reasons to doubt the PRC ever producing, or attempting to produce the T-34-85:

  • Most sources, both western and Chinese, suggest that an agreement with the USSR was made as early as 1956 to produce the T-54 in the PRC. The first batch of these ‘Type 59s’ was delivered in 1958 using Soviet-supplied kits, and were accepted into service in 1959, hence the designation ‘Type 59’. Thus, it makes no sense for any work on full-scale T-34-85 production to take place in the PRC as late as 1957. Whether the PRC intended to produce the T-34-85 back in 1954 remains unclear.
  • The story has too many variations and inconsistencies between sources to be true. Most tellingly, whether a T-34-85 prototype was nearly produced, produced and partially trialled, or whether a short production run of T-34-85s was made.
  • Yuri Pasholok, famous Soviet tank historian, reports that all the Type 58s and T-34-85s he studied whilst in the PRC had Soviet serial numbers.
  • Stories of Chinese T-34-85 production proliferated in the post-World of Tanks era, which is a video-game full of historical inaccuracies (see Sidenote III below).

Therefore, without further evidence, this full story is perhaps best regarded as nothing more than a rumour.

‘Type 58’ Upgrade Package

Chinese T-34-85s were fitted with an upgrade package, perhaps beginning in 1958, although the exact date cannot be ascertained. This has become known as the ‘Type 58’. It is difficult to discern what exactly the package consisted of, seeing as though period photos are too few and not detailed enough to show characteristics. Furthermore, many ‘Type 58s’ in Chinese museums today have been modified and often inaccurately restored for display purposes, which means that some technical details are not original. Nevertheless, there appears to have been one standard package with only very minor variation in some of the smaller details.

‘Type 58’ turret detail, showing the new DShK stowage hardpoints. The ‘8-1’ star was not always painted on this side of the turret, and the small size indicates it to be an inaccurate museum addition. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

‘Type 58’ turret detail, showing the new DShK stowage hardpoints. The ‘8-1’ star was not always painted on this side of the turret, and the small size indicates it to be an inaccurate museum addition. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

Photographic evidence suggest that this ‘Type 58’ package consisted of:

  • A hard point for stowing a 12.7mm machine gun, always on the right cheek of the turret, which appears to be a copy of the stowage mount as seen on the rear of the T-54 and Type 59 turret.
  • A distinctive second ‘cupola’ in place of the original loader’s hatch. The original hatch was removed and a simple steel cylinder fitted over the hatch hole. Some of these cupolas had crudely made vision slits (apparently without optics or even simple glass) although others did not feature vision slits (meaning these are more accurately described as ‘superstructures’). On top was a crude hatch door, and a mount for a 12.7mm DShK machine gun (or 12.7mm Type 54, the Chinese production variant), apparently a copy of the T-54’s mount. When stowed, machine guns would face the rear and would also have a tarp placed over it to prevent damage. Some ‘Type 58s’ also had a small ‘V’ shape (as viewed from above) piece of metal welded at the front, connecting both cupolas, but not all have this feature.
  • A new rear transmission-rear hull plate hinge. This was an exterior rod type, and essentially strengthened the joint when opening the rear of the tank for inspection. Chinese SU-100s and T-34-based ARVs were also given this upgrade.

‘Type 58’, with the new rear hinge detail. The exhaust pipes have been cut short, likely by museum staff. Source: chinesearmory.blogspot

Some internet sources also suggest that the ‘Type 58’ package included a new Chinese-produced diesel engine, but this cannot be confirmed. To be sure, tanks must have been repaired using Chinese-produced parts (including, but not limited to, replacement tracks, engines, lights, electronics, gearboxes, and so on), but whether these replacements were specifically part of the upgrade package or not is unclear. Furthermore, it is reported that the ‘Type 58’ package included a new belly escape hatch, but photographic evidence for this is lacking.

There are other details which may have been included in the package, but are either internal (and therefore not noticeable with current photographic evidence), or are difficult to discern from inaccurate museum restorations. These features include: new optics (chiefly headlamps), removed DShK stowage hardpoints, new fenders, new fuel tanks, new or non-standard handrails, removed engine covers, and so on. Most of these changes appear to be museum conversions, but due to the mysterious nature of the package, not everything should be taken as totally confirmed.

The ‘Type 58’ package was given to all factory production types of T-34-85s supplied to the PRC. However, not every individual vehicle seems to have had this upgrade, as many standard T-34-85s can be seen in the PRC today with no evidence of ever being ‘Type 58s’ (such as weld points on the turret for the DShK stowage mounts).

Operational History

Some question why no ‘Type 58’ was ever recorded or photographed as part of offensive units operating during the Korean War. The simple and straightforward answer is that they did not exist at this time. Many T-34-85s were fielded by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), along with reports suggesting that SU-76s, and even IS-2s were fielded (the latter almost certainly did not see combat).

Regardless, by sheer numbers, the T-34-85 formed the bulk of the Chinese armoured divisions until being replaced over time by the newly-built Type 59s in the 1960s. The Type 59 was built inside a brand new plant entirely constructed with Soviet help. The Type 59 went on to inform most Chinese MBT designs until well into the late 20th century.

Photographic evidence seems to suggest that the ‘Type 58’ was gradually phased out in the 1960s and 70s and were used instead as gate guardians, training vehicles, and other lesser roles, but were perhaps still in service in some parts of the PRC as late as 1979.

The ‘Type 58’ was reportedly issued to the Tank Regiment attached to the 54th Army Corps (likely the 11th Armored Brigade) during the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), but never saw combat.

The ‘Type 58’ is believed to have only been totally retired in the 1990s.

Conclusions

The ‘Type 58’ appears to be nothing more than an almost totally standardized upgrade package applied to most of the PLA’s Soviet-supplied T-34-85s and originated shortly after the Type 59 entered production. There is no credible evidence to suggest that the PRC started work on producing the T-34-85 indigenously or any sort of copy or variant based on the chassis. Whilst many Chinese T-34-85s saw combat in the Korean War, the so-called ‘Type 58′ never saw combat and was likely retired by no later than 1980, having mostly been in lesser roles for years.

T34 in Korea
Generic Chinese T-34-85, Factory 174. Most photos show that they would have an ‘8-1’ star at the front of the turret, and a three-digit serial number in white towards the rear.
Type 58
A T-34-85, with leaf camouflage on the turret. This leaf camouflage is not known to have been put onto a Chinese T-34-85, and is likely based on photos of Vietnamese and North Korean T-34-85s, which did have such camouflage.

Type 58-II early
A standard ‘Type 58’. The turret is turned to see the DShK stowage hard points.

Late Type 58
‘Type 58’, with a searchlight fastened to the top of the turret. No examples exist of such a searchlight ever being fitted. The road wheels are also anachronistic.

‘Type 58’ ‘404’ in the Beijing Tank Museum. To its right is a Type 59, followed by two M3A3 Stuarts. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

Different view of the above.  Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

Chinese T-34-85s on a parade to mark the one year anniversary of the founding of the PRC, 1st October 1950. Source: Wikipedia

Chinese volunteers with T-34-85 ‘215’ during the Korean War. This tank was famous for having reportedly destroyed five UN tanks, nine artillery pieces, a command post, a staff car, and twenty-six bunkers. This story, however, is regarded as somewhat fantastical and a typical piece of PLA propaganda. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

A mixture of Chinese tanks, unknown location. On the right is a ‘Type 58’, as discerned by the new ‘cupola’, but the tank on the far left is a T-34-85, as discerned by the lack of cupola and DShK stowage hardpoints. Source: chinesearmory.blogspot

‘Type 58’ cupola detail. This type does not feature vision slits in the new cupola (left), but does feature a ‘V’ shaped piece of armour connecting the two. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

A supposed ‘T-34-85’ a the Korean War Museum in Dandong, Liaoning Province. In reality, the museum has taken a ‘Type 58’ and reconverted it to look like a Korean War era T-34-85 by removing the new cupola and the turret DShK hardpoints. Tellingly, the upgraded torsion bar hatch has been kept on the engine access hatch. Source: ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook.

T-34-based ARV in the Beijing Tank Museum. Although not visible in this photo, the engine access hatch also had the improved torsion bar hinge system. Source: net-maquettes.com

Sidenote I: ‘Type 58’ name

There is a debate as to whether the designation ‘Type 58’ is an unofficial name or not. Modern Chinese sources only use the name ‘T-34-85’ and state that it is difficult to declare with certainty that ‘Type 58’ was ever officially used. Regardless, for the sake of differentiation, tanks with the upgrade package will be referred to as ‘Type 58’, and those without as ‘T-34-85’.

Sidenote II: Supposed Chinese Variants

The video-game, World of Tanks, is infamous for featuring fake tanks and designs which have had serious creative liberties taken. Seeing as though the PRC is a major market for the game, Wargaming (the creators of World of Tanks) contracted a client company, Kongzhong, to do ‘historical research’ for them to help create tanks to put into the game. Unfortunately, it appears as though Kongzhong have invented many tanks for the game, some of which were based on the T-34 design.

It should be made clear that there is no evidence for the PRC ever experimenting with T-34-based designs such as the so-called ‘T-34-1’. With regards to the ‘T-34-1’, World of Tanks gives a very inconsistent historical synopsis:

In 1954, the Chinese government considered the possibility of launching production of the T-34-85 in China. At the same time, Chinese engineers proposed an alternative project: the T-34-1. While based on the T-34-85, the T-34-1’s transmission compartment and suspension were to be rearranged, reducing the overall weight and lowering the hull. In 1954, several designs of the vehicle, with varying turrets and armament, were developed. However, a prototype was never built.

Such a design is ludicrous because it would be impossible to lower the silhouette of the T-34-85 without giving it a much smaller engine. However, World of Tanks suggest it featured a Type 12150L engine (a copy of the T-54 engine), the same engine as used on the Type 59 – not only a much larger tank, but one which was produced four years later in 1958 – thus making the design impossible. The suggestion of a design featuring a Type 62-like turret as early as 1954 is also ludicrous.

It is more likely is that the so-called ‘T-34-1’ design was inspired by an inaccurate identification or training drawing which attempts to depict a T-34-85 but is more squat than in reality.

Sources:

The Tank Division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1945-1949” by Zhang Zhiwei.
Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950” by Odd Arne Westad
Tuo Mao: the Operational History of the People’s Liberation Army“, PhD dissertation by Martin Andrew, submitted to Bond University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2008.
Tieda.baidu.com

The author also extends his tanks to the members of the ‘T-34 Interest Group’ on Facebook for their discussions with the author on the T-34-85 in the PRC and the ‘Type 58’, especially Francis Pulham, Tim Roberts, Yuri Pasholok, and Saúl García.

Article originally published on 9th November 2014, rewritten by Will Kerrs on 19th August 2018.

Type 59 MBT
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3 Responses to Type 58 & T-34-85 (Chinese Service)

  1. TinkerTanker says:

    My biggest complaint (and only complaint) is that you can only click on one picture to make it bigger, and not the others. It’s the same thing with The Type 63, and Type 62 LT.

    Other than that everything else is EPIC!

  2. BobMarvin says:

    I love this tank very much!

  3. Cap Camouflage Pattern I says:

    The Type 63 SPAAG at Aberdeen proving grounds has been moved to the Fort Sill Air Defence Artillery Museum.

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