The history of Chinese stamps parallels the country’s great shifts in its ruling powers. China’s first stamps were printed by the British colonial postal system in Shanghai in 1865. British colonists wishing to send letters home were the target audience for these stamps, and their adoption spurred other Chinese municipalities with large international communities to quickly follow suit.
The country’s first national stamps, the “Haiguan Dalong” or “Large Dragons” series, were created in 1878 for the Chinese Imperial Customs service, run by an Englishman named Robert Hart, who organized the Chinese Imperial Post in 1897. His service ended with a stamp celebrating the first anniversary of Emperor Hsuan T’ung’s ascension to the throne in 1909. Early issues of Chinese stamps were frequently overprinted to mark special events, like the jubilee of international settlement in 1893, or to adapt local postage prices to regional fluctuations in the yuan’s value.
During the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s, complex underground postal systems developed among networks of Chinese communists, who printed many small runs of crudely designed stamps. After the Japanese were defeated in 1945, China’s postal service was still not centrally organized, so most stamps were designed only for specific regions. These stamps generally featured portraits of Mao Zedong or patriotic military emblems. The first official stamps for the National Republic of China were also printed in 1945, some featuring Sun Yat-sen, the rebel leader who helped depose the Manchu dynasty.
During the 1950s and '60s, Chinese stamps most commonly portrayed communist heroes and symbols, like the popular series inscribed with quotes from Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Some of the most interesting communist-era stamps are from a 40-part series depicting poses for a radio gymnastics program that all citizens were expected to practice.
Another popular set among collectors is the 1964 series of traditional tree peonies, long cultivated for the Chinese aristocracy. Stamps printed after the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s showcased historic Chinese emperors, artwork, landscapes, or, most recently, symbols of China’s financial and material successes. The first Chinese Zodiac stamp, which celebrated the Year of the Monkey, debuted in 1980.