The first Chinese stamp to go into print was the ‘Large Dragons’ in Shanghai in 1878. The stamps were inscribed “China” in Latin letters as well as Chinese characters, and denominated in candareens, a unit of weight then used to describe a unit of imperial currency.
Centuries later, another dragon stamp is making headlines. Annually the China Post issues a new commemorative stamp for the corresponding year’s Chinese zodiac character and this year is no different.
Last Thursday the new Chinese postage stamp for the upcoming Year of the Dragon was released (the Lunar New Year begins on January 23).
As usual, the launch of the new stamp drew large crowds of collectors. But the dragon’s pose has proved unexpectedly controversial, with netizens complaining the dragon looks too ferocious and sinister.
Zhang Yihe, a Chinese author, also wrote on her weibo that she was “scared to death” when she first saw the scales and claws of the red and yellow creature.
Another wrote: “I was frightened at my first look at this dragon. Is it growling at someone?”
Like the bald eagle for Americans or the bear for Russians, the Chinese have a natural affinity towards dragons. The Chinese race, the legend goes, is said to be the descendants of the dragon, and it is the fifth of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac (and the only fictional animal on the list).
For thousands of years, the dragon was also a symbol of Chinese imperial power. Emperors’ flesh and blood were termed “dragon bodies” and their children as “dragon babies”. Their formal dress was the “dragon robe”, usually resplendent with dragon embroidery.
This year’s stamp designer Chen Shaohua denies that the dragon image is too ferocious, saying it is supposed to represent a “confident” (but not aggressive) China.
In fact, Chen says an imposing design is required for such a powerful creature.
“In Chinese culture, the dragon’s main responsibility is to ward off evil, and prevent disasters and bring good luck to people. It was therefore fierce.”
China Post also defended the design, insisting that it is based on historical references from the Qing Dynasty, including a pattern from “dragon robes” worn by Chinese emperors between 1644-1911.
While the Chinese view the dragon as an auspicious and graceful creature, many in the West have tended to have a less appreciative view, often depicting them as malevolent, fire-breathing beasts that need slaying by a brave knight.
Some of the stamp’s Chinese critics wonder if this cultural disconnect should be a concern, and that the depiction may be sending more of a message of confrontation than confidence.
Perhaps the timing doesn’t help. Quarrels with Japan over fishing rights and more assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has created unease about the nature of China’s evolving power, among neighbours that once saw its rise as more benign.
Hence writer Zhang Yiyi lambasts Chen’s design for lacking political sensitivity: “The designer obviously doesn’t understand China’s national strategies [on foreign policies].” China News Service also reckons that the Chinese postal department needs to be more cautious when choosing a design for the stamp because “although stamps are small, they represent the country to the rest of the world”.
The controversial dragon is already ushering in good fortune for some of the stamp’s owners. The Associated Press has reported that one scalper was selling a set of 20 for Rmb178 ($28) — much higher than the original face value of Rmb24. But buyers probably shouldn’t expect massive appreciation in value. According to the New York Times, a set of the ‘Large Dragons’ stamps from 1878 is only worth about $1,000 at auction today. That’s small fry compared to China’s most sought-after Qing Dynasty stamp: the 1897 ‘Red Revenues’ variety (timed to coincide with the introduction of a new national currency). These rare collectors’ items sell for “hundreds of thousands of dollars” reports the newspaper.
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