Introduction to Sinkiang Philately

Dr Yasoichi Nakajima (with the assistance of PN Davey)

We already have an elegant introduction to the philately of "Chinese Turkestan - Sinkiang" written by EN Lane (1980). Tchilinghirian's book (1958) gives us not only Russian philately of Sinkiang but also detailed geographical details and a general history of the province. These are still the best texts on Sinkiang philately.

Sinkiang is the north-western province of China, bordering Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, Kashmir, Afghanistan and China proper. There is a mixture of cultures with Chinese and native Muslim peoples. Once Sinkiang was an important cross-roads for the trade between Rome and China. In the nineteenth century it was a place of close contact between the great powers including Great Britain, Russia and China, as well as a base for many Muslim rebels. Such diverse historical and geographic conditions have been directly reflected in Sinkiang philately, consisting of Russian, Chinese and Islamic posts until the liberation of Mao.

You can find some descriptions of postmen travelling from Urga (capital of Mongolia) or from Gilgit (Kashmir) to Sinkiang in travelogues written by Dr Sven Hedin and other authors of the early twentieth century . However no philatelic material used on these routes has so far been identified and no description has ever appeared in philatelic literature. Therefore the collection of Sinkiang postal history frustrates due to rarity, but also fascinates.

Russian Post

The postal system in Sinkiang was inaugurated by the Russians (although the official Chinese Government courier service probably operated from earlier dates). We know of four post offices at Kuldja, Chuguchak, Kashgar and Urumtsi. Sharashume can be added to the list since Russia regarded the Altai district, where Sharashume is located, as part of Mongolia until 1911 when China made it part of Sinkiang.

Tchilinghirian & Stephen state that there may have been a military post office in Kuldja around 1870, but no material has come to light. The earliest cover from each of the offices are Kuldja (1880s), Kashgar and Chuguchak (1903) and Sharashume (1915). It is relatively easy to find Chinese merchants covers sent to China proper, via Siberia from Kuldja, from around 1900 and after 1915, and from Kashgar after 1915. Covers from Chuguchak are rather hard to find although considerable volumes of mail may have been routed through this office. Only one cover cancelled at Urumtsi post office is known from 1906. Several covers sent from Urumtsi were cancelled at Chuguchak and those sent to Urumtsi are without arrival chops. In my opinion, mail from Urumtsi was taken on the regular postal service and cancelled at Chuguchak. Therefore, we should have respect for the person who sent the unique cover from Urumtsi to Moudon in Switzerland (see Tchilinghirian's text).

It is interesting to note that from 1914 to 1916 the Chinese post office used the Russian Chuguchak post office as an international exchange to send post abroad, even after China had become a member of the UPU. You can see the postmark of Chuguchak as a transit mark on covers dispatched through the Chinese post office. There are unusual combination covers with both Russian and Chinese stamps (Gunk issue) endorsed "via Russian Post Office" around 1915. They were posted from the Chinese Yangihissar Post Office and mailed to the Russian Kashgar Post Office to send abroad. Furthermore, other combination covers from Sharashume were discovered and described by EN Lane. (see Mizuhara's collection, Postal History of Mongolia). Russian Post Offices were closed in October 1920, but covers dated after 1919 seem to be rare. Kashgar merchants used the Andijian Post Office in the USSR to mail letters from Tihwa after the closure of these offices. Such covers were endorsed "via Consulate in Andijian". It is known whether the Sinkiang Government had consulates in the USSR, although China itself did not maintain diplomatic relations. Types of postmarks are well described by Tchilinghirian but some unlisted varieties have been found.

Chinese Post Office

The earliest cover known to date is an experimental mail from Tihwa (Urumtsi), through Lanchow (Kansu) to the general post office in Peking, dated 27th January 1910. Covers mailed from Chinese post offices in Sinkiang during the Ching dynasty are quite rare. Chinese postage stamps without overprints were used until 1915. Commemorative issues of the Republic in 1912 were also used unoverprinted. Thus you have a chance of finding older postmarks of Sinkiang from coiling dragons to the first Peking Junk issue from an unsorted accumulation in a stockbook.

In 1915, Sinkiang currency was debased to a quarter of the Chinese. The junk issue was overprinted "Use restricted to Sinkiang" to prevent the stamps being sent to China proper. It is assumed that overprinted junk stamps were issued in July 1915. Postage due stamps did not need to be overprinted since the public could not buy such stamps at the post office. Stamps perfinned "for use on official documents" were used from 1916 to around 1940 when stampless official mail with the postmark "Postage paid for official mail" appeared. Do you have a ½c junk with official perfin? The postal rates of Sinkiang were the same as in China proper until 4th August 1910. Thereafter a special tariff was applied for both Sinkiang and Mongolia until 1935.

Censorship labels attached by the Sinkiang government and local authorities are another area of interest. All post, except postcards and legation mail after 1916, were censored until around 1936. Further study is required but one theory is that in the 1930s and 40s, red or violet postmarks were used to indicate censorship.

A study of postal routes is also of great interest for students' of this region. Unusual domestic mail, to or from China proper, was sent via the Trans-Siberian railway at international rates. This rapid service was noted in 1911 and continued for a number of years until well after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. In a Post Office memorandum issued in 1935, four foreign mail exchange offices were recorded: Chuguchak (Tarbagatai), Kuldja (Ining), both for the USSR, Puli (Tashkurgan) for India and Chimunai. Most post from Kashgar was routed through Irkestan, the Chinese post office situated in the border area within the Soviet Union.

Of these, it is doubtful whether Chimunai was used in this way. I have not seen any foreign mail through Chimunai and no postal route bound for the USSR was described in the 'Postal Guide of the Chinese Post Office'. The most interesting route was the connection between India and Sinkiang. Another mysterious route was that established between Altai and Kobdo (Outer Mongolia). From the Chinese viewpoint it was a domestic route since they did not recognise the independence of Mongolia at the time. There remains at least one cover which travelled this route. In the 1940's, there are examples of mail which travelled through Horgos to the Soviet Union.

If you obtain a cover destined for Europe in the earlier times, you will probably be able to find the name of a famous explorer or missionary as a sender. For example, members of the Swedish North-Western Scientific Expedition organised by Dr Hedin and the French expedition carried out by the Renault motor company sent many letters to their mother countries.

War-time compelled changes in postal routes. The Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria blocked the Shanghai-Manchouli air route and caused the opening of the airline connecting Sinkiang and China proper for the conveyance of mail destined for Europe. The first experimental flight of the Eurasia Aviation Company took off from Peking on 20th December 1931 and reached Tihwa on the 22nd by a northerly route via Sui yuan. The return flight started from Tihwa on 8th January 1932. This time no postage rate for airmail was paid. Other flights after the second experimental flight took the more southerly route via Lanchow. Although several trial flights may have occurred prior to the second experimental flight, the actual number is unknown. The successful second experimental flight is known to have used the famous 15c and 30c junk stamps handstamped "air". The 15c was designed for postage to Lanchow and the 30c for towns beyond. The air stamps of 5c and 10c were prepared and used after the flight on 15th December 1932 for the increased air rates. The Sinkiang-Shanghai air line was intended to serve as an international route from China to Europe, however foreign mail by this route is scarce. At least two experimental flights were carried out between Chuguchak and Tihwa on 24th December 1932 and 21st July of the following year. The regular flight between Tihwa and Lanchow was suspended on 22nd September 1933. It should be noted that there are some airmails using stamps with the air handstamp conveyed between Lanchow and Shanghai by air after the suspension of the Tihwa-Shanghai air route. These can be distinguished by rate, date and their endorsement "via lanchow".

Owing to the Tungan rebellion in 1931, the postal route between Tihwa and Lanchow was interrupted near Hami. Surface mail destined for Tihwa through Kansu was stopped at Lanchow and re-routed through Russia for several months. The Sinkiang-Suiyuang long bus company was opened on 30th August 1933 and a rapid service between Peking and Tihwa was expected. There are many covers marked "via Sinkiang-Suiyuang Bus" but the majority have Sian transit marks which show that they did not travel through Suiyuang on the northern route, but through Shensi on the southern. The Eurasia Aviation Co. opened the Chungking-Hami air-route on 20th February 1939. During world war II, Sinkiang played an important role as a transit for mail leaving China due to the Japanese occupation of the east coast. The Sino-Soviet Aviation Co. opened an airline between Hami and Alma Ata in 1941. Surface mail for Europe and the United States was also routed via Sinkiang until the Burma Road was established. We do not know details of these services but covers may be found by careful checking.

There was also a secret military postal route between Yuimen in Kansu and Gilgit, India through the southern rim of the Taklamalan desert from 15th March 1943 to 27th January 1945. Does anyone own a cover sent in this way? Lane mentioned the difficulty of getting Sinkiang covers of this period and things haven't changed! If you are fortunate enough to obtain one, it should be a different rate to the regular tariff published by Sieh & Blackburn.

The issue of stamps overprinted "for use in Sinkiang" finished in 1945 and ordinary Chinese stamps were used. You should look for postmarks amongst the huge variety of CNC and GY stamps. When the currency was changed again on 17th May 1949, silver yuan surcharged stamps were issued. The rate was 5c for ordinary mail and 20c for registered mail. This rate applied until the middle of December even though Mao's troops had marched into and 'liberated' Sinkiang in September 1949. A red circular postmark reading "provisional People's Post" was used on silver yuan issues in Tihwa prior to mail being overprinted "People's Post".

In other towns, even after "People's Post" overprinted stamps were issued, unoverprinted silver yuan stamps were used until the end of December when postage rates were increased. North-west issues of liberated areas stamps were introduced to Sinkiang in 1950 when there was a demand for higher face values. Thus combination covers with Sinkiang, North-west and PRC issues are perfectly legitimate.

It has been rumoured that there was a special rate for Sinkiang in the first few years of the PRC, until it was fully absorbed into the People's Post. I have no evidence to support this conclusion, except some over-franked airmail covers. I hope Chinese postal historians will be able to clear up this point. The appearance of bilingual cancellations with Chinese and Arabic characters is a most interesting development for Sinkiang enthusiasts. Arabic characters were changed into a new style similar to Roman ones in the 1970's and it is pleasing to note that the former status was restored on 1st January 1984.

Islamic Posts

The uprising of Great Ma was followed by the declaration of the East Turkestan Republic covering southern Sinkiang in 1933 and the Islamic Post was organised. The famous, unique cover of the Islamic Post was discovered by Sir David Roseway and explained by Haverbeck and Mochi respectively. It was sent from Khotan through Yarkand to Kashgar. The date of the Khotan postmark corresponds to "in the month of June 1933" and of Yarkand to "24th June 1933". It bears the censorship label of the Khotan Government. This Islamic Post operated between February 1933 and June 1934.

Another Islamic post was founded by the "Ili Republic" (also called East Turkestan Republic) which declared the independence of Dzungaria in 1944. It is important to note that the Ili Republic was not under Mao's rule. Therefore the stamps issued by the Ili Republic should be classified separately from those of the liberated areas of China. Its postal organisation is not fully understood and it is not known how many stamps were issued. Earlier issues were with diamond overprints and a further two mystery items may have had a dual purpose as postage and revenue stamps. Official records show that Nationalist China and the Ili Republic exchanged mail with each other but I have not heard of a cover that can verify this. Most of the covers franked with Ili material are philatelic. I have read some articles on the philately of the Ili Republic in local stamp magazines recently issued in Sinkiang and feel that many problems remain to be resolved. Nonetheless it is a most interesting area of Sinkiang philately.

References (excluding Journal of Chinese Philately)

  1. EN Lane: Chinese Turkestan - Sinkiang. The Stamp Magazine, p98-101 (1980)
  2. SD Tchilinghirian & WSD Stephen: Stamps of the Russian Empire used Abroad, Part three, Persia, the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, Sinkiang, BSRP, 1958
  3. M Mochi: The Islamic Post in Sinkiang Province, China Clipper v26, 27 -30 (1962)