The Qing dynasty took power in China in 1644. As the dynasty weakened and suffered military defeats in the 1800s, Western powers imposed their presence in cities called "treaty ports." Tensions grew and the Qing lost popular support. Following a revolution in 1911, China became a republic.
Under the Qing, Chinese-U.S. relations centered on trade, which required mail—as did diplomatic and military relations. Originally, all U.S. mail to China crossed the Atlantic, taking months to arrive. In 1867, a Pacific route opened; the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai started a postal agency. The Qing later established a national postal service.
Massachusetts to Guangzhou (Canton) cover, 1849
This letter took almost three months to reach an American opium trader in Guangzhou by the Atlantic route. From Boston, it traveled east via England, Egypt, and Hong Kong.
Loan courtesy Roland H. Cipolla II
Guangzhou (Canton) to New York cover, 1853
E.F. Parker of Augustine Heard & Co. wrote Benjamin Newton of the commission merchant firm Gordon & Talbot regarding prices and shipments of tea, anise oil, rattan, silk, and backgammon boards. The letter traveled 2 ½ months by ship via Marseille, France.
U.S. Consulate General Shanghai to Japan cover, 1867
The American consulate in Shanghai used a two-line handstamp on this January 1867 dispatch. Six months later, the Shanghai postal agency opened under the consulate's jurisdiction.
Image of City of Peking mail steamship
In 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which owned City of Peking, launched the first U.S.-China commercial mail route in the Pacific.
Courtesy Pacific Mail Steamship Company Collection of Stephen J. and Jeremy W. Potash
U.S. Postal Agency Shanghai via San Francisco cover, 1872
The Shanghai postal agency began operations after the Pacific Mail Steamship mail service began. This envelope crossed the Pacific for ten cents postage; its delivery took just five weeks.
Loan courtesy Al Kugel
American Consulate building in Shanghai, early 1900s
The Shanghai postal agency operated from three locations between 1867 and 1907. By then, there was so much mail that the Postmaster General appointed a U.S. postal agent at Shanghai.
Treaty Port Jiujiang (Kewkiang) Local Post to USS Monocacy cover, 1894
The municipal court of Jiujiang established a local post and issued stamps featuring a nearby temple. The American consulate in Shanghai held the envelope for will call.
Treaty Port Fuzhou (Foochow) Local Post to New York cover, Hong Kong, 1896
The local post stamp for the treaty port of Fuzhou depicts a dragon boat. Mail to the U.S., including this letter, traveled via Shanghai and Yokohama to San Francisco.
Hankou (Hankow) to Washington, DC postal card, China, 1896
This 1896 postcard from a Catholic mission priest in Hankou informed the Smithsonian that a collection of 5,000 Chinese coins was for sale. The Smithsonian apparently did not pursue the offer.
Military Station No. 1 Tianjin (Tientsin) to Benicia Arsenal CA cover, 1900
U.S. military post offices operated in China during the widespread, anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion. The first office, in Tianjin, opened on September 18, 1900; this letter was mailed the next day.
Loan courtesy Al Kugel
Military Station No. 1 Beijing (Peking) to President William McKinley, 1900
During the Boxer Rebellion, a siege trapped foreigners in part of Beijing. After multi-national forces freed them, an American military post office used this postmark type for about two months.
China Military Postal Service USS Monocacy to Philadelphia, 1901
This piece of registered mail is from a crew member of the USS Monocacy, among the first U.S. naval gunboats on the Yangtze River. Foreign warships patrolled within China to protect foreign interests.
Kiating to Santa Rosa CA cover, China, 1910
American horticulturist Luther Burbank, who produced many plant varieties and hoped to increase the world's food supply, received this registered letter from Kiating, China. Chinese society was still primarily agricultural.