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The Chinese Imperial Dragon Stamps

‘A legendary and favourable force used to exorcise evil spirits and provide blessings’.

Although China’s first postage stamps were issued in 1865 for the Municipality of Shanghai they were local issues only. The stamps generally accepted as the Chinese empires first were issued by the “Imperial Customs Post” on the 24th July 1878, during the last years of the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644 -1912). These so-called “Large Dragons” were issued as the Chinese Maritime Customs postal system, developed in large part by the Englishman Robert Hart who took over the handling of mail for the various foreign legations. Some 15 years later the service was opened up to the general public, after a few months this first attempt at a state postal system proved so popular that stamps were issued.

This issue consisted 1 Candarin (green), 3 Candarin (red) & 5 Candarin (yellow) values and were printed in Shanghai using typography. They are inscribed “CHINA” in English at the top with Chinese characters on both sides and the numeral denomination at both lower corners together with the word “CANDARIN (S)”at the base. An example of the first type 3ca exists with “3” in front of the “Candarins”, it has been proposed that this is plate wear however we believe that a “3” printers slug was used to plug damage to the plate – whatever the reason collectors are still hunting for another example!

During the 7 years of issue a series of different papers, plates & inks were used making these stamps fertile ground for collectors, but all were printed in sheets of 25 with a perf. gauge of 12½. These three different values remained the Chinese empire’s only stamps for 7 years until a new set of three “Small Dragons” were issued in 1885.

In 1894 a set of nine different stamps were issued for the Dowager Empress’s 60th Birthday, all but 2 incorporated dragons within the design. On the 1st January 1897 the “Imperial Maritime Customs Service” became the “Imperial Postal Service” which from 16th August of the same year issued stamps inscribed “Imperial Chinese Post”. These events established a national postal service now called “China Post”.

Is it perhaps relevant to mention that 130 years later, on the 5th of January 2012, “China Post” issued a special edition 1.20 Yuan denomination stamp to celebrate the ‘Year of the Dragon’. This later issue was intended to invoke memories of the earlier one. Dramatic changes show how different China is today from that of the 19th Century where foreign powers influenced many of China’s institutions, the early stamps & many of the postal markings reflecting the English influence of the time. Reviews of the latest issue were mixed. Officially they are considered to be “a perfect combination of history and modern time”. The brightly coloured stamps show a realistic image of a dragon, the vibrant artwork focuses on designs that replicate those seen on the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing and also on the silk robes worn by Ancient Emperors. Other commentators referred to “demons, fangs and claws” saying that the stamps were too aggressive and focused on the ferocity of the dragon. Mr Chen Schaohua defended his 2012 design by saying that the dragon “should not be too gentle because it would clash with the mental image most Chinese have of the creature”.

Despite the criticisms sales were brisk and demand high. Commemorative packs of the stamps were quickly sold to enthusiastic collectors at premium prices well in excess of their face value. This trend continues.

The latest developments in Chinese philatelic history accompany the momentous social, economic and political changes that have occurred in China since the 19th Century. These and the cultural upheavals continue. Both the “Dragon Stamp” and later issues, for different reasons, can be considered as ‘bold statements’ and may help to understand how China has evolved over the past century. The recent burgeoning success and economic growth in China, together with increasing personal wealth has strengthened the purchasing power of stamp collectors which shows little sign of abating.

By way of contrast, the China of 1878 had experienced years of political instability, an isolationist trade policy that contributed to the outbreak of the Opium Wars (1839-60), civil war, government corruption, extreme poverty and rural starvation. Various attempts to regenerate society were made, including decentralisation. This was followed by wars and then invasion and occupation by Japan in 1937.It was not until the People’s Republic of China was established on the 1st October 1949 that any lasting changes occurred.

Until Mao Tse Tung’s death in 1976, stamp collecting was forbidden. The pastime was considered bourgeois and subversive. Stamps of the period depict work ethic and Communist propaganda as the Chinese population were encouraged to work ‘collectively’ in Communes for the benefit of China but not allowed to ‘collect’ what now include hotly contested rarer issues from the 1950s and 1960s!

Philately is now encouraged and seen as socially acceptable and as a status symbol. An impressive statistic states that there are an estimated 16 million collectors in China. It is no coincidence that the Chinese are keen to collect their national stamps. They scour the rest of the world to purchase from dealers and at auction to retrieve what many consider to be their heritage.

Perhaps as controversial as the later stamps, the first “Dragon Stamps”, because of their rarity and philatelic heritage, are very collectible. There is a strong demand for genuine stamps, especially the rarer examples.

Maybe one day similar things will be said about the 2012 “Dragon Stamps” that have already generated so much discussion and debate!



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