The Stamps of China (1908) (Part I).

This excellent article was written by the noted philatelist Edward J. Nankivell and first published in The Postage Stamp, February 1908.

The Chinese Empire comprises what is termed China Proper, and the Dependencies of Manchuria, Mongolia, Eastern Turkestan, and Tibet.
China Proper has an area of 1,532,420 square miles, and a population of 407,253,029. The Dependencies have an area of 2,744,750 square miles, and a population of 18,710.000.

The Government is highly centralised, but there is a long-established popular government in local affairs. The central government is imperial, and the title of Emperor is hereditary in the reigning family, but there is no settled rule of descent. The Emperor has the right to nominate his successor.


The present dynasty is a Manchu one and dates from 1644. The Manchus originated the now universal “pig-tail” fashion of wearing the hair. The Emperor is supreme in the government, and he has a cabinet to assist him, known as the Nei-ko. This cabinet is composed of two Manchu members, two Chinese, and two assistants from the Great College.

The country is divided into eighteen provinces, administered by viceroys. The capital is Peking, with an estimated population of 1,000,000.

The present Emperor is Tsai-Tien Kwang-Hsu, a son of Prince Chun. His mother, who died in 1896, was a sister of the present Empress-Dowager. He was born in 1872 at Peking, and ascended the throne on 22nd January, 1875. He married in 1889 his cousin, a daughter of Duke Kwei, who is a brother of the Empress-Dowager. During the early part of his reign the Empress-Dowager Tsu-Hszi, who was born in 1834, was supreme. Nominally the Emperor assumed full control of the government in 1889; but if reports are true, the Empress-Dowager is still the power behind the throne, for when he showed himself in favour of progress and reforms this imperious lady resumed the regency and relegated the Emperor to a back seat.

Of late China has been developing her internal resources in her own way, and without the help of foreigners; everything, in fact, is being done to hold China for the Chinese. Even Sir Robert Hart, the Inspector-General of Customs, would have been removed or superseded but for British interference. He has organized the Customs with marked success, and notably the postal service.

Its Philatelic History.
For many years China was known to stamp collectors for the fewness of its stamps. It issued its first postage stamps in 1878, and that issue served all purposes till 1885, when there was another issue, which lasted till 1894, when there was a special issue to celebrate the Empress-Dowager’s sixtieth birthday. Then in 1897 there was a new series to inaugurate the Imperial Chinese Post, under the direction of Sir Robert Hart. This series, with slight modifications of the designs, is still in use.

The stamps of China do not attract the attention of many specialists in this country. In the United States, I am told, they are much more sought after, but with us they are regarded as being too simple and straightforward, and quite free from those perplexing problems that delight the specialist in other countries.

Nevertheless, the postal issues of China are by no means so simple and easy as they are believed to be. I have specialized in these stamps for many years, and have hunted high and low for sheets of the first issue, in the belief that when I got a complete sheet of each of the three values I should be able to solve all questions. After many years’ searching, after ransacking stocks in all directions, I have managed to secure three or four sheets of each value, together with portions of other sheets.

Instead of enabling me to solve all difficulties, they have opened up unsuspected questions of the most interesting character.

It has always been thought that the sheets of the first issue were small and uniform in size.

Mr. J. Mencarini, a high official of the Imperial Maritime Customs of China, has just published an excellent brochure on the Postage Stamps of China, 1878-1905. It is full of the most valuable information collated from official sources. Mr. Mencarini tells us that “the first set of three stamps, 1, 3, and 5 candarins, were engraved on copper by a native artisan and printed at the Customs Statistical Department at Shanghai,” that they “were typographed at Shanghai on white wove paper, in blocks of twenty stamps.” He also speaks of printings that could only be made up of sheets of 25.

The sheets and portions of sheets in my collection enable me to produce evidence of the fact that the printings were not confined to sheets of 20 stamps, that there were also of each value sheets of 25 stamps, and further, that of those sheets of 25 stamps there were two plates of the 1 candarin and 3 candarins, and probably of the 5 candarins also, making in all three separate and distinct plates of each value.

In fact, we have sheets of 20 of each value and sheets of 25 of each value, and further sheets of 25 of a separate and distinct setting.

Let us examine the evidence in detail. As Mr. Mencarini’s information is drawn from official sources, we may accept his statement that all three values were printed in sheets of 20 stamps.

Sheets of 1 Candarin.
I have this value in a sheet of 20-five rows of four stamps; also in a sheet of 25-five rows of five stamps, in which the stamps are very much more widely spaced.

In what we may term the narrow spacing the stamps are separated by a space of 2½ to 2¾ mm; in the wider spacing they are separated by a space of 4½ to 5 mm. The sheet of 20 stamps is of the narrow spacing. So that we get of this value :-

Sheets of 20 stamps, spaced 2½ to 2¾ mm.
Sheets of 25 stamps, spaced 4½ to 5 mm.

Sheets of 3 Candarins.
Of this value I have two rows of four stamps with top and side margins complete, and another block of two rows of four stamps with bottom and side margins complete, which evidently formed portions of sheets of 20 sheets. Of the narrow spacing I have, also full sheets of 25 stamps, and a horizontal pair showing the wide spacing, so that we may conclude that this value was printed in-

Sheets of 20 stamps, spaced 2½ to 2¾ mm.
Sheets of 25 stamps, spaced 2½ to 2¾ mm.
Sheets of 25 stamps, spaced 4½ to 5 mm.

Sheets of 5 Candarins.
I have no sheet, or portion of a sheet, of 20 stamps of this value, but we may accept Mr. Mencarini’s statement that there were printings of sheets of 20 stamps. I have sheets of 25 in the narrow spacing and I have been shown an undoubted used copy of the wide spacing. Therefore, we can safely list the following of this 5 candarins value :-

Sheets of 20 stamps, spaced 2½ to 2¾ mm.
Sheets of 25 stamps, spaced 2½ to 2¾ mm.
Sheets of 25 stamps, spaced 4½ to 5 mm.

Summarizing this evidence, we therefore get the following list :-

Sheets of 20 stamps
Narrow spacing, 2½ to 2¾ mm.
1 candarin, green.
3 candarins, red.
5 candarins, yellow.

Sheets of 25 stamps
Narrow spacing, 2½ to 2¾ mm.
3 candarins, red.
5 candarins, yellow.

Sheets of 25 stamps
Wide spacing, 4½ to 5 mm.
1 candarin, green.
3 candarins, red.
5 candarins, yellow.

So great is the difference between the narrow spacing and the wide spacing that it is quite easy to separate even single stamps by their very wide margins into narrow and wide spacing; the measurement horizontally across the stamp, from perforation to perforation, is 24½ mm. in the narrow spacing, and 26½ mm in the wide spacing. This difference is more than ample to allow for such irregularities as occur.

The Printing
In one place Mr. Mencarini tells us the stamps were engraved in copper, and in another place that they were typographed. The word “typographed” here is evidently used in place of the word “printed,” and not as indicating the particular process of printing adopted.

Accepting Mr. Mencarini’s statement that the designs were engraved on copper, I imagine that transfers were taken from the copper-plate die, and that the sheets were made up on the lithographic stones and reproduced by lithography.

It is very likely that the first sheets were composed of 20 stamps, and that, for the purpose of more rapid production to meet the increasing demand, or for purposes of account, the size of the sheet was enlarged to 25 stamps.

The wide spacing was probably the first form of the sheets of 25 stamps, for it is very scarce.

Then, seeing that the space between the stamps was unnecessarily wide for perforation purposes, and that the narrow spacing of the first sheets of 20 stamps was ample, they probably decided to lay down the narrow spacing as before. In support of this theory it may be noted that copies of the narrow-spacing variety are comparatively common.

Thick and Thin Papers
I do not attach much importance to the catalogue division into thick and thin papers, for my gatherings lead me to the conclusion that the stamps of the same printings were printed indiscriminately on paper of varying substance.

Mr. Mencarini divides the issue into “thin” and “thicker” papers, and even gives the number printed of each, but the difference is not sufficient to entitle it to catalogue rank, and it certainly does not mark different printings.

From the sheets and stamps 1 have examined I conclude that in all the printings but the last, thin and thicker papers were used.

The sheets of 25 stamps with narrow spacing were probably the last printing of this first issue, and all the specimens I have seen of this variety so far have been on uniformly thin paper.

Other Questions.
There are other questions concerning the make-up of the sheets affecting individual stamps, and the opening for plating, etc., which I must leave for the present.

Questions may arise, as the result of closer study, whether the stamps were all reproduced from the same copper-plate die. Some present such differences that one would not be surprised to learn that the stamps were drawn by n. lithographic artist on the stone from the original design.

There are many distinct and interesting shades in the first issue, indeed in all the issues there are very marked gradations of shades.


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