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The Value of Postage Stamps
By Aaron A. Vessup | NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 15, 2016


A client experiences a new service offered by a post office in Xiangyang, central China's Hubei Province, on August 9. His letters will be delivered in a year (XINHUA)

Only three people raised their hands in the audience of around 40. I was shocked with this response. Having passed around a stamped envelope mailed to myself from someone in North America, my question was, "How many of you have ever received a personal letter, delivered by the post office?" A majority of the Chinese audience—composed primarily of adults, plus a sprinkling of college students—replied in the negative. They were, however, intrigued by the colorful artistic stamps adorning the envelope, which evoked a slight sense of nostalgia. For many, the mailed envelope was indeed "foreign" and perhaps somewhat akin to an antique.

When I was very young, I reached out to the mysterious world by returning cereal box tops or coupons from packaged dry foods to the producers in order to receive free gifts. The sound of the postman dropping letters into the mailbox was music to my ears. I waited with great anticipation for these deliveries. It was fun to know my existence would be acknowledged by someone in the outside world. As I grew older, the expectation of receiving mail involved mixed emotions, because bills to pay routinely outnumbered friendly messages, discount coupons, or unexpected refunds. Mailing letters, though, was easy. Postage stamps could be purchased without hassle, as stamp vending machines were common.

In China, purchasing stamps is sometimes easy, and sometimes not. Currently, stamp dispensing machines do not exist. A visit to any one of Beijing's many post offices, though, reveals a wide variety of standard-issue stamps as well as special-edition, commemorative stamps, which make great souvenirs. While the younger generations in China are not accustomed to sending and receiving postal letters, many react with pleasant surprise if shown the range of colorful postage stamps available.

But, who actually buys stamps anymore? And, who mails letters? Actually, unbeknown to many people, philatelists still exist around the world, albeit in dwindling numbers. But, outside the circles of these invisible aficionados, most of us connected to the Web now tend to rely on the Internet to bridge national and international divides. The growth and popularity of e-commerce in China have contributed to major change in the postal marketplace. Shopping online is now the most typical reason for people to utilize delivery services. And, while the many private courier companies vie for business, sightings of China Post vehicles in local neighborhoods have become quite rare.

Sending mail abroad from China, though, is not exactly straightforward, especially for foreigners who lack Chinese language skills. Operating procedures across the capital's various post offices can seem rather out of sync and bureaucratic. Some require customers to verify their identity, provide a significant amount of personal information, and write both the sender and receiver addresses in Chinese when posting items internationally.

Successfully mailing a parcel can feel like achieving a gymnastic feat. Postal counter staff in Beijing, moreover, seem guided by obscure policies. Overall, the apparently excessive hurdles one needs to surmount in order to use the national postal service make the experience feel troublesome and hardly worth the time and effort.

In the half dozen or so China Post offices I've visited in Beijing, though, the collectible stamps on offer really stood out. Souvenir stamps range from portrayals of imperial dynasties to scenes of nature, symbols of historic Olympic events and, of course, images of notable leaders. Colorful stamps, both current ones and those no longer in circulation, present an opportunity for cross-cultural sharing and learning, as they showcase and keep alive poignant memories of people, places, and things. Each country has a plethora of symbols worthy of attention, and China is no exception. Special events, unique landmarks, icons and well-known personalities all make the list when it comes to choices for visually embellishing postal mail.

The author is a U.S. citizen living in Beijing

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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