Monday, November 12, 2012

Hanyang Arsenal and Its Place in Chinese History

Hanyang Arsenal. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of China's largest and most famous weapons manufacturers of the 20th century was the Hanyang Arsenal. Located in the city of Hanyang, Wuhan province, Hanyang Arsenal not only supplied the various armies of China with weapons, but also to several Cold War hotspots...long after the arsenal itself  ceased to exist.

The Hanyang Arsenal was founded in 1891 by Zhang Zhidong, a prominent Qing official and governor of Hubei province who advocated modernizing China's military by strenghtening its iron and steel-producing capabilities. At the time it opened, Qing rule was under serious threat from Western imperialism and home-grown revolutionary movements.

Along with the historic Hanyang Steel Mill (now Chongqing Iron and Steel), Hanyang Arsenal opened its doors in 1894. Despite a fire that took out much of the machinery of the plant a year later, Hanyang manufactured and supplied the Qing military with a huge portion of its weaponry, particularly rifles and rifle ammunition. When it first opened, Hanyang Arsenal hired German managers to run the plant. It mainly manufactured German rifles such as the Type 88 Mauser rifle as well as other German weapons such as Krupp artillery pieces. During this time, German arms were some of the most sophisticated in the world and these were the arms the Qing wanted for their military. Also manufactured at Hanyang was smokeless powder ammunition. Smokeless guns (i.e. bolt-action rifles) were gradually introduced to Western countries such as the US and Great Britain during the 1890s-1900s and during this time, Hanyang had an upper-hand on this new technology in Asia.

Not long after it first opened,  Hanyang Arsenal would play a vital role in one of the nation's conflicts: the Boxer Rebellion. In 1900-01, over three thousand Mauser rifles and ammunition were supplied to Boxer fighters fighting the armies of the Eight-Nation Alliance. The Qing and the Righteous Harmony Society lost this conflict, but the arsenal would keep producing arms for the Qing military for another decade to come.

In 1911, Qing rule was crumbling and anti-Qing fervor was spreading across the nation. In October, the first major uprising against Qing rule, or the Xinhai Revolution, broke out near the Hanyang Arsenal in Wuchang. During this incident, revolutionaries stormed the arsenal and took a number of rifles and other arms. When all was said and done, Hubei province fell to the revolutionaries and the officials at Hanyang Arsenal actively supported the revolutionaries, supplying them with much-needed guns and ammunition and helping to deliver a major blow to the Qing authorities.

After the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, Hanyang Arsenal would produce weapons for the new Republic of China. Under the Kuomintang, Hanyang Arsenal would expand and in 1917 a ordinance and weapons-manufacturing school opened at the arsenal. It continued to produce mainly German weapons, such the Type 88 and the Gewehr 98, which was the standard rifle of the German Army during World War I. Also during this time, Hanyang began manufacturing German and American machine guns, such as the Browning M1917 heavy machine gun. Many of these guns were used in the First Northern Expedition of 1926-28 against Communist forces.

Hanyang was also a site where a number of modified Western weapons and innovative arms were created. Modified versions of some of the latest Western arms such as the British Maxim machine gun (the Type 24 HMG) and the Type 88 (also called the "Chiang Kai-Shek" or "Chungcheng" rifle) were created at Hanyang during the late 1910s-1920s. These versions were distributed to the Nationalist army and later on, would be used by the Communists as well. Hanyang was also the birthplace of the famous - and extremely rare - General Liu rifle. This rifle, developed in 1916 by the commander of Hanyang Arsenal Gen. Liu Qing-En, was one of the world's first semi-automatic rifles. Only a dozen or less were ever manufactured and they were all made at Hanyang.

Nationalist, or KMT soldiers, during WWII. (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1933, China found itself at war with Japan and Hanyang Arsenal manufactured a great deal of the weapons used at the front. In 1937, the Chinese government ordered the arsenal to be dismantled and relocated to several locations in Hunan province before the Hanyang area fell to advancing Japanese forces. The facilities kept manufacturing Mausers throughout the anti-Japanese war and World War II.

Hanyang-manufactured guns were used not only by KMT forces, but by the Red Army as well. Even though much of their arms were Soviet or captured Japanese weapons, Communist guerrillas fighting the Japanese - and the KMT itself after WWII - took pride in their Hanyang guns and stockpiled them. Many captured and defecting KMT soldiers brought their Hanyang guns with them, leading Mao Zedong to claim that the CPC "had a claim on the output of the arsenals of London as well as Hanyang"! (Griffith, 49)

After World War II, production of Mausers resumed at Hanyang. But not for long. At that point, more advanced arms such as semi-automatic rifles were becoming the norm worldwide and bolt-action rifles such as Mausers were becoming increasingly obsolete. In 1947, Hanyang Arsenal was ordered closed by the KMT government and the site was eventually razed to the ground.

However, the Hanyang story does not end there. Many of the weapons manufactured at Hanyang were still in the hands of Mao Zedong's forces, who were growing by the number. In 1949, mainland China came under Communist control and with it much of what remained of Hanyang Arsenal and its guns.

Many of these guns were used several years later during the Korean War. Mausers and other weaponry manufactured at Hanyang were used by Chinese volunteers who fought in Korea against US and UN forces. Likewise, a few Hanyang guns such as Chinese K-98s even made their way to Indochina where they were used by Viet Minh forces against the French and, another decade later, by the Viet Cong during America's war in Vietnam!

The Hanyang legacy also made its way to Taiwan with the Nationalists who fled there in 1949. Many of Hanyang's senior staff went there with the KMT government and military and helped lay the foundations for Taiwan's own military arsenals during the Cold War.

Hanyang Arsenal only existed for over half a century, but during this period of time it supplied weapons for numerous conflicts ranging from the Boxer Rebellion to the Cold War. It was a very advanced arsenal for its time and it certainly left its mark on the history of well as countries just beyond its borders.

Much more about Hanyang Arsenal can be found at: (Blog post from Chinese blogger roomx. Includes info about her visit to the old Hanyang Arsenal site.)

*This blog post references information from:
-Sun Tzu and Griffith, Samuel B. The Art of War. London: Oxford Press, 1971: pg. 49.
-Waldron, Arthur. From War to Nationalism: China's Turning Point, 1924-1925. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003: pgs. 66-67.
-MacKinnon, Stephen B. Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008: pg. 9


Josh said...

On a related note, in Edgar Snow's "Red Star Over China", he mentioned that during his visit to the Wu Ch'i Chen guerrilla base in Shanxi province, he encountered some former Hanyang Steel Mill workers and ex-employees of various KMT arsenals working in the Communists' mountain arsenal helping to make weapons for the Red Army. Can it be said that some of these former arsenal workers included ex-Hanyang Arsenal workers???

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