Although postal service in China goes back some 2,500 years, modern postal services were not established until 1877 by the Qing government. The postal history of China is complicated by the gradual decay of Imperial China and the years of civil war and Japanese occupation in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I have relatively few stamps from China in my collection and all of those are relatively recent issues from the PRC and ROC; I will deal with the ancient history of China once I obtain more appropriate, earlier stamps. Thus, this article concentrates on the history and stamps of the People’s Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó — 中华人民共和国), the postal system of which was established as the General Postal Administration in Beijing in 1949, growing out of the posts that had been operating for several years in the liberated areas.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC), covering 3,705,407 square miles (9,596,961 square kilometers), is the world’s second largest state by land area and either the third or fourth-largest by total area, depending on the method of measurement. Its coastline along the Pacific Ocean is 9,500 miles (14,500 kilometers) long, and is bounded by the Bohai, Yellow, East China, and South China seas, With a population of over 1.381 billion, it is the world’s most populous state. The state is governed by the Communist Party of China based in the capital of Beijing. It exercises jurisdiction over 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four direct-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing), two mostly self-governing special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau), and claims sovereignty over Taiwan.
China is one of the cradles of civilization, with its known history beginning with an ancient civilization – one of the world’s earliest – that flourished in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. For millennia, China’s political system was based on hereditary monarchies known as dynasties. Since 221 BC, when the Qin Dynasty first conquered several states to form a Chinese empire, the state has expanded, fractured and reformed numerous times. The Republic of China (ROC) replaced the last dynasty in 1912, and ruled the Chinese mainland until 1949, when it was defeated by the Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War.
Following the Chinese Civil War and the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces over the Kuomintang forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, from atop Tiananmen. Mao’s first goal was a total overhaul of the land ownership system, and extensive land reforms. China’s old system of landlord ownership of farmland and tenant peasants was replaced with a distribution system in favor of poor/landless peasants. Mao laid heavy theoretical emphasis on class struggle, and in 1953 began various campaigns to persecute former landlords and merchants, including the execution of more powerful landlords. Drug trafficking in the country as well as foreign investment were largely wiped out. Many buildings of historical and cultural significance as well as countless artifacts were destroyed by the Maoist regime, since they were considered reminders of the “feudal” past.
Mao believed that socialism would eventually triumph over all other ideologies, and following the First Five-Year Plan based on a Soviet-style centrally controlled economy, Mao took on the ambitious project of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, beginning an unprecedented process of collectivization in rural areas. Mao urged the use of communally organized iron smelters to increase steel production, pulling workers off of agricultural labor to the point that large amounts of crops rotted unharvested. Mao decided to continue to advocate these smelters despite a visit to a factory steel mill which proved to him that high quality steel could only be produced in a factory. He thought that ending the program would dampen peasant enthusiasm for his political mobilization, the Great Leap Forward.
The implementation of Maoist thought in China may have been responsible for over 70 million deaths during peacetime with the Great Leap Forward, Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-1958, and the Cultural Revolution. Millions died from both executions and forced labor. Because of Mao’s land reforms during the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in massive famines, thirty million perished between 1958 and 1961. By the end of 1961, the birth rate was nearly cut in half because of malnutrition. Active campaigns, including party purges and “reeducation” resulted in the imprisonment or execution of those deemed to hold views contrary to Maoist ideals. Mao’s failure with the Leap reduced his power in government, whose administrative duties fell to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
To impose socialist orthodoxy and rid China of “old elements”, and at the same time serving certain political goals, Mao began the Cultural Revolution in May 1966. The campaign was far reaching into all aspects of Chinese life. Red Guards terrorized the streets as many ordinary citizens were deemed counter-revolutionaries. Education and public transportation came to a nearly complete halt. Daily life involved shouting slogans and reciting Mao quotations. Many prominent political leaders, including Liu and Deng, were purged and deemed “capitalist-roaders”. The campaign would not come to a complete end until the death of Mao in 1976.
Supporters of the Maoist Era claim that under Mao, China’s unity and sovereignty was assured for the first time in a century, and there was development of infrastructure, industry, healthcare, and education, which raised the standard of living for the average Chinese. They also claimed that campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were essential in jumpstarting China’s development and “purifying” its culture. Others claim that though the consequences of both these campaigns were economically and humanly disastrous, they left behind a “clean slate” on which later economic progress could be built. Supporters often also doubt statistics or accounts given for death tolls or other damages incurred by Mao’s campaigns, attributing the high death toll to natural disasters, famine, or other consequences of political chaos during the rule of Chiang Kai-Shek.
Critics of Mao’s regime assert that Mao’s administration imposed strict controls over everyday life, and believe that political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution and many others during Mao’s era (1949–1976) contributed to or caused millions of deaths, incurred severe economic costs, and damaged China’s cultural heritage. The Great Leap Forward in particular preceded a massive famine in which 30–40 million people died; most Western and many Chinese analysts attribute this to poor agricultural and economic planning.
Mao Zedong’s death was followed by a power struggle between the Gang of Four, Hua Guofeng, and eventually Deng Xiaoping. Deng would maneuver himself to the top of China’s leadership by 1980. At the Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee, Deng embarked China on the road to Economic Reforms and Openness, policies that began with the de-collectivization of the countryside, followed by industrial reforms aimed at decentralizing government controls in the industrial sector.
On the subject of Mao’s legacy Deng coined the famous phrase “7 parts good, 3 parts bad” and avoided denouncing Mao altogether. Deng championed the idea of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), areas where foreign investment would be allowed to pour in without strict government restraint and regulations, running on a basically capitalist system. Deng laid emphasis on light industry as a stepping stone to the development of heavy industries.
Supporters of the economic reforms point to the rapid development of the consumer and export sectors of the economy, the creation of an urban middle class that now constitutes 15% of the population, higher living standards (which is shown via dramatic increases in GDP per capita, consumer spending, life expectancy, literacy rate, and total grain output) and a much wider range of personal rights and freedoms for average Chinese as evidence of the success of the reforms.
In 1979, the Chinese government instituted a one child policy to try to control its rapidly increasing population. The controversial policy resulted in a dramatic decrease in child poverty. The law currently applies to about a third of mainland Chinese, with plans in place to ease it to a two-child limit.
Although standards of living improved significantly in the 1980’s, Deng’s reforms were not without criticism. Hard-liners asserted that Deng opened China once again to various social evils, and an overall increase in materialistic thinking, while liberals attacked Deng’s unrelenting stance on political reform. Liberal forces began gathering in different forms to protest against the Party’s authoritarian leadership. In 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal figure, triggered weeks of spontaneous protests in the Tiananmen Square. The government imposed martial law and sent in tanks and soldiers to suppress the demonstrations. Western countries and multilateral organizations briefly suspended their formal ties with China’s government under Premier Li Peng’s leadership, which was directly responsible for the military curfew and bloody crackdown.
The achievements of Lee Kuan Yew to create an economic superpower in Singapore had a profound effect on the Communist leadership in China. They made a major effort, especially under Deng Xiaoping, to emulate his policies of economic growth, entrepreneurship, and subtle suppression of dissent. Over 22,000 Chinese officials were sent to Singapore to study its methods.
After Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping retired from public view. While keeping ultimate control, power was passed onto the third generation of leadership led by Jiang Zemin, who was hailed as its “core”. Economic growth, despite foreign trade embargoes, returned to a fast pace by the mid-1990’s. Jiang’s macroeconomic reforms furthered Deng’s vision for “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. At the same time, Jiang’s period saw a continued rise in social corruption in all areas of life. Unemployment skyrocketed as unprofitable SOE’s were closed to make way for more competitive ventures, internally and abroad. The ill-equipped social welfare system was put on a serious test. Jiang also laid heavy emphasis on scientific and technological advancement in areas such as space exploration. To sustain vast human consumption, the Three Gorges Dam was built, attracting supporters and widespread criticism. Environmental pollution became a very serious problem as Beijing was frequently hit by sandstorms as a result of desertification.
The 1990’s saw two foreign colonies returned to China, Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, and Macau from Portugal in 1999. Hong Kong and Macau mostly continued their own governance, retaining independence in their economic, social, and judicial systems.
Jiang and United States President Bill Clinton exchanged state visits, but Sino-American relations took very sour turns at the end of the decade. On May 7, 1999, during the Kosovo War, U.S. aircraft bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The U.S. government claimed the strike was due to bad intelligence and false target identification. Inside the United States, the Cox Report stated that China had been stealing various top U.S. military secrets. In 2001, a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over international waters near Hainan, inciting further outrage with the Chinese public, already dissatisfied with the United States.
On the political agenda, China was once again put on the spotlight for the banning of public Falun Gong activities in 1999. Silent protesters from the spiritual movement sat outside of Zhongnanhai, asking for dialogue with China’s leaders. Jiang saw it as threatening to the political situation and outlawed the group altogether, while using the mass media to denounce it as an evil cult.
Conversely, Premier Zhu Rongji’s economic policies held China’s economy strong during the Asian Financial Crisis. Economic growth averaged at 8% annually, pushed back by the 1998 Yangtze River Floods. After a decade of talks, China was finally admitted into the World Trade Organization. Standards of living improved significantly, although a wide urban-rural wealth gap was opened, as China saw the reappearance of the middle class. Wealth disparity between East and the Western hinterlands continued to widen by the day, prompting government programs to “develop the West”, taking on such ambitious projects such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The burden of education was greater than ever. Rampant corruption continued despite Premier Zhu’s anti-corruption campaign that executed many officials.
The first major crisis faced by China in the twenty-first century as a new generation of leaders led by Hu Jintao after assuming power was the public health crisis involving SARS, an illness that seemed to have originated out of Guangdong province. China’s position in the war on terror drew the country closer diplomatically to the United States. The economy continues to grow in double-digit numbers as the development of rural areas became the major focus of government policy. In gradual steps to consolidate his power, Hu Jintao removed Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu and other potential political opponents amidst the fight against corruption, and the ongoing struggle against once powerful Shanghai clique. The assertion of the Scientific Perspective to create a Socialist Harmonious Society is the focus of the Hu-Wen administration, as some Jiang-era excesses are slowly reversed. In the years after Hu’s rise to power, respect of basic human rights in China continue to be a source of concern.
The political status and future of Taiwan remain uncertain, but steps have been taken to improving relations between the Communist Party and several of Taiwan’s parties that hold a less antagonistic view towards China, notably former rival Kuomintang.
The continued economic growth of the country as well as its sporting power status gained China the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. However, this also put Hu’s administration under intense spotlight. While the 2008 Olympic was commonly understood to be a coming-out party for the People’s Republic of China, in light of the March 2008 Tibet protests, the government received heavy scrutiny. The Olympic torch was met with protest en route. Within the country these reactions were met with a fervent wave of nationalism with accusations of Western bias against China.
In May 2008, a massive earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan province of China, exacting a death toll officially estimated at 70,000. The government responded more quickly than it did with previous events, and allowed foreign media access to the regions that were hit the hardest. The adequacy of the government response was generally praised, and the relief efforts extended to every corner of Chinese life. In May and June 2008, heavy rains in southern China caused severe flooding in the provinces of Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong, with dozens of fatalities and over a million people forced to evacuate. In 2009, China increased its internet-monitoring capabilities by adding hundreds of new monitoring stations.
Development of the General Postal Administration was slow; in 1949 there was only one post office for every 370 square kilometers. Several of the liberated areas continued to operate their own postal systems; most were ordered to stop selling regional stamp issues by June 30, 1950, while the Northeast Liberation Area and the Port Arthur and Dairen Post and Telegraph Administration continued to use their own stamps (due to the different currencies) until the end of 1950. The unified administration issued its first postage stamps on October 8, 1949, consisting of a set of four depicting a lantern and the Gate of Heavenly Peace, commemorating the first session of the Chinese People’s Consultative Political Conference (Scott #1-4).
The initial PRC stamp issue also inaugurated the innovative practice of numbering each type of stamp issued, usually in the lower left corner. For instance, the 800 yuan value in the Dove of Peace issue of 1950 is numbered “5.3-2”, indicating that it is the second stamp of three in the fifth stamp issue of China. The practice is only followed for commemorative and special stamps, regular definitive stamps having no special markings.
The first definitive series was released on February 10, 1950, and featured the Gate of Heavenly Peace against a background of clouds (Scott #12-20). The nine values ranged from 200 yuan to 10,000 yuan. The design was modified several times over the next year, and again in 1954, resulting in what philatelists call the “second” through “sixth” issues, each varying in minor ways, such as the layout of the clouds.
The postal system found it necessary to surcharge stamps of the previous government, with issues in March and August 1950, and May 1951. In addition, leftover stamps of the Northeastern Provinces were pressed into service in July 1950, and those of East China in December 1950. In the meantime, various commemoratives marked conferences and other events of the young republic. In June 1952, a set of forty stamps depicting physical exercises was issued in conjunction with a radio program; ten exercises were illustrated, each with a block of four, where each stamp shows a different position of arms and legs for the exercise. The Scott catalogue numbers these with major numbers for the full blocks of 4 and minor numbers for each stamp in the block, thus Scott #141a/b/c/d-150a/b/c/d.
The postal service expanded rapidly in the 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1952. the principal postal networks centered on the capital, Beijing, and links to all large cities had been established. Great progress was made in improving the postal service under the First Five-Year Plan. Postal service was also developed in the rural areas. Besides extending rural postal routes, the problem of delivering mail to places below the county level was solved by enlisting the aid of the population. From 1954 onwards, a system of mail delivery by rural postal workers was tried in agricultural cooperatives, and in 1956 this system was extended throughout the country. By 1959, the national postal network was complete. The postal service was administered by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (now the Ministry of Information Industry), which was established in 1949 and reestablished in 1973 after a two-year period during which the postal and telecommunications functions had been separated and the ministry downgraded to a subministerial level.
Reduced stamp sales and withdrawals from issue of several stamps during the Cultural Revolution resulted in a few stamps that are quite scarce, especially used. The typical pattern resulting in rarity was unauthorized sales before the official date of issue by isolated post offices of stamps which were then withdrawn from issue before the official date of issue. During the Cultural Revolution era, between 1967 and 1971, there were nineteen sets containing a total of 80 stamps issued by the China Postal Service. With distinctive designs and strong political overtones, these stamps became highly collectible after the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In 1984, China had 53,000 post and telecommunications offices and 5 million kilometers of postal routes, including 240,000 kilometers of railroad postal routes, 624,000 kilometers of highway postal routes, and 230,000 kilometers of airmail routes. By 1985, post offices were handling 4.7 billion first-class letters and 25 billion newspapers and periodicals. In 1987, after a six-year hiatus, six-digit postal codes were ordered to be put into use.
For many years, China was not a member of the Universal Postal Union, and while using Arabic numerals for the denominations, did not include the country’s name in Latin letters as required of UPU nations. The addition of CHINA to stamps’ inscriptions began in 1992. Western collectors typically differentiate earlier stamps both by the serial numbers in the lower corner, and by the first character of the country name 中, the “square box with a vertical bar” being visually distinct from the inscription used by any other Asian country.
Scott #2510 is a 50 fen (分) stamp in a set of two, plus souvenir sheet, issued by the PRC on August 25, 1994, to commemorate the marriage of Wang Zhaojun (王昭君) — one of the Four Beauties of ancient China — to the monarch of Xiongnu, Huhanye (呼韓邪), in order to establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty. The Four Beauties (四大美女) were four ancient Chinese women who lived in four different dynasties, each hundreds of years apart, that are renowned for their beauty. The scarcity of historical records concerning them meant that much of what is known of them today has been greatly embellished by legend. They gained their reputation from the influence they exercised over kings and emperors and consequently, the way their actions impacted Chinese history. Three of the Four Beauties brought kingdoms to their knees and their lives ended in tragedy.
Wang Zhaojun was born to a prominent family of Baopin village, Zigui country (now Zhaojun village, Xingshan county, Hubei) in the south of the Western Han Dynasty’s empire (206 BC–8 AD). As she was born when her father was very old, he regarded her as “a pearl in the palm”. Wang Zhaojun was endowed with dazzling beauty with an extremely intelligent mind. She was also adept in playing the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument sometimes called the Chinese lute, and was a master of all the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar — Guqin, Weiqi, Calligraphy and Chinese painting.
In 36 BC, Emperor Yuan chose his concubines from the whole state. Because of Wang’s fame in the county, she was his first choice for the concubine from Nan county. Emperor Yuan issued the edict that Wang should enter the harem soon. Wang’s father said that his daughter was too young to enter the harem, but could not violate the decree.
In the most prevalent version of the “Four Beauties” legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname “fells geese” or “drops birds.”
Wang left her hometown and entered the harem of Emperor Yuan in early summer. According to the custom in the palace, when choosing a new wife, the Emperor was first presented with portraits of all the candidate women. It is said that because of Wang’s confidence of beauty and temperament, she refused to bribe the artist Mao Yanshou as the other maids did. As a reprisal, Mao Yanshou painted a mole of widowed tears on Wang’s portrait. As a result, during her time in the Lateral Courts, Wang Zhaojun was never visited by the Emperor and remained as a palace lady-in-waiting. Wang Zhaojun’s portrait was either never viewed by the Emperor or was not in its true form, and therefore the Emperor overlooked her.
In 33 BC, Huhanye Chanyu visited Chang’an as part of the tributary system that existed between the Han and Xiongnu governments. He took the opportunity to request to become an imperial son-in-law, which is recorded by Lou Jingde under Emperor Gaozu of Han. As Queen Mother Lü had only one daughter, she did not have the heart to send her so far away. Typically the daughter of a concubine would then be offered, but unwilling to honor Huhanye with a real princess, Emperor Yuan ordered that the plainest girl in the harem be selected. He asked for volunteers and promised to present her as his own daughter.
The idea of leaving their homeland and comfortable life at court for the grasslands of the far and unknown north was abhorrent to most of the young women, but Wang Zhaojun accepted. When the matron of the harem sent her unflattering portrait to the Emperor, he merely glanced at it and nodded his approval. Only when summoned to court was Wang Zhaojun’s beauty revealed. The Emperor considered retracting his decision, but it was too late by then, and he regretfully presented Wang Zhaojun to Huhanye, who was delighted. Relations with the Xiongnu subsequently improved, and artist Mao Yanshou was subsequently executed for deceiving the Emperor.
Wang Zhaojun became a favourite of Huhanye Chanyu, giving birth to two sons. Only one, Yituzhiyashi (伊屠智牙師), seems to have survived. They also had at least one daughter, Yun (雲), who was created Princess Yimuo and who would later become a powerful figure in Xiongnu politics.
When Huhanye died in 31 BC, Wang Zhaojun requested to return to China. Emperor Cheng, however, ordered that she follow Xiongnu levirate custom and become the wife of the next Chanyu, the eldest brother (or her stepson, born by her husband’s first wife) of her husband. In her new marriage, she had two daughters. Wang was honoured as Ninghu Yanzhi (寧胡閼氏 “Hu-Pacifying Chief-Consort”).
Statistics show that there are about 700 poems and songs and 40 kinds of stories and folktales about Wang Zhaojun from more than 500 famous writers, both ancient (Shi Chong, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Shangyin, Zhang Zhongsu, Cai Yong, Wang Anshi, Yelü Chucai) and modern (Guo Moruo, Cao Yu, Tian Han, Jian Bozan, Fei Xiaotong, Lao She, Chen Zhisui).
The 1994 stamps marking the marriage of Zhaojun were printed by photogravure and perforated 11½ x 11. The 20 fen value depicts Zhaojun playing the pipa (Scott #2509), the 50 fen is titled “Leaving Home” by the Scott catalogue (Scott #2510); a souvenir sheet containing a single 3 yuan stamp measuring 85x46mm portrays the wedding (Scott #2511).