The U.S. Post Office Department twice depicted Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), founding father and first president of the Republic of China, on postage stamps. Politics motivated the American government to issue the stamps. Each design was controversial, but for different reasons. The Post Office Department, Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, Department of State, embassies, presidents, artists, and citizens had strong opinions and, only sometimes, influence.
In 1942, only seven months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the Post Office Department issued the first postage stamp depicting Sun Yat-sen. The commemorative recognized China’s five years resistance against Japanese aggression. A map of China and the sun, the Republic’s national symbol, are in the center of the design. Chinese characters represent the motto “Fight the War and Build the Country.” Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Sun Yat-sen appear with quotes. The inscription under Lincoln is “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” from the Gettysburg address. Under Sun Yat-sen are his Three Principles (nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood), reflecting a concept he linked to Lincoln’s inscription.
The first day of issue took place in Denver, Colorado, on July 7, a date tied to the start of the second Sino-Japanese war and identified on the stamp. Visiting Denver in 1911, Sun Yat-sen received word that the revolution to free China from the Qing Empire had succeeded. He immediately returned to China to help built the new republic.
The Post Office Department considered two designs for the stamp, one with Lincoln and one without. The symbolism—“hands across the sea,” partnership with military ally Republic of China, and two leaders who were emancipators and fighters for freedom— determined the selection. Postal officials consulted with the Chinese embassy for the accuracy of the sun symbol and the Chinese characters or ideographs in the design.
The stamp garnered mixed reviews. The day after issuance, an editorial in The Chicago Sun expressed a call to action, urging Americans to send more planes and American fliers as well as donations to China Relief. Citizens who wrote the postmaster general and Post Office Department complained of the design from the accuracy of the map of China, to not understanding China’s national symbol, to claiming that Lincoln looked Jewish. Most, however, argued that George Washington, another founding father, would have been a better choice than Lincoln.
Almost twenty years later, on the 50th anniversary of China’s revolution, President John Kennedy met with Republic of China (Taiwan) Vice President Chen Cheng, during strained relations between the two countries. At that time, Taiwan represented China for diplomatic relations. Kennedy told the vice president that the United States would honor Sun Yat-sen with a postage stamp. This delighted Cheng and broke the ice for further discussions.
Three years earlier, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee had accepted the recommendation by the State Department and United States Information Agency to honor Sun Yat-sen on a stamp, possibly as part of the Champions of Liberty series. The State Department requested that a stamp not be issued on Sun’s birthday, November 12, because the People’s Republic of China celebrated him on that anniversary. In July 1961, the Department of State expressed appreciation to the Postmaster General J. Edward Day for the contributions that Champions of Liberty stamps had made to the attainment of U.S. foreign policy objectives. Further, the Sun stamp would remind Chinese in Taiwan and on the mainland of the American government’s continuing interest in their welfare.
Norman Todhunter, artist for other U.S. postage stamps, created the stamp’s initial artwork. When the postal officials shared the design with the State Department and Chinese Embassy, demands for changes resulted. For accuracy, the twelve points of the sun symbol should not join the base. The Chinese violently opposed any wording referring to the Chinese revolution because it might be associated with the Communist revolution rather than the Nationalist revolution. As a result, the text at left changed from “50th Anniversary of the Chinese Revolution” to “1911 Anniversary Republic of China 1961.” They also insisted that Chinese characters be used on the stamp. Consequently, the dates at the top moved to the side text, and designers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing added characters representing the Republic of China. Political objectives motivated all these changes with the State Department supporting all embassy requests.
The artist and members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee objected when the State Department and Chinese Embassy requested that a portrait provided by the embassy be used instead of the portrait already in the design. Further, they requested that the collar appear in the style of an early army uniform. Todhunter felt that the embassy portrait lacked the bearing and great culture evident in his original design. He also argued that it was not a good likeness. He felt that the military collar was inappropriate because Sun was not a soldier. The artist drew on overlay tissue to show the changes that he recommended to the lettering, sun, and Sun’s portrait.
After the stamp ceremony at the White House, David Lidman of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee wrote Special Assistant to the Postmaster General James F. Kelleher, and Franklin R. Bruns, Jr., Director of the Division of Philately, to express his concerns. He noted that Todhunter had not been recognized at the ceremony and that the Bureau had ignored Todhunter’s suggestions for design changes. Todhunter had created the original design, but had not been asked to revise it for the second design. That Sun was portrayed in a military collar rather than as a diplomat and leader of his people was disappointing. The procurement order requested a two-color blue printing, but production was only in one color of blue. Finally, in several vital areas of cooperation, from design to production, the Post Office had ignored or lacked communication with the very committee assigned the task of improving stamp designs.
At the first day ceremony, Postmaster General J. Edward Day talked about Sun Yat-sen’s life and time in America, emphasizing Sun’s belief in democracy. For the three principles, Day interpreted people's livelihood (which had changed in meaning over time by Sun) as social welfare, representing individual freedom, national independence, and human dignity. The stamp would be a reminder worldwide of China’s struggle for freedom.
Having recently experienced McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s, Cold War Americans harbored strong anti-Communist feelings, and the stamp sent shockwaves across the nation. Even though the postmaster’s speech at the first day ceremony emphasized the similarities of Sun’s and America’s ideals, citizens vehemently objected to a stamp honoring Sun. The letters frequently mentioned that Sun’s wife, Madame Sun (Soong Ching-ling), was an active member of the Communist regime. Several asked if Khrushchev or Castro would appear on stamps in the future.
The Post Office Department created a form letter response to the complaints, using language from the State Department and citing that issuing the stamp was a gesture of friendship toward free China. It argued that Sun Yat-sen’s reputation transcended politics and that Sun symbolized freedom and democracy. The post office enclosed a copy of the Postmaster General Day’s speech with each letter. In 1961, the postmaster general was still a member of the president’s Cabinet. There can be no doubt that his speech about a postage stamp was a lesson in understanding diplomatic needs of the country’s foreign policy. A decade later, President Richard M. Nixon traveled to the People’s Republic of China to meet with Mao Zedong, initiating the normalization of diplomatic relations with Communist China.
Marie-Claire Bergère and translator Janet Lloyd, Sun Yat-sen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).
Third Assistant Postmaster General Stamp Design Files 906 and 1188, Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Washington, D.C.
About the Author
Cheryl R. Ganz, Ph.D., is an internationally known philatelic expert, author, exhibitor and researcher specializing in aerophilately and zeppelin mail. She joined the staff of the National Postal Museum after earning a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago and became chief curator of philately in February 2008. Ganz has curated an impressive array of exhibitions and brought the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery to life.