Learn about China’s history through stamps


 Stamps have always been considered a city or country’s business card thanks to their rich content and beautiful scenes. But beyond that, stamps can also be regarded as a witness of history. We can learn a lot about China’s evolution through stamps.

The history of stamps in China can be divided into three phases and stands as a record  of China’s recent history.

The first phase extends from 1878 to 1911 (end of Qing Dynasty).

The first Chinese stamp was born at the end of 19 century, during the late Qing Dynasty period. China was still ruled by the Qing but their hold on power had grown weaker. The rulers hoped that, by adopting western ideas, they could improve domestic politics and perpetuate the regime. It is in this context that stamps were created.

1878 is the year that marked the birth of Chinese postal services. On March 1878, following Li Hung-Chang’s suggestion, the Qing dynasty’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided, under the guidance of Hurd (from England), to appoint Gustav Von Detring from the Tianjin customs and tax department to operate post offices with European standards in five trading port cities, namely, Beijing, Tianjin, Niuzhuang (Yingkou) and Shanghai.

From 1878 to 1896, 3 sets of stamps were published with silver currency as face value.

Between June and July of 1878, the Shanghai Customs Statistical Department published the first set of Chinese stamps—The Large Dragon Stamps, which was comprised of three pieces, including one cent, three cent and five cent stamps.

The second set was called The Small Dragon Stamps, it was published on 1885 with the same number of pieces and value as the first one.

The third set was published in November 1894 in celebration of Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday. It is comprised of 9 pieces and known under the name “Long-Life Tickets”.

At that time, China had evolved from a feudal society to a capitalist society, and Chinese stamps hadn’t existed for a long time. Political unrest led to a cultural recession. Therefore, the stamps from that era presented the following problems: simplified designs, limited content and similar styles. The Chinese industry had not come into modernisation yet, and even the printing and publishing of those simply designed stamps had to be completed with the assistance of western countries.

Although nowadays, the Large Dragon Stamp has very high collection value thanks to its exquisite workmanship and unique significance, it also reflects the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

The second phase extends from Republic of China to the founding of People’s republic of China (1912-1949).

The First & Second world war were times of global unrest. Over the course of 40 years, more than 70,000 stamps were published by around 300 countries and regions. The war profoundly affected the government, military and society of the countries involved, which in turn caused chaos in the stamp industry. A lot of military stamps, overprinted stamps and semi-postal stamps came into market. Chinese stamps presented new changes due to political unrest. During this period, Republic of China stamps and Liberated Area stamps were produced in big quantities. Nowadays, they are still seen as a symbol of that er.

After the 1912 Xihai Revolution, China was ravaged by warlords. The stamps publishing industry was severely affected by this. From 1912 to 1949, 432 sets (2252 pieces) of stamps were published by different publishers, including local warlords, the liberated area and the Kuomintang government. The head portrait of Sun yat-sen, for instance, was a very popular theme for stamps issued by the Kuomingtang government. In consequence, this type of stamp was reproduced in dozens of sets with a high variety of formats, types of paper, and watermarks

Not only that, many local stamps were printed by different warlords or local governments. These local stamps were only accepted in one to a few provinces. By the end of Republic of China, economy had badly deteriorated, and inflation increased the stamps’ face value up to a value of tens of thousands yuan, some even went up to a record-high value of 5 million. Inflation is never a good sign for stamps publishers, because they cannot determine the printed face value, therefore several kinds of new stamps without face value came into market, their value changing along with the currency rates. These stamps were named “Unit Stamps”. Shortly after that, Cardinality Stamps came into the market as a replacement for Unit Stamps which had become useless. Cardinality Stamps used silver dollar as an exchange rate and could be sold in silver dollars, but in some areas where silver dollars were prohibited, people had to exchange silver dollars for gold yuan notes (the currency issued by the Kuomintang government) to buy these stamps .

The earliest stamp of the Republic of China was the Qing Dynasty London-edition Beaulieu Stamp (the earliest stamp that was printed in the UK for the Qing Dynasty) with the postmark “For Use of the Republic of China”. The most famous stamps of the ROC were known as the “Five Treasures”, they were comprised of the 2 Yuan Peking Old Edition Sailing Boat “ Inverted Palace Gate” stamp published in 1914, the 1 Yuan Peking Old Version Sailing Boat stamp with an incorrect postmark stating “Restricted to the use of Provinces New” instead of “Restricted to the use of New Provinces” published in 1915, the 3 cents Peking Old Edition Sailing Boat stamp temporarily labelled as a 2 cents stamp published in 1923, the 4 cents Peking New Edition Sailing Boat stamp overprinted with the temporary value of 3 cents published in 1925, and the  New York Edition Inverted Sun Yat-Sen portrait stamp published in 1941.

During this period, another important kind of stamp came into being, it was called Liberated Area Stamps. Starting from 1930, CCP (Chinese Communist Party) controlled areas like the Revolutionary Base, The Anti-Japanese Aggression Base Areas, and the People’s Regime in Liberated Areas had published their own stamps. The earliest stamp from liberated areas was published by Jiangxi Revolutionary Base Area. In October 1930, the Fujian Jiangxi Revolutionary Base Area Communication Bureau issued Red stamps with the Soviet’s scythe and hammer in the foreground. According to philatelists, before the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, revolutionary base areas such as Jiangxi, Fujian, Hunan & Hubei, Hunan & Jiangxi, Central Soviet Area, Shanxi Soviet Anti-Japanese Aggression Base Areas issued several kinds of stamps.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, there were all in all ten Base Areas publishing stamps. At that time, the Base Area Army struggled with the Japanese, and had to battle with the puppet army, so most of the stamps didn’t have a face value and were sold for free. With the development of base areas, stamps with face value were launched on the market for civil use.

The Shanxi-Chahaer-Hebei Border Region issued a “Half-Day Picture” stamp on 1937, which was the first Base Area stamp published during the Second Sino-Japanese War. On September 1938, The Shanxi-Chahaer-Hebei Border Region post office published the first Liberated Area commemorative stamp, which pictured a running soldier, it was also the first stamp reserved exclusively to soldiers. In March 1933, the Shandong war area post office issued a stamp picturing Chairman Mao, marking the first time his portrait was used in a stamp. Among the stamps published by liberated areas, the “Manuscript” stamps from Huanian Liberated Area is very famous as its use was restricted to drafts sent by journalists and correspondents only. This kind of stamp was special used for journalists and correspondents. The stamp is comprised of a five-pointed star and the Chinese character “manuscript”. Its design and purpose were unique in Chinese stamp history, so it’s very precious. The only set remaining to this day is kept preciously by Chinese philatelist Shen Zenghua, and is comprised of four uncut stamps.

With the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, China was governed by two distinct parties. All liberated areas under CCP governance issued their own stamps. In April 1946, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border region post office issued the Pagoda Hill stamp, which was the first stamp in issued during the War of Liberation(1946-1950). Then Eastern China, Northern China, Northeast China, South Central China, Southwest China liberation areas and other new liberated areas published their own stamps successively. All stamps recorded the whole process of the War of Liberation, and now constitute valuable relics from the revolution.

The early twentieth century was dominated by wars in China, but this didn’t stop the stamp industry from growing and developing many different types and designs. Compared to the stamps from late Qing Dynasty, war period stamps were a lot more advanced and could be considered as a foundation for the stamps released after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, they establish the foundation for new china postal administration.

The third phase extends from the founding of People’s republic of China in 1949 up to now.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with the improvement of domestic political & economy, Chinese stamps were more complete and elegant than ever before.. The illustrations had also become a lot more detailed.

From October 1949 to March 1967, the People’s Republic of China government issued “C” (for commemorative) and “S” (for special) stamps. Additionally, the year of issue, the total number of issues, and the piece number were all written in the lower corner of the stamps, marking the first time anyone had used this encoding method. These stamps in this period are called Old CS stamps, among which the “C-94-Mei Lanfang” miniature sheet, “S-38-Goldenfish”, “S-56-Butterfly”, “S-57-Mountain Huang”, and “S-61-Peony” miniature sheet became classic collection stamps.

The Great Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 negatively affected the philatelist community. Starting from 1967, C and S stamps weren’t published anymore. The content of new stamps was now limited to propaganda around Mao Zedong, such as his quotations, poems and portraits. Most of the stamps used red as their principal color, as a reference to the Great Cultural Revolution. The stamps in this period were labelled with “CR” ( for Cultural Revolution). The most treasure stamps of that era were not published officially for some unknown reasons, but still can still be found on the market. These are “Long Live the Cultural Revolution” (Chairman Mao at Tian An Men waving his hand to the crowd, followed by Lin Biao holding the Little Red Book), “Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Chairman MAO’s establishment of the Jinggangshan base” (Chairman Mao standing on the Tian’anmen Rostrum, and Lin Biao holding a Red Book on Mao’s side), “The whole country is red-Large Size” (Mao and Lin standing on on the Tian’anmen Rostrum with blue sky as back ground), “ The Whole country is red” in small and big editions, and “Black color inscription”.

The stamp encoding restarted in 1970. However this time, it was only comprised of the serial number, so this kind of stamp called “Order numbered Stamp”. Some of them have a very high collection value, such as the “50th Anniversary of the CCP”, “Industrial Products”, and “Tiger Mountain” stamps. Starting from 1974, the S and C methods of encoding stamps also came back into use. The only difference being that while in the past, S and C stamps were marked with the Chinese characters for “Special” and “Commemorative”, newer stamps were respectively marked with “T” (for tezhong, which means special in Chinese) or “J” (for jinian, which means commemorative in Chinese) . Most of classic stamps from this series were issued before 1984, among them; “T 46 Year of Gengshen Monkey Stamp” was the most expensive one.

From 1992, according to the reglementation on encoding of the Universal Postal Union, Chinese stamps were encoded with “Year- serial number”, changed “People’s Mail of China” which had been used for more than 40 years into “China Post”, ,and added “China” in English in the corner of the stamp.

Stamps recorded the development of New China. Since the initiation of the Chinese Economic Reform at the end of 1978, more cultural elements, such as nature scenes, culture & arts, folk cultures, and abundant resources were integrated to the stamps. The classic stamps from that time period are “Yellow River”, “Yangtze River”, “Forbidden City” and “Red Color” etc.

Thanks to the fast development of China, more and more countries are coming into contact with Chinese culture. At the same time, Chinese stamps are increasingly welcomed by foreign collectors!


Article provided by Zhonghui Group, a company based in Qingdao, China, and specialised in Chinese stamp trading.