A home-grown passenger plane was only a model at the mainland's premier air show, but a growing number of orders show Beijing's drive to challenge the dominance of Boeing and Airbus.
State-backed Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) said it won 50 orders for the planned 168-seat C919 aircraft at the Zhuhai air show, which ended yesterday, bringing the total to 380.
China's rapid economic growth is creating massive demand for aircraft as increasing incomes boost air travel, with US aviation giant Boeing estimating the country will need 5,260 commercial jets over the next 20 years. But Beijing wants a piece of that multibillion-dollar market as it tries to develop its own technology and then look overseas for sales.
The C919 was a symbol of national pride, which would compete with Boeing's 737 and the A320 of European consortium Airbus, but catching up might take at least a decade, industry officials and analysts said.
The challenges were formidable: China not only needed to get the plane in the air, targeted for 2014, but ramp up production and build a market by convincing buyers of its safety and reliability, they said.
"The goal of the Chinese is to be in a few years at the same level as different parties around the world - of course, Airbus and Boeing," said David Lopez Grange, general director of Spanish aeronautics firm Aritex. "Maybe it's not a long time, perhaps 10 years. China will be a very important player in the world in a few years."
Although Comac says the plane will have "Chinese characteristics", it is relying on foreign technology for key parts of the project, including the engines, to be supplied by French-American venture CFM International.
"The project provides a chance for China to obtain certain technology through co-operation with foreign countries, so as to advance its own aviation manufacturing," an aviation analyst at a Chinese securities firm said.
As Comac develops the C919, it is also building a smaller regional jet that seats 78 to 90 passengers, but that project is years behind schedule.
The ARJ21 regional jet made a test flight in 2008 but the deadline to deliver planes a year after has fallen by the wayside.