The origins of Chinese aviations are, in western media, a neglected but interesting part of aviation history, which is closely related to the tumultuous period in China at the time. Therefore first some history, mostly seen mostly focussed on military aviation to better understand the situation and era. (And because I like history). I am by no means a good historian, and Chinese politics of the era are complicated and this is a story with many different storylines and factions. Thus here a consolidated history of military China. A thing to note is that there are multiple systems for transliterating Chinese characters, so there might be small differences between names between sources.

But First, some history

Qing Dynast and the need to modernize

The Qing (or Ch’ing) Dynasty, officially known as the Great Qing, was a Manchu imperial dynasty that has led China since 1636. After the military disaster that were the Opium Wars (1839 to 1860), a series of radical institutional reforms known as the Self-Strengthening Movement were initiated. In the 1870s and 1880s telegraph lines and railways were constructed, and China made progress modernizing it’s heavy industry and militaries. Up to this point the main forces under direct control of the Qing were the Eight Banner and the Green Standard Army. The Green standard troops actively governed China locally, akin to a (militarized) police force, whereas the Bannerman were only brought in during emergencies of sustained military resistance such as rebellions and uprisings. By the 19th century, a period known as the “Century of Humiliation”, the Bannermen were horribly outdated, with missionary John Ross writing:

“Their claim to be military men is based on their descent rather than on their skill in arms; and their pay is given them because of their fathers’ prowess, and not at all from any hopes of their efficiency as soldiers. Their soldierly qualities are included in the accomplishments of idleness, riding, and the use of the bow and arrow, at which they practice on a few rare occasions each year.”

They proved, together with the Green standard, completely incompetent to stop both internal uprisings and external invasions such as the Opium wars, the Taiping Rebellion and the Nian Rebellion. By the time of the Boxer rebellion in 1899 even the loyalty to the Qing was gone, with European powers managing to recruit about 10.000 Bannermen. The banner system remained in place in a lesser form until the fall of Qing and even beyond until 1924.

The Beiyang Army

As a response to the fact that the Banners were unable to quell uprisings, various regional armies known as yǒng yíng (Brave camps) emerged during the 19th century to help fight China’s wars. One of those was the Huai Army, which was also the root of Chinas military modernization.

In 1851 the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was established after the successful Jintian Uprising, making use of the internal strife within China. As a mean to suppress the resulting civil war, also known as the Taiping Rebellion, an independent but Qing-allied force known as the Huai Army was raised by Li Hongzhang. It was the first to use modern weapons and a more modern command system, doing away with rotating officers. Using taxes from the five provinces under his control, Hongzhang continuously modernized the army during 1880-1900. A modern navy (The Beiyang Fleet) was also established. During this time the term Beiyang Army began being used for this army as well, after the area surrounding the capital Beijing.

First Sino-Japanese War

The Self Strengthening movement came to a halt when the Japanese invaded in 1894, known as the First Sino-Japanese War. During this conflict the Beiyang army, even though it was the best force the Qing could field, proved horribly incapable to stop the Japanese. Although it was unsupported by other Yong Ying Armies, the Banners or the Green Standard. In February 1895, before the war even ended, a new army was raised by the the Qing: The Pacification Army. After a single year the force was regarded as insufficiently trained and handed over to Commander Yuan Shikai by mid December, marking the start of his ascendency to power. A few months later the army was renamed New Army. In 1901, Li Hongzhang died and the was replaced by Yuan Shikai, who was overseeing reforms of the Qing military at the time and was trying to create a national army.

After the death of Empress Dowager Cixi in 1908, Yuan Shikai was dismissed by Prince Chun however and the army was placed under control of minister Yinchang. However in practice, as shown during the 1911 revolution, large parts of the army were still loyal to Yuan who carefully maintained his network of personal contacts during his retirement.

The 1911 Xinhai Revolution

The fall of the Qing Dynasty began on 10 October 1911, with a armed rebellion led by elements of the New Army, known as the Wuchang Uprising. This also sparked multiple other regional uprisings. As a reaction, the Qing government called on retired General Yuan Shikai and the Beiyang army to march to Wuchang and quell the uprising. However after capturing to positions from the revolutionaries, Yuan began to negotiate with them, which eventually led to the abduction of Puyi.

On January 1 1912 the Republic of China was declared. As Sun Yat-sen, the provisional president and leader of the revolutionary KMT didn’t hold any military power, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as president on 10 March 1912, as he personally had loyalty from the Beiyang Army, which was at the time the strongest military force in China.

Fall of the 1st Republic

The KMT won an overwhelming majority in the first election end 1912. During this period, Yuan remained the only man who could hold the Beiyang Army together, and he resisted attempts by the KMT to check his power and insert outsiders into his chain of command. Soon, Yuan began to ignore the parliament in making decisions. After the assassination of politician Song Jiaoren on march 22 1913, suspected by the KMT to be plotted by Yuan, the Second Revolution ignited to overthrow Yuan. This was however was unsuccessful. Yuan as a response dissolved the KMT and disbanded the parliament, with many prominent members of the KMT being exiled to Japan. In December 1915, Yuan proclaimed himself president. This however was too much and many provinces and generals started to openly oppose Yuan. Even after backing down, many refused to support him any further and the Beiyang army split into cliques led by his protégés. Disunited, the army started to be able to be challenged again by regional armies. Yuan’s death in 1916, was the final straw and the resulting power vacuum resulted in the country being divided into multiple independent states, ruled by provincial leaders and military cliques of the Beiyang Army, starting a period known as the Warlord Era.

Warlord Era

These factions also each had their own armies, and some understood the importance of aviation. Local knowledge about aviation was severely lacking making each faction rely on western imports. On May 5th 1919 however an international arms embargo was signed aimed at preventing exporting arms to China. This however didn’t truly stop the import of aircraft, only slow it down, with only the USA and Britain truly adhering to the agreement .Soviet, Germans, French and Italian firms kept supplying the various factions in secrecy. In 1929 the embargo was lifted.

As a result, most warlords operated a small hodgepodge fleet consisting of whatever aircraft they could acquire. Even civilian aircraft were used for military purposes. Due to lack of parts, poor flying skills and maintenance knowledge these planes were mostly in poor conditions with most unserviceable.

Nanjing decade

After Yuan’s death in 1917, Sun returned from exile in Japan to establish a military junta in Canton, also known as Guangzhou, with his main goal to overthrow Beiyang government. Sun passed in 1925. Chiang Kai-shek. In 1926, the Kuomintang started what is known as the Northern Expedition with the intention of defeating the Beiyang government in Beijing and unifying the country. This was initially done with the help of the Soviets and the Chinese Communist Party. However the KMT violently purged the communist from the party in 1927, setting the stage for the Chinese Civil War later on. In 1928 the KMT succeeded capturing the capital of Beijing. A one-party nationalist government was installed in Nanjing, starting what is known as the Nanjing decade. Not all warlords accepted Chiang’s government and in 1929 another civil war broke out. This Central Plains War would last until 1930, after intervention from the powerful Northeastern army. It would however take until 1937 for all the local air forces to conglomerate under a single national air force in an effort to fight the Japanese.

Japanese invasion of Manchuria

The Japanese were not happy with the fact that Zhang Xueliang unified Manchuria with the Nationalist. After Zhang’s Northern army intervened in the Central Plains War, the defence of Manchuria. was severely weakened. This eventually led to the Mukden incident in 1931, a Japanese false flag event setting the stage for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. In September 1931 the Japanese seized Manchuria and installed their own puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. The KMT didn’t recognize the new Manchurian government, but did accept the Tanggu truce in 1933. What followed was an uneasy peace with limited “incidents”. The KMT in the meantime was more occupied with purging the Communists than resisting the Japanese, under the guise of ‘internal unity before external danger’. This was until the Xi’an Incident in 1936, forcing the KMT to change it’s policies and aligning with the Communists against the Japanese in preparation of the looming full-scale invasion of China. This pressure would also be the influence needed to finally fully unite the country under one military and end the hodgepodge of local forces. The final spark would be in 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge incident, after which military tensions would continue to escalate and kick off the the 2nd Sino-Japanese War.

2nd Sino-Japanese war

Starting 1941, the United states started a massive military aid program to the KMT to help resisting the Japanese. The Soviets also send aid to China, hoping to deter a Japanese invasion of Siberia.

Chinese Civil war

After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, China emerged from the war ravaged as an economically weak nation on the verge of civil war. The weakened and unpopular Nationalist government proved an easy prey for the communists. After a resulting civil war the Nationalists were driven to Taiwan in 1949 and Communist rule started in mainland China.


With the background out of the way, let’s look at the various roundels used over time by the various factions.

Chinese republic

Beiyang Roundel

Beiyang Star
Beiyang Circle
Roundel Rudder Fin Flash
The Republic of China started it’s air force in 1913 with a dozen Caudron G.III planes. The roundel’s colours were based on the flag and represent the main ethnic groups: the Han (red), the Manchus (yellow), the Mongols (blue), the Hui (white) and the Tibetans (black). The air force broke up in 1920. Early On the star was used only on, but around 1919 this changed to to the flag on the rudder with the star painted on the usual sides.
Apparently near the end of the air force some planes were instead equipped with a circular roundel.
At times, the flag

Caudron G.III planes of the Revolutionary government, adorned with the Beiyang star on

Provincial Air Forces

The various provincial air forces mostly used insignia based on the blue sun.

Guangxi Air Force

The New Guangxi (sometimes written Kwangsi) Clique came into power in the spring of 1924. Around 1928 it was reported that the province was about to set up an air force, with the first four aircraft arriving early 1930. The air force was inaugurated early 1932, with the force rapidly growing afterward with mostly British, but also French and Japanese aircraft.
After the Japanese invasion 1937, the Aeronautics Affairs commission in Nanking transferred all aircraft and personnel to the central government, putting in end to the last remaining independent air force in China.

Qīngtīan Báirì

Light background triangle
Dark background triangle
Right Wing Roundel Fuselage / Left Wing Roundel Rudder
The fuselage was adorned with a Black and White upside down triangle. The colour order was determined by the undersurface, with a dark undersurface using a white bordered black triangle, and a lighter surface the black-bordered white triangle. Rarely the fuselage sides were painted by the Qīngtīan Báirì.
The Wings had a triangle painted on the left wing, and the Qīngtīan Báirì on the right wing.
The tail most of the time had the rudder painted with varying amounts of white-blue stripes, with a single vertical stripe. It isn’t clear from p

hotographs whether this stripe was red or blue, of might have been both. Sometimes the tail was adorned with the Qīngtīan Báirì instead.

Canton Air Force

After Sun Yat-sen’s return to Canton from Japan in 1917 where he started his own military junta

Bureau of Aviation
1923? – ?

Qīngtīan Báirì

Bureau Seal
Fin Flash
At least three aircraft, the “Rosamonde” and two Curtiss N-9C were outfitted with the logo of Canton’s Bureau of Aviation. It reads 局空航 on top, and 造月六年二十國民 on the bottom. These can be roughly translated as “Bureau of Aviation” and “Year Six of the Republic, Twentieth Year of the Nation” respectively.  The fuselage sides of these aircraft don’t appear to have any roundels. Qīngtīan Báirì roundels were placed at least on the top of the wings of the N-9C, and a modern reproduction of the Rosamonde shows the white suns on both the top and bottom of the wings.
1st Cantonese Air force / Chung Shan Aviation Team

Qīngtīan Báirì


Roundel Right Fuselage Left Fuselage Rudder
These aircraft had “中山”, Zhōngshān painted on the side, after President Sun Yat-sen, who had multiple names and whose most popular Chinese name was Sūn Zhōngshān, derived from his pseudonym in Japan. This is sometimes romanized as Chung Shan. Curiously, Chinese can be written both left to right and right to left, although the latter is only done in specific circumstances. One of those is vehicles (such as aircraft) where text is written and read front to back. This also leads to the fact that in both sides the text is backwards; Shan Chung / Shānzhōng. I’m not so versed in Chinese text culturally what the reason of this would be, and how is should be read. Both are used at times in sources, but I’ve decided to read and transliterate it as Zhōngshān, the transliteration of Sun’s name.

Japanese Puppet states


Manchukuo Imperial Air Force

Example of a donation text, 護國滿洲石油壹號

Wing Roundel Fuselage donation message
The roundel of the Manchukuo air force was based on it’s flag and was only applied to the top and bottom side of the wings. One detail that is often missed is that on the Ki-43’s the lines between the colours weren’t parallel, but followed the rivet lines.
Aircraft (or money for it) was donated by local companies, and the plane bought or donated had a donation message on the fuselage. This message was to be read from front to rear, meaning the message was mirrored on both sides of the plane.
The message contained a motivational phrase, such as Protecting the Country!, the name of the company and the number of the plane
Known Donation Texts
Nakajima Ki-43-II Hayabusa
Protecting the Country, Manchuria Petroleum Company, No. 1
Protecting the Country, Manchuria Petroleum Company, No. 2
Left side 護國滿洲石油貳號
Right side 號貳油石洲滿國護
No. 21 of the National Defense Service
Left side 護國勞貳壹第報號
Right side 號報第壹貳勞國護
Protecting the Country, Longjiang County, No. 1
Left side 護國龍江縣壹號
Right side 號壹縣江龍國護
Protect the Country!
From the Labour service group of the Songhua River
Left side 護國松花江勤奉號
Right side 號奉勤江花松國護
Protect the Country,
Left side 護國松花江第報號
Right side 號報第江花松國護
Manshu Kokuyusho Kabushiki Kaisha
Manchuria Air Transport Company

Wing Roundel Fin flash
The MKKK was a paramilitary airline, whose primary function was to provide liaison services to the Manchukuo military and government. Although civilians were also carried, this was a lower priority. 


A Manshū Super Universal (A copy of the Nakajima Ki-6, which in turn was a licence built version of the Fokker Super Universal) was gifted to Prince Demchugdongrub (Also known as Prince Teh Wang) in 1935 by Manchukuo, likely as a means of aiding him with setting up an autonomous Inner Mongolian government at the time, which would become the puppet state of Mengjiang.

Inner Mongolian Army
1935 – ?
Although i haven’t been able to find photographic evidence of this plane, apparently this roundel was placed on the upper and lower wings, and the tail surface. The side of the fuselage had the text written: “Inner Mongolia Army No.1 – Heavenly Horse” in old Mongolian script.

People’s Republic of China

Northeastern Democratic Alliance Aviation School 

After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the Communist rushed to seize the Japanese held territories, with Soviet support. The Northeast People’s Autonomous Army Aviation Corps was established on January 1st 1946, with The North East Old Aviation School as the first true aviation school of the Chinese Communist Party. It was established in Tonghua, but moved around quite a lot during it’s early years.

Qīngtīan Báirì
Fin Flash
Early on, the aviation school used the same roundel and fin flashes as has been used by most Chinese factions.
中 star

Qīngtīan Báirì
Starting 1947, aircraft started to be repainted with a new roundel consisting of the Chinese national emblem embedded in a communist 5-pointed star.

Peoples Liberation Army Air Force

The hànzì in the middle of the roundel read 八一, translating to 8 and 1, referring the august the 1st, the date of the Nanchang Uprising. 

1949 August 1st Roundel
1949 – 1997
八一 fonts
In 1948, China started the process of unifying it’s military emblems, including it’s aviation roundel. On June 15, a new directive for the roundel was issued. The font of 八一 wasn’t specified until 1958, with the text “August 8th” appearing in many ways. The emblem was slightly updated in 1997
Shenyang J-8 August 1st Roundel
1980- 2003
The Shenyang J-8 had it’s own variation of the roundel using fully trimmed wings. It was not until 2003 that they were gradually changed to the regular emblem
901A-1997 August 1st Roundel
2003 – current
Low-Visibility Roundel
In 1997 a new standard, 901A-1997, was introduced which redefined the aircraft emblem. It would take until 2003 for the emblem to appear on new aircraft.

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