Nearly fifty years ago, many Chinese stamp collectors destroyed their albums for fear of being punished by the Communist regime after the hobby was banned by Chairman Mao. But despite the efforts to stamp out (sorry) the collecting, Mao did not succeed.
Out of the 60 millions stamp collectors in the world today, more than 20 million live in China.
Stamps were introduced to China in the 19th century, in ports controlled by Western powers. China’s own government made their own stamps starting in 1897. As time passed, stamps began to show the changing regimes in China, commemorating the Empress Dowager’s 60th birthday, then the early Republic, the Japanese occupation, and the Communist era.
During the Cultural Revolution of the sixties, people could be singled out and arrested for a number of crimes. Capitalism and traditional Chinese culture were to be eliminated, and this included collecting historical items such as stamps.
Many burned their stamp collections or smuggled them out of the country to protect themselves from arrest, as owning stamps was considered a bourgeois activity. Anyone who went against Communist values– including intellectuals, landlords, religious leaders, and members of the wrong political party — was a target.
During this time, a common form of punishment called a “struggle session” was used. The accused would be forced to publicly admit to their supposed crime. If he or she resisted, they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse until a confession was made. Millions of struggle sessions ended in public execution and often had audiences of thousands of people.
In 1978, reformers led by Deng Xiaping came to power, and the use of struggle sessions was prohibited.
Since then, the attitude towards such bourgeois hobbies as stamp collecting has drastically changed.
Starting in 2000, the Chinese government encouraged middle and high schools to start stamp-collecting clubs. While the average age of the American stamp collector is 50, the hobby attracts a slightly younger crowd in China. Kids are encouraged to start collections as a status symbol.
While it seems odd that there would be so much emphasis on stamps in particular, it turns out the richest Chinese buyers tend to favor such alternative investments. The wealthiest individuals put 17 percent of their wealth into stamps, art, jade, and similar goods, compared to 9 percent in America and 7 percent in the United Kingdom. In fact, stamps are one of the most valuable investments one can make, rising in value an average of 11 percent annually since the 1970s, which is more than can be said for gold, stocks, and bonds.
The revival of the hobby has collectors vying for the especially valuable stamps that date from the late 1960s, the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Four unreleased stamps from the time, now known as The Four Treasures, sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Chinese collectors are eager to reclaim the cultural history that was nearly erased.