China and Its Express Letter Stamps

The Chinese are nothing if not original; in fact it seems to be common practice to attribute many of the great inventions due to human progress to this remarkable race, and not without abundant reason. The invention of gunpowder and use of firearms, the invention of printing, the discovery of the magnet and its application to the compass, the discovery of the value of silk fibre and the consequent culture of the silk-worm for the needs of this important industry, the discovery of the art of fine porcelain making and many other things of necessity and value in the progress of the human race can be traced directly to the bland and smiling but taciturn Oriental. Even the first iron-clad, centuries ahead of the famous "Monitor" and "Merrimac", is reputed to lie in the sands off southern Korea, where it was successfully used in repelling an invasion by sea from Japan.

In the case of the post office we find China as usual a pioneer, if not the originator of such a system. Its beginnings and development were both natural and grew out of the need of communication between the central government and its representatives in distant centres. This meant a courier service, of course, but as supplies and munitions were necessary for the military establishments, the transportation of such and the courier service were combined in a single bureau and placed under the War Board of the Central Government.

But this system was purely official and was not available for the ordinary public. As the Chinese are essentially not only a commercial but also a literary people, their need of communication is great and was so naturally supplied by private means. A host of local letter express and delivery companies, known as "letter hongs", gradually came into existence and, in their time, served the public well. They utilised every means of conveyance, maintaining fast special services when it was required while content with slower channels where price was the priority. They were sometimes open until after midnight and even made the addressee pay a portion of the postage, usually half. In short, they were prompt and reliable and so met in every way the needs of the public.

The Imperial Customs service was organised for the European Treaty Ports in 1861. At first it used the Imperial Courier Service for its despatches, but eventually inaugurated a courier service of its own. It finally allowed the public to send correspondence in 1878, at it was then that the first postage stamps were issued. The Customs Service grew and expanded until China finally decided on the desirability of its own National Postal System and then proceeded to organise one by extending the existing Customs Service to cover the principal centres of trade and population throughout the Empire.

This was accomplished by an imperial edict in 1896, but unfortunately the people were so used to and had such confidence in their "letter hongs" that the official post was somewhat slow in gaining ground. This was doubtless in part due to the Chinese people's historical experience and so distrust of anything that was seen as being "official". It therefore became the same problem for the Imperial Postal Service, as for many other countries, of how to deal with the private post institutions in order to ensure a monopoly of communications was in its own hands. It could not abolish them by Imperial edict, as this would cause resent and, in all probability, be more trouble than it was worth. The only way was to restrict their operations and in the meantime start to gain public confidence in the Imperial Post, until it was safe ban private competitors completely. This has been the policy pursued, but though the "hongs" are now much restricted, the final "coup" has not yet fallen.

Stamp collectors are more or less familiar with the so-called "customs stamps" which were employed for nearly twenty years, and with the Imperial stamps that followed until their recent surcharge with the Republican overprint. But one stamp has until recently been very elusive, and hardly anything was known of it until it had been in use for some nine months. This is the "Express Letter" label, or special delivery stamp, which is the cause of this rather lengthy preamble inasmuch as the "letter hongs" were the reason behind the issue of this particular label. This service was inaugurated to furnish an additional argument in favour of the Imperial Post and to obtain further confidence in its letter agencies. That it had a good measure of success is shown by the statistics available.

It seems rather odd at first glance that the issue of the stamp, or perhaps 1abel is a better term, was unknown or at least unnoticed by philatelists for so long. Its cataloguing was only sporadic and the appearance of used copies available for collectors occurred only about seven years after the first issue, while unused copies have been practically unattainable. This unusual state of affairs is due to the peculiarly Chinese method of using the "Express Letter" label. For instead of issuing in sheets, like the ordinary issues and recording the postage by franking, a special system was instituted, from beginning to end, and in this lies the reason for the elusive character of the label in question.

The full sized label is a strip of soft woven cream-toned paper of even texture, about 8½ inches long by 2½ inches wide. It is divided vertically by saw-tooth rouletting into four nearly equal parts. The left hand part serves merely as a coupon, and for this reason we find the labels bound by staples at the extreme left end into booklets of 100 (?) copies. This coupon, which is retained by the issuing post office, has four characters at the right side, next to the rouletting, which read CHIA CHIN HSIN CHIEN or "Increased Speed Letter Label", the Chinese equivalent for "Express Letter Stamp". A serial number in black preceded by the character TSU or "number" also appears on this coupon, as it does on the other four. Any office record is palced on this coupon and the book of stubs serves as a record of all special delivery letters issued, and is doubtless used as a voucher in auditing accounts.

The whole surface of the printed side of the label, coupon and all, is covered with a ground work of words CHINESE IMPERIAL POST OFFICE, many times repeated in vertical columns and printed in pale yellow green. What may be termed the label itself, outside of the coupon, occupies the rest of the strip of paper and is divided into thirds by the remaining two lines of rouletting, although the impressed design covers the strip. The impression of the design is in a deeper yellow green than the background, and the inscription at the right of the coupon is printed in the same ink at the same time.

The impressed design is a long oval, broken by large circular ends, which imprisons an attenuated dragon. In the band forming the frame above are the words CHINESE IMPERIAL POST below EXPRESS LETTER, and these same two words occupy the circular ends of the frame band as well. In use, the impressed label, which is composed of the three sections, is separated from the stub while the right hand coupon, which contains the dragon's tail, is given to the sender as a receipt. This is why at its right side the Chinese characters FAHSIN SHOU TAN or "Send Letter Receipt Check", that is "Receipt for the Sender". The postmark of the sending office is placed on this receipt.

The other two sections, containing the dragon's head and belly, accompany the letter. Both receive the postmark of the despatching office, and when the letter arrives at its destination both receive the postmark of the delivering office. The left hand coupon of the two, containing the dragon's head, is now retained by the delivering office as evidence of the receipt of the letter, and is therefore labelled in Chinese SHOU HSIN P' ING TAN or "Receive Letter Evidence Check". The middle section, containing the belly of the decapitated and decanted dragon, accompanies the letter, in the hands of the special delivery clerk, to the addressee who signs it or stamps it with his "chop" on the back. The messenger then returns the coupon to the delivering office as evidence of the success of his mission and claims his fee on presenting it.

Is this not a peculiarly Chinese way of sending a letter? It may and doubtless does have its advantages, especially for the Chinese, but it seems rather cumbersome and complicated.

The last coupon mentioned, the only one to accompany the letter to its destination and the one by which the messenger gets his fee, is naturally the one which has the indication of value, and this reads, in large characters over the dragon's body, 1 CHIAO or "one dime". At the right side of this coupon are the Chinese characters TA CH'ING YU CHENG or "Chinese Postal Service", and the same inscription is found on the other two coupons. At the left side of this middle coupon are the characters SHOU HSIN P'ING TAN or "Express Letter Label", the same ones as found on the stub that remains in the book at the issuing office.

From the above description it should be quite evident why the used label was so long in getting on the stamp market. The coupons, being all held by the Post Offices as vouchers, did not get into the hands of the public until someone got rid of them at the end of the accounting year, after which they were perhaps supposed too be destroyed. The complete unused stamp was not supposed to be sold, but some must have been. These do not bear any control characters before the serial number, which is the case with all used copies, and for this reason evidently came from someone at headquarters before being sent to any post office. Had they come from a post office, the control character would be found before the serial number and hand-stamped in red or black ink.

There have been three issues of this label. The first one had only the words CHINESE IMPERIAL POST OFFICE in the background. This is doubtless the label issued on the date officially given, November 11 1905. The next issue, as far as is known, has been dated as FEBY 1909 and substituted for CHINESE IMPERIAL in one place and the third has the date changed to JAN.1911. There maybe others and these would doubtless be the dates when new supplies of the labels were printed.

That this service was highly satisfactory can be seen by the Post Office reports. It was at first only used in seven of the principal cities as an experiment, and during 1906, the year following its introduction, 45,792 letters were despatched but this increased by 1908 to 159,329. After this experimental trial period had proved so successful, the service was extended to fifty selected cities in May 1909, and in that year the number of letters despatched rose to 457,194.

by C.A.Howes