Like many Asian militaries, the PLA used a type system to designate its army equipment including its combat vehicles. This made reference to the year in which the vehicle was accepted into service, although it is possible that in some cases it referred to some other year in the development stage; given the secretive nature of communist Chinese society it is often impossible to know. The system's main flaw is that it is impossible to know the type of vehicle that is being referred to, which is particularly problematic in the case of different vehicles that came out during the same year and received the same type number. The Type 85, for example, could refer to either a main battle tank, a tracked APC, or a self-propelled howitzer.
Confusion was partly averted by the existence of alpha-numeric industrial designations. These were assigned during development and consisted of a two-letter prefix (usually WZ or YW) and a three-digit suffix. It was not uncommon for many vehicles to be better known by this designation such as the YW-531 family of APCs (otherwise known as the Type 63). The meaning of WZ and YW is unclear to this author, although WZ tended to be assigned to heavier vehicles such as tanks or IFVs. There also appeared to be a pattern with the numeric suffix. For example, all tanks shared the WZ-12X designation, with the third digit being incremental whenever a new tank was designed (WZ-120 for the Type 59 followed by WZ-121 for the Type 69).
In 1987, a new designation system was introduced which was based on a three-letter functional prefix derived from romanized Chinese abbreviations. The first letter referred to the broad type of weapon (ex: armored vehicle or artillery), the second to the role (ex: tank, IFV, APC), and the third to some design characteristic (ex: wheeled or tracked, medium or light). The type number (year) was then added as a two-digit suffix. The ZTZ-99 therefore refers to the Zhuangjia Tanke Zhongxíng or 'armored, tank, medium' of the year 1999 while PLZ-07 refers to the Paobing Liudanpào Zìxíng or 'artillery, howitzer, self-propelled' of the year 2007.
It took some time (around 1990) before the new system came to widespread use among Western observers although type numbers were often referenced as well despite being superfluous. It also became practice in many quarters to retroactively apply the new system to vehicles introduced before 1987-90 which greatly facilitates their identification (thus the old Type 59 tank becomes the ZTZ-59). This site uses the new designation system when listing all Chinese combat vehicles in the weapons section as well as for photo and diagram captions. However, the text uses the designation system that was in use at the time of the vehicle's introduction, though at least one reference to the new system is always provided for pre-1987-90 vehicles.
Special export designations have also been assigned to many vehicles. These are typically a two-letter prefix followed by a number which is usually incremental. The VT-1, for example, refers to the Type 90/Al Khalid tank.
There has not been a consistent system for designating variants. The most common convention has been to add either a letter suffix (Type 59A), an arabic or roman numeral suffix (Type 59-I), or a combination of the two (Type 59-IIA). These are carried over when using the new designation system (ex: ZTZ-59-I). A frequently used suffix is G which means Gai ('modernized') and is often used interchangeably with an incremental letter suffix. For example, the ZTZ-96G and ZTZ-96A refer to the same modernized version of the ZTZ-96 tank.
The following tables lists the most well known functional prefixes. Chinese translations have been taken from Alternate Wars and GlobalSecurity.org.
|PGZ||Paobing Gaoshèpào Zìxíng||Artillery, Anti-Aircraft Gun, Self-Propelled (SPAAG)|
|PHL||Paobing Huojian Lún shi||Artillery, Rocket, Wheeled (MRL)|
|PHZ||Paobing Huojian Zìxíng||Artillery, Rocket, Self-Propelled (MRL)|
|PLL||Paobing Liudanpào Lún shi||Artillery, Howitzer, Wheeled|
|PLZ||Paobing Liudanpào Zìxíng||Artillery, Howitzer, Self-Propelled (SPH)|
|PTL||Paobing Tuji Lún shì||Artillery, Assault, Wheeled (Assault Gun)|
|PTZ||Pao Tanke Zìxíng||Gun, Tank, Self-Propelled (Tank Destroyer)|
|ZBD||Zhuangjia Bubing zhan che Ludai shì||Armored, Infantry, Tracked (IFV)|
|ZBL||Zhuangjia Bubing zhan che Lún shì||Armored, Infantry, Wheeled (IFV)|
|ZFB||Zhuangjia Fángbào||Armored, Anti-riot (ASV)|
|ZSD||Zhuangjia Shusong che Ludai shì||Armored, Carrier, Tracked (APC)|
|ZSL||Zhuangjia Shusong che Lún shì||Armored, Carrier, Wheeled (APC)|
|ZTL||Zhuangjia Tanke Lún shì||Armored, Tank, Wheeled|
|ZTQ||Zhuangjia Tanke Qingxíng||Armored, Tank, Light|
|ZTS||Zhuangjia Tanke Shuilu||Armored, Tank, Amphibious|
|ZTZ||Zhuangjia Tanke Zhongxíng||Armored, Tank, Medium (MBT)|
|ZZC||Zhuangjia Zhenchá Che||Armored, Reconnaissance, Vehicle|