Imperial China: Spoilt for Choice

If you are a collector seeking a region or country with a diverse postal history then you can’t go far wrong with China. The history of China is complex – the demise of imperialism, years of internal feudal conflict, revolution, civil war and overseas occupation has resulted in a postal history that is both rich and varied. Whilst only a limited number of designs were issued during the reign of the last emperors of China, the philatelist is spoilt for choice with the diversity of overprints, variations and postmarks.

For many in China, 1839 is considered the beginning of modern Chinese history. It was the year that the Daoguang Emperor (seventh Emperor of the Qing dynasty) rejected proposals to legalise opium and attempted to halt the trade completely. This led to the Second Opium War (1856–60) that ultimately ended the policy of isolation and resulted in the opening of treaty ports such as Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Foochow and Amoy. More than 80 treaty ports were eventually established in China by foreign powers including Great Britain, United States, France, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union.

Whilst an earlier mail service had been established to carry consular mail to and from the treaty ports, the first public postal services were not established until 1877. China’s first postage stamps featuring large dragons, were inscribed ‘CHINA’ in both Latin and Chinese characters and were denominated in candereens.

From the 1 January 1897, the postal system was rebranded Imperial Postal Services and cents and dollars were adopted as the units of currency. During the first half of 1897, the existing stock was surcharged in cents. Despite there only being a limited variety of designs at this stage, the diversity of overprints, variations and postmarks would already represent a rich seam for philatelists.

On 16th August 1897, the first new stamps inscribed ‘IMPERIAL CHINESE POST’ were issued, ranging in denominations from from ½c to $5. The low values depicted a dragon, the middle values a carp and the dollar values a wild goose. These stamps were based on lithographic designs produced in Japan and printed on paper watermarked with the yin-yang symbol.

1898 China Chinese Imperial Post 1c stamp, Waterlow & Sons Ltd. of London
1898 Chinese Imperial Post 1c
1898 China Chinese Imperial Post 4c stamp, Waterlow & Sons Ltd. of London
1898 Chinese Imperial Post 4c

On 28 January 1898, these stamps were superseded by an issue with similar designs that were engraved by Waterlow and Sons Ltd. of London. These are commonly referred to as the ‘Waterlow Stamps’ and are easily distinguished from the former issue by the reordering of the inscription to ‘CHINESE IMPERIAL POST’ and the adoption of alternative colours to comply with Universal Postal Union regulations. Further, three new denominations of 3c, 7c and 16c were also added. These stamps would remain in circulation until the fall of Chinese imperialism.

The first commemorative stamps of China were issued in 1909 to mark the first year of the reign of the Xuantong Emperor – the last emperor of China and final Qing dynasty ruler. The set of three stamps of denominations 2c (featured image), 3c and 7c, all depict the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and were again designed by Waterlow and Sons as is clearly identified at the base of the stamp.

1912 China Chinese Imperial Post 5c stamp overprinted with Chinese characters 'Republic of China'
1912 Chinese Imperial Post 5c Optd. with ‘Republic of China’

The Xuantong Emperor was forced to abdicate on 12 February 1912 as a result of the Chinese Revolution. Official overprints of the imperial stamps were issued by Waterlow and Sons, although many postmasters throughout the country also used unofficial overprints. The first new designs of Republic of China were issued on 14 December 1912 featuring Sun Yat-sen who served as the provisional first president.

To view postal issues of China, please visit the M&S Philately HipStamp store.

Published by nigelmandsphilatelycom

Nigel Matthews has been a philatelist for more than 30 years. He has a particular interest in the postal history of the Caribbean including associated British Commonwealth countries (incl. Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Monserrat, St Lucia, St Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, Turks & Caicos) as well as Cuba, Danish West Indies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Netherlands Antilles and Puerto Rico.

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