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Chinese Die Proofs

by Sanghmitra Kundu

Volume 7, Issue 1
January–March 1998

The National Postal Museum houses several impressive international collections, including a remarkable early Chinese die proof collection. The stamps were donated in 1963 by Robert Hopkins. Hopkins was the son in-law of William A Grant, one of two Americans responsible for establishing the Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing. This unique and fascinating collection includes die proofs, engraver's models, ink drawings and essays from 1912 to 1928. 

In 1908, the Imperial Chinese government sent a representative, Chen Chin Tao, to the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany to investigate stamp production styles and to determine which method was least susceptible to counterfeiting. The Chinese government decided that United States' manufacturing technique was most suitable for its purposes. 

The Imperial government asked two Americans, Lorenzo J. Hatch and William A. Grant, to establish a Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Hatch was a renowned artist and engraver whose experience included more than 15 years at the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Hatch had also spent a number of years working at both the Western Banknote Company of Chicago and the International Bank Note Company. After overcoming some initial reluctance, Lorenzo Hatch signed a six-year contract with the Chinese government. 

William A. Grant, an engraver and designer, was an expert in creating the lettering, script, vignettes, geometrical lathe work, scrolls and cycloid twirls that filled bank note and stamp backgrounds. A particularly skilled engraver, Grant specialized in detail engraving which helped make bank notes and stamps difficult to counterfeit. Grant was in charge of the engraving room at the American Bank Note Company when he agreed to accompany Hatch to China. 

Hatch and Grant established the Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1909. They were responsible for the design and production of all the early Chinese Republic issues. The production of the first stamps of the Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing was very much a collaborative effort. While Lorenzo Hatch was primarily responsible for the design of the stamp and prepared most of the vignettes, William Grant applied his special skills to reducing the frame and scrollwork, as well doing the lettering and much of the actual engraving. 

Lorenzo Hatch designed most of China's paper money from 1908 to his death in 1914. Grant served as the technical advisor to the Chinese Bureau of Engraving and Printing until his retirement in 1928. During this time, Grant had as many as 300 trainees working under him at one time, all learning the art of steel engraving and printing. Grant also worked as a stamp authenticator while serving as a consultant to the Chinese Postal Service. 

The first issues of the new Chinese Republic ran into a few problems. The original design for the first commemorative issue of 1912 displayed a map of China bearing the inscription, "The Republic of China" in English and Chinese. After the design had been approved, the stamps printed and made ready for distribution, President Yuan Shih-kai ordered the stamps destroyed. The original issue depicting the map was burned, but some stamps survived the fire. Three partially burned stamps of the original map issue were part of Grant's collection and are now in the museum. 

In their place, President Yuan Shih-kai demanded the creation of a commemorative design baring his portrait and the legend, "In Commemoration of the Republic." The president also requested a second stamp design. That issue featured a portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen with the inscription, "In Commemoration of the Revolution." Dr. Sun Yat-sen, considered the leader of the first Chinese Revolution, and the provisional President of China, had voluntarily yielded the office to his successor, Yuan Shih-kai. 

The issuing of the first definitive stamps of the republic had their own problems. Three designs were approved for the Republic's first definitive stamp issues. This series of three stamps embodied the hopes of the budding republic for progress, prosperity, and advances in education. Each stamp design used traditional Chinese motifs to express a theme. The central designs depict a three-masted Chinese Junk (the Junk issue), a Chinese farmer harvesting a field in front of the Temple of Heaven (the Reaper issue), and the Hall of Classics in Peking. 

In the Junk issue, a train is shown crossing a bridge in the background of the Junk to represent transportation and communication progress. Stalks of rice forming part of the columns that flank the reaper symbolize agricultural richness in the Reaper issue. The Hall of Classics issue exemplifies the rich heritage of Chinese education and literature. 

Hatch and Grant created the stamp designs and produced the printing plates. However, the printing was not done in China. According to Robert Hopkins, political troubles in China led post office officials to award the printing order to Waterlow and Sons, Ltd., a London company. In London, the stamps from the prints taken from Grant's dies were re-engraved for the first printing. The issues were reprinted in Peking in 1915 and 1923. Grant made new, re-cut dies that were used in the 1915 printing. In 1919, the post office decided to use Grant's original design and dies. 

The differences between the three printings is subtle, yet easy to distinguish. For example, in the London printing of the Junk issue, the lines in the water are weak except directly under the Junk. In the first Peking printing, the vertical shading lines under the top panel and the inner vertical frame line are very heavy. The water and sails of the Junk are evenly and strongly colored. In the second Peking printing, most of the whitecaps in front of the Junk were removed and the water is a darker shade. In addition, the shading lines were removed from the arabesques and pearls above the tip inscription and the inner shadings at the top and sides of the picture were cut away. 

Of all his works on stamps, Grant was especially proud of his designs for, and engravings of, the Chinese airmail stamps. The stamp design shows a Curtiss "Jenny" airplane flying over the Great Wall of China. The Bars of the Republic flag can be seen on its tail. The essay samples in the collection show that the original design depicted a smaller plane from a different angle, head-on. Also in Grant's collection are five airmail stamps, ranging in denomination from 15-cents to 90-cents. They are proof impressions of the special cachet used at Peking on July 1, 1921 to cancel mail matter on the first airmail flight between Peking, Tsinan and Shanghai. 

The National Postal Museum's Chinese die proof collection is more than just the only existing physical record of this notable period of Chinese history. It is a testament to the extraordinary talent and work of two remarkable printing artists.