From the last Imperial Dynasty to the modern Chinese People’s Republic, 1878 – 2014, is a span of just 136 years. In that time the country has gone from a secretive feudal empire to the economic powerhouse of the world. In that time there have been some 5000+ stamps issued, the vast majority since 1949, in line with stamp issuing policies worldwide, but the abrupt changes in style have been brought about as much by political upheaval as by printing and design process, giving the issues from those eras iconic status.
Going back to the opening of the Imperial Post Office issues we find the marvellous “Large Dragon” designs, a simple device carried over from the earlier Shanghai Municipal Posts designs, executed in green, red and yellow over three separate printings and today highly sought after.
The Revolution of 1911 produced the next iconic series of designs the “Junk” and “Entrance Hall of Classics” produced first in London then with subsequent printings in Peking and finally in the pre Communist Revolution period we have the many issues featuring the portrait of Dr Sun Yat-sen.
After the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949 there passes a period of quite austere designs, generally printed in monochrome lithography, depicting Sino Russian friendship, heroes of the Russian Revolution, infrastructure building programs and other “politically correct” motifs.
Suddenly in 1960 colour and diversity leap out from the catalogue – the beautiful Chinese Goldfish set, followed by the Pig Breeding set, the 1961 Table Tennis miniature sheet and then in 1962 the Stage Art of Mei Lan-fang with its exquisite miniature sheet.
Compared with the rather staid GB 1961 Europa issue, or even 1963 Red Cross set, let alone the ultra conservative issues of Canada or Scandinavia from the same period, the Chinese designs, colours and production techniques begin to show a wide variation in style from “Poster Art” as in the 1964 “Women in the People’s “Commune” to the delicate “Traditional Art” of the 1963 “Hwangshan Landscapes” and 1964 “Chinese Peonies”. This is of course co-incidental with that short period of “decadence” soon to be rooted out in the “Cultural Revolution”.
Once again, and suddenly, in 1966 the mood changes, the stamp designs reflect the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and portraits of Mao Tse-tung are everywhere on stamps as they were on the streets. Fabulous poster stamps of “The Great Teacher” and his poems and directives, of Revolutionary Literature and Art occupy the stamp issues for 4 years. Officially the Cultural Revolution was declared over in 1969, but it is not until the death of Mao in 1976 that there is any marked change in stamp design leading to a gradual mass output of what may be judged as bland and exploitative issues.