Andrew lends stamp of authority to meeting

Professor Andrew Hamnett discusses Chinese history through stamps at Morpeth Rotary Club.
Professor Andrew Hamnett discusses Chinese history through stamps at Morpeth Rotary Club.


The immediate past President of Morpeth Rotary Club, Professor Andrew Hamnett, was looking forward to a relaxing first meeting back after handing over the chain of office to Rhona Dunn.

But an emergency about speakers meant that Rhona had to request Andrew to take the floor again.

Andrew has a great interest in China and used photos of postage stamps to explain its history and economy.

In 1912, six-year-old Pu Yi, the last Qing dynasty Emperor, was made to abdicate after a revolution. A provisional government was established and after a period of chaos, the Chinese Silver Dollar was made the currency. In 1913, the first national stamps were issued.

Yuan Shi Kai was declared President in 1915, but when he died in 1916, the country slid into chaos again. Control of many provinces fell to warlords. There was a failed attempt to bring back the Qing dynasty and the Constitutional War led to a division between north and south.

The government in the north at Peking was an alliance of warlords linked to the west. In the south there was a military government at Canton led by Sun Yat Sen. He established the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT), by 1919. Russia gave aid to the KMT and to the much smaller Chinese Communist Party.

In 1923 the country developed a new constitution, but no one had the power to put it in place. Sun died in 1925. Chiang Kai-Shek took over the KMT and attacked the Northern forces. He defeated them by 1928 and made China a single country again.

The communists broke away from the KMT and set up a centre at Wuhan. There were insurrections, including a peasant’s revolt in Hunan, led by Mao Zedong. Chiang defeated Mao and attacked the communists. It took 20 years before they were able to fight back.

The biggest disturbance came in 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. They set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 with the deposed Emperor Pu Yi as head. It issued its own stamps up to 1945 when the Japanese collapsed.

The fighting had caused currency problems. In 1935 the government carried out a major reform that stabilised prices and removed the link between currency and silver, but it had a very bad effect.

Different parts of China had different values for the same currency. In Manchuria, it lost 70 per cent of its value and overprints were needed on stamps to stop smugglers. Large areas in the west and the north had to have stamps overprinted with new values to ensure the cost of postage was about the same throughout China.

The ‘Long March’ of the Chinese Red Army in 1934 had set up of an almost independent area in the north around Shaanxi.

The main war between Japan and China broke out in 1936 while Chiang was fighting the communists. To fund the war the KMT government printed currency. After 1941 the currency slid sharply, with multiple overprints on stamps as postal rates changed in line with the decline in value from eight fen (cents) at the start of the war to several dollars by the end.

As the Japanese took over, they issued their own stamps, but they carried surcharges as they also had currency problems. By the end of the war some surcharges were many hundreds of dollars.

China was in a very bad economic state, with spiralling inflation, profiteering and social problems. A new national currency was introduced in 1945, but it went the same way. By 1948, postal surcharges reached 500,000 yuan. In 1948 a Gold Yuan was introduced at the rate of one to three million of the old currency, but it was not backed by gold and hyperinflation followed.

It got so bad that stamps had to be printed without a denomination so that the value could be changed every day. In 1949 a Silver Yuan was issued, but it also collapsed.

The communists gradually took over more territory. To start with they only issued stamps for local posting, with the first for North China after 1945. Postal arrangements were complicated, with the KMT controlling towns and cities and the communists holding the countryside. In 1949 the KMT collapsed and retreated to Formosa (Taiwan).

By then the Chinese Communist Party began to be seen as another Chinese Dynasty. A Dynasty change in China had happened regularly every 300 years or so.

The communists printed a range of stamps and were overprinting Nationalist stamps. Stamps of the People’s Republic of China were issued from October 1949 in Silver Yuan and costs went down as the People’s Bank of China stabilised the currency.

Currency has much to do with belief in a regime and people began believe that the communists would stay.

The currency was revalued in 1955, with 800 yuan becoming eight fen. Stamps showed an emphasis on continuity with previous imperial dynasties and colours.

The golden era for Chinese stamps was 1960 to 1965 when beautiful stamps were issued, including a goldfish series, chrysanthemums and Tang Dynasty pottery. A set showing the Hwangshan Mountains are probably the most beautiful.

The era was brought to a sudden close by the Cultural Revolution of 1966. For ten years stamp design was poor, although they are rare and collectable. They have improved since.

Following questions, Andrew was thanked by George Brown.