When I cast my mind back, I can well remember when I “were but a lad” doing what all my other schoolboy friends did on a regular basis. We weren’t in the slightest bit embarrassed by it. We didn’t mind what people thought of it. It was a perfectly normal thing for young adolescents to do.
No! No! I’m not talking about “that”!
I’m talking about collecting stamps. (For heaven’s sake! Your mind… !)
Yes. Philately was all the rage in those days. And I still have some five or six albums stashed away in an old box somewhere that has lain unopened for the past x00 years. But now after my foray to the China National Post and Postage Stamp Museum (中国邮政邮票博物馆), not a gnats whisker from Jianguomen station on Subway line 2, I must really make friends with them again next time I have the chance.
As usual, you get a whole load of conflicting information if you look things up on the internet, with so many people plagiarising other people’s web sites that mistakes are repeated over and over until they become “fact”, on the basis that if you say something often enough, people start to believe it.
For instance, some would have you believe that the stamp museum is to be found on Xuanwumendonglu, but it actually moved from there many years ago. There’s also a Beijing Post Office Museum that displays stamps – but we’re not talking of that museum, which is located near Dongsi.
As the American comedian Josh Billings once said – “Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.” And so I did. And here I am standing on an overcast day outside a large building with a giant TV screen on its outside showing the CCTV11 news channel.
Why it is showing CCTV11 I do not know. But more eye catching are the two statues on either side of the entrance depicting postal couriers of yesteryear galloping to deliver the mail …
The stamp museum was first opened in 1985 and in 2007 it was expanded to include a postal museum. It now covers four floors, a grand total of 7,500 square metres exhibition space, 6,000 square metres of cultural relic storeroom and nearly 10,000 postal artefacts, millions of Chinese stamps and 7 major galleries (or so the blurb would have us believe).
But there’s not a ticket office in sight. Entry, it appears, is free, but you have to leave any bags and liquids in a locker before you get into the museum proper. Then it’s up the escalator to the first floor of exhibits, with a further two above that. Even with free admission, I am the only visitor, save for a mother with her errant brat who arrive half an hour later.
Naturally, having done my homework, I know exactly what to expect:
“The four layer of the exhibition hall to the audience close to present thousands more selection, hundreds of tiny stamps featured postal artifacts, decades of classic stamps artwork and rare be known to all the world the treasure of the museum. China postal system, comprehensive, authoritative, reproduces the image of our country for more than 3000 years post postal history, development performance and for the future of the imagination, to accurately reproduce the China Post bright industry characteristics and the era characteristics.”
Or, to put it another way, the stamps are divided up into four categories: It starts with stamps in the Qing dynasty; then moves on to stamps published around the China Revolution; then you see loads of modern day stamps after the foundation of the PRC – some with the original pictures placed beside the stamps themselves which are amazing in the detail with which they are reproduced; and finally there is a small collection of stamps from member countries of the Universal Postal Union.
The stamp collection, it turns out, is a wonderful gallery of everything that has happened in China in the past fifty years plus. Forget for a moment that you are looking at stamps. It is like peering into a new world of Chinese history told through pictures.
The first stamps issued in China appeared in 1878. They came in three colours and featured a dragon. The green issue was worth 1 fen (1/100th of a yuan), the red was 3 and the yellow 5. You have to remember that these are symbolic colours in China: green was the colour used by high ranking officials, red is the long standing symbolic colour of China and yellow was the colour reserved for the emperor. One is also reminded that the first postage stamp in the world originated in the UK – the famous Penny Black.
Actually, it’s a bit unnerving. But everywhere is closely guarded by security cameras that follow you around the room automatically, their servo motors whirring all the while against the quietness of the hall. I smile up at them a few times wondering if the security guards have dozed off from this mindless task, or whether they will rerun the best bits of your favourite blogger inspecting their collection!
The hall is filled with stamps depicting life concentrating on China's rich culture and history. Subjects covered are as varied as wildlife, scenic spots, fairytales, architecture, antiques, dragons, historical events, Beijing opera, Olympics, sports, Chinese medicine, jade, cartoons – you name it and there’s almost certainly a stamp depicting it!
The first part of the display concentrates on the first Chinese stamps dating back to the Qing Dynasty Post.
Historically they’re fascinating, but they’re hardly colourful and unless one is a keen philatelist, it’s likely that the majority of visitors move onto the second part which concentrates on the period of the Republic of China which, as of course you will remember, kicked off in 1911.
After the founding of the ROC, the postal administration changed its name to the Ministry of Communications while the name “Chinese Postal Service” was used instead of “Imperial Post”. I learn that in late March 1912, the Ministry of Comms was instructed by Sun Yat-sen to overprint four Chinese characters on top of the old third imperial issue, spelling out “Republic of China”.
These stamps were actually overprinted by three different printing houses and you can tell them apart as the printing was different from each. The Statistical Dept of the Shanghai Customs made the overprints in Song characters. The Commercial Press in Shanghai also used Song but the last overprinted character reading Guo (Republic) - is larger than the other three. Waterlow & Sons of London used regular characters. In addition, some post offices in various other places made overprints of their own.
The Chinese postal service began to issue airmail stamps on July 1, 1921. Their design showed an airplane with a five colour flag printed on its tail flying over the Great Wall. The 2nd Peiping Print airmail stamps were issued on July 5, 1929. This time the flag on the tail of the airplane changed to a white sun in a blue sky. On August 29, 1932 the 3rd series of Peiping Print airmail stamps were issued. On the stamps a monoplane was shown instead of a biplane.
And yeah – I know what you’re thinking right now. How come your favourite blogger can’t spell Beijing or even Peking properly? (Admit it – you did think that didn’t you?) Well, actually the National Government announced the new name of Peiping would be used instead of Peking from July 11 1928, hence the 2nd and 3rd Peiping Prints! But it never really caught on and it wasn’t for a few more decades that Beijing eventually took over. (There you go – something for you Trivial Pursuit lovers!)
The third section of the museum deals with revolutionary war stamps – in other words, the Anti-Japanese War followed by the liberation period with the CPC (Communist Party of China). Not surprisingly there is a plethora of stamps depicting Mao together with the People’s Post and the People’s Liberation Army.
Of course, with the rise of Chinese communism, the newly revamped nation was keen to support other socialist regimes; so there are plenty of stamps dedicated to celebrating Soviet sputniks…
… and of course both Vietnam and “heroic” little Cuba fighting against the American imperialist aggressors!
And although (almost) every Chinese person you meet these days agrees that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was nothing short of a disaster for the country, the Chinese Post Office – of course – celebrated it at the time as a great success.
And I’m sure it was definitely politically correct to wish Chairman Mao a long life in the 1960s!
Not to mention his rise to beatification levels across the communist world.
Once the Cultural Revolution was finally out of the way, China made way for a whole range of new subjects to celebrate with stamps; and this is the subject of the fourth part of the display. As we are told: “The stamps of new China with wide range of subjects, rich in content, printed and attractively presented, through which a stamp is not difficult to see our great motherland stride.” Absolutely!
How about the return of Hong Kong to the motherland, smiled over by Deng Xiaoping …
Or a celebration of the announcement that Beijing would be hosting the 2008 Olympics in seven years’ time?
I could go on listing the hundreds of series on display (yes, I really could) but let’s move on to the fifth part – foreign stamps from 42 countries around the world. I’m not sure what criteria have been used to decide on whether a stamp is interesting enough to be shown in this section. Norfolk Island – wherever that is – gets a prominent position. I wonder why!
while what appears to be mini-CDs are on display representing Bhutan. Can these really be stamps? Or have they displayed real CDs that contain images of the stamps of that country? I (later) search Wikipedia for an answer…
It appears that Burt Todd, an American businessman, was instrumental in setting up Bhutan's stamp issuing programme. In 1954, he went there on honeymoon and cemented a lifelong friendship with the Bhutanese, becoming an adviser to the Bhutan government and royal family. The programme was specifically set up to raise money for the improvement of Bhutan's infrastructure after the country was refused a loan from the World Bank.
Todd relied on unusual designs such as 3D printing, relief and sculptural stamps, as well as silk, steel, scented, and even a talking stamp on a miniature record that played the history of the country when spun on a record player. At first ignored by many collectors, some early Todd stamps have become cult items.
Following her father's death, Frances Todd Stewart took his last idea - to create the world's first CD-ROM postage stamp - and formally partnered with Bhutan to produce these CDs for their 2008/2009 release.
But I guess my prize for the most amazing set of stamps in the entire museum goes to a series from the DPRK. It’s not just that they are a set of 3D stamps – where the picture shifts as you turn it backwards and forwards in front of you – which in itself makes them pretty noticeable, but, remembering that this is North Korea we are talking about, it’s a tribute to Prince Charles, Lady Diana, and Prince William. Yes, really! They were released on October 1st, 1982, about three months after he was born. Could it possibly be that Kim Il-Sung was a closet royalist? I guess we will never know!
So after an hour of peering at pretty stamps, I find that the museum contains more … much more than just stamps!
On the upper floors we can find out about the technology of stamps as well. How about perforating machines for instance?
Naturally there is much space devoted to the setting up of China’s postal service. The earliest message relay systems in China can be traced back almost 3,000 years. Just like in Hollywood’s ‘cowboys-n-injuns’ TV series that I used to revel in way back in my misspent youth, they used methods such as drum beats and smoke signals. But of course they also couriered messages on galloping horses from one side of the Central Kingdom to the other.
There are various models of courier stations – which acted rather like latter day postal sorting offices where the couriers could change horses and perhaps top up with a well-needed bottle of Tsingtao!
Not only were horses used, but camels too – remembering that a lot of China is taken up by desert areas.
As most of the displays only have Chinese explanations beside them, I have no idea what this next picture has to do with stamps; but if you like historic pictures as I do, you aren’t too fussed!
I find myself moseying around a display of wooden tablet epistles written by soldiers in the Qin Dynasty, which was the power-centralized state lasting from 221 BC to 207 BC following the late Warring States Period.
There are also life sized models showing courier stations through the ages…
as well as the clothes worn by the postal workers; and even early letter boxes, with the word ‘LETTERS’ inscribed on them, no doubt for the edification of the multilingual Chinese peasants.
Some of the post boxes even offer more than a passing resemblance to examples found in the West….
Next I come across a section dealing with the Communication Post during the Revolutionary War Period when the Communist Party set up a secret communication network used for escorting revolutionaries and shipping essential materials across enemy occupied lines. The Communication Post, we are told, was an integral part of the Chinese people's revolutionary cause and is still regarded as a brilliant chapter in the history of China's modern postal system.
In 1949 the Ministry of Posts & Telecoms was set up to unify the postal administration across the country and restore postal communication. On January 1st 1950 the General Post Office was established. To illustrate this, I find myself marvelling at some letters dating back half a century which have been stuffed into another glass cabinet…
By now, China had become a worker’s paradise; so to illustrate this point there are various photos on display showing happy postal workers…
Naturally, our old comrade Chairman Mao is not to be ignored, and there are some pretty first day covers that have somehow crept in to grace the technology displays…
And lest you think the museum only looks back at history, the postal service is brought right up to date with a picture, as well as a model, of an airplane from the fleet of China’s Postal Airline.
Oh, and wow! There’s even a motorbike for those of us who have our feet firmly planted on the ground.
I find I have spent over two hours in this museum (which surely has to be great value for money, given that it is free entry). I stroll down the staircase to the ground floor and see yet another couple of people have entered while I have been upstairs.
I am bid zaijian by each of the bored-looking guards, struggling to stay awake. No doubt I have made their day by simply turning up. I can picture them going back to their spouses in the evening. Did you have an interesting day at work, they will be asked? Just imagine, they will reply, there was a laowai who spent over two hours in the museum. Yes, it’s true. We even followed his every move on closed circuit security cameras. I mean… wow!