Commerce: The Qing Dynasty
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which owned City of Peking, launched the first U.S.-China commercial mail route in the Pacific.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.