In this blog I present a short visual history of postal stamps of Tibet, and reflect on the political work that they do. I have been meaning to do this blog for months ever since I started to notice the frequency with which images of postal stamps from pre-Communist Tibet appear on Weibo and Wechat.
It is easy to dismiss stamps as just a small piece of square-shaped paper to be affixed to an envelope in order to get it from A to B, but they are so much more than that.
Stamps regularly convey messages about people, culture, place, histories, and achievements. Issued by the state, stamps are inherently political. They communicate ideas of ‘imagined community’ to recipients at home and people worldwide about national identity, collective memory, and even political destiny, sometimes even leading to diplomatic spats.
Serving as vehicles through which the state can disseminate propaganda and promote their own legitimacy, stamps actively construct, reproduce and even naturalize particular forms of power relations.
On Weibo and Wechat I regularly see Tibetans posting pictures of Tibet from the early 20th century, and among these postal stamps of pre-Communist regularly appear.
Many Chinese language source material I read through while researching this blog emphasise some form of postal service being in operation in Tibet since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), chiming in nicely of course with the official state narrative of Tibet being an integral part of China since that time.
A set of Tibet-themed stamps in the Qing Dynasy (1636-1911) Source
In 1910 the Qing launched a military campaign to establish direct rule in Tibet. Following their occupation of the region, six post offices were opened in Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Yatung, Pharijong, and Chamdo. These post offices gradually closed after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the subsequent expulsion of Chinese officials and troops from Tibet.
A set of stamps issued in Tibet during the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. Source
Tibet began its first local issue of postage stamps at the beginning of the 20th century. The first stamps issued in Lhasa in 1912. A further set of two were released in 1914 and a final set of five in 1933 that remained in production until the 1950s.
While that may sound like a grand total of twelve postage stamps in all, it appears that things were a little more complex than that. As this New Zealand-based philately blog explains:
Each stamp or cliché in the sheet was hand carved, so with sheets of the first and third sets comprising twelve stamps and the second set six stamps we actually have thirty stamps. Then there are the numerous different printing inks or paint resulting in over 200 clearly differentiated shades bumping the total up to over two thousand. The third set was carved in individual blocks which were bound into a printing block of twelve. The binding frequently broke giving rise to numerous settings and subsettings as the cliché were re-bound in a different order and at slightly different angles to one another, so each pair or multiple has to be carefully checked to determine the setting.
Leaving the more detailed accounts of the development and operation of Tibet’s postal services and stamp production to the many excellent philatelist’s out there, let’s have a look at how stamps from Tibet have changed since the ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet in the 1950s.
The “Peaceful Liberation” series, released in 1952. Source
The “Kang-Zang, Qing-Zang Highway” series, released in 1956. Source
The “Tibetan People’s New Life” series, released in 1961. Source
And moving into the 1980s and 1990s…
Some stamps from the “50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region” series, released in 2015. Source
Over the past century images gracing the front of Tibetan postage stamps have moved from the powerful symbolism of the snow lion of pre-communist Tibet to the public construction projects of the 1950s and Tibetans becoming ‘the masters of their own destinies’ in the 1960s before finally falling into the infantalizing trope of the singing and dancing minorities of recent years.
These stamps remind us of the ways in which postage stamps, far from merely being mundane pieces of paper, can be powerful vehicles of propaganda that construct, reproduce, and naturalize particular ideas of nation and history to serve the state.