In the realm of stamp collecting, the country offering the most diverse, challenging and stimulating field for the collector is China. Unlike the stamps of most countries, the stamps of China did not emanate from a single national government. For over a century, China was torn by war, revolution and strife. The Stamps of China reflect those turbulent times.
The first postage stamps in China were, in fact, issued by the western nations occupying special concessions, known as 'Treaty Ports', which had been wrested from Imperial China through wars. Although a sophistocated Imperial post already existed in China, the western powers later pressured the aging Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) into adopting a western-style postal system. In 1895 China ceded Taiwan to Japan after losing a war. Chinese insurgents in Taiwan briefly declared a republic and issued stamps. In 1911 Republican rebels in China finally succeeded in overturning the Manchu Qing Dynasty and declared the founding of a republic. The first stamps issued by the new government utilized remaining stocks of Imperial stamps, overprinting them with the words, 'Republic of China' until they could print new stamps. During Worls War II Japan occupied large areas of China and issued occupation stamps through puppet governments. During this period, the Chinese Communist Party established autonomous areas of controland issued their own 'liberated area' stamps. At the end of World War II civil war broke out between Mao Zidong's Communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists. In 1949 the Communists won and declared the founding of the 'Peoples republic of China'. Millions of defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan, declaring the island to be the 'Republic of China'. Because so many different stamps were issued by so many different parties throughout the epoch, collecting the stamps of China can be a lifelong pursuit.
Ebay is an excellent resource for information on the subject of Chinese stamps. American collectors of Chinese stamps generally use the Scott China Catalog as their primary reference source. Collectors in other countries depend upon Michel, Stanley Gibbons, Yang and others. Any of these catalogs can serve the purpose of a good general guide to the subject. Once you actually begin assembling a China collection, it doesn't take long to realize that much of what has happened in the history of Chinese philately either is not covered in sufficient depth or has been ignored altogether by the general catalogs.
Consider, for example, the first set of overprinted geese stamps issued in Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island, The Scott catalog simply lists ROC # 1007-11 and makes a footnote comment that there were two printings of the $1 and $2 stamps and 'minor differences' exist. You are left in the dark as to just what those differences are. As I am writing this, there are several variations of these stamps being offered on Ebay. With Ebay you have the opportunity to actually see scans of the different printings and understand that there is a variety of wide and narrow settings as well as large and small characters set both high and low. Whether you chose to bid on the stamp or not, just being able to view these stamps is invaluable to your growing understanding of the subject.
You may come to the conclusion that you need more in-depth reference materials than the Scott catalog. For example, the person who collects those Chinese stamps issued from Imperial times up until 1949soon learns that the two-volume Stamp Catalogue of China (1878-1949) by Shiu-Hon Chan is absolutely indespensable. Unfortunately Chan publishes updated books infrequently and they are not easy to come by. Often the only place where you can hope to find a copy of Chan's catalog, or many other specific reference books on Chinese Stamps, is through the occasional offering on Ebay.
Surfing the items on Ebay's China Stamp page is an ongoing learning experience. Just this week I encountered an offering for a group of Chinese Post Office issue life insurance stamps. I had never heard of them before. Although I may not choose to begin collecting them, I definitely intend to learn more about the subject.
Collectors of Chinese stamps usually obtain the bulk of their collection by working with local stamp dealers and attending stamp shows in their region. After a while, though, the collector tends to run into a brick wall. The dealers just never seem to have some of the stamps you are looking for. Ebay gives you access to the entire world. Every day new items are offered. I have filled in numerous gaps in my collection from purchases on Ebay.
The same thing applies to short sets. These are a group of stamps, usually depicting a related theme that were originally issued as a set but are missing one or more of the higher face value stamps in the set. A person should avoid buying short sets because it is difficult to fill in the missing key stamps of the set. Even so, for different reasons we find ourselves holding various incomplete sets of stamps. Perhaps we had to purchase a collection from someone else because it had items we wanted. Unfortunately the collection also contains a number of incomplete sets missing one or more key stamps. Our dilemma is that we we usually either have to buy a complete set or make due with a short set. Just by keeeping my eyes open, I have been able to complete a number of short sets from offerings on Ebay.
China probably has more overprinted stamps than any other country. The reasons are legion. There were changes of governemnts, fluctuations of the national currency, issues of provincial currency, regions of China under the control of local warlords, bandits, rebels an the Japanese. As areas of China changed control during those turbulent years, existing stamps often got overprinted then overprinted over the overprints. Most of these overprints are plentiful and reasonably inexpensive. Some are rare and seldom seen. Should you find that rare overprint you have been looking for being offered on Ebay, this is a time to exercise caution. Overprints can be easily faked and, often, only an expert knows what to look for. You need to ask yourself, "Who is offering this stamp?"
Ebay tries hard to regulate its sellers, but there are practical limits to what can be done. The buyer's best protection is to examine the seller's record. Does the seller have a long history with hundreds or even thousands of Ebay sales over a number of years? Does the seller have a very high positive feedback rating? Or is the seller new to Ebay with virtually no track record? It is one thing to consider buying low priced items from a new seller who is trying to establish a reputation. It is another thing entirely if the new seller's first Ebay offering is a super rare overprint with a catalog value of $1,400 and he is offering it on Ebay for an opening bid of, say, $200. You would do well to consider carefully before committing to a bid.
A well-established seller has a hard-earned reputation to protect and is in business for the long haul. His offer to sell should include the promise of an unconditional customer satisfaction buyback. You can buy that itemwith a high level of confidence when you deal with a well-established seller on ebay.
Even the most reputable of Ebay sellers do occasionally make mistakes. Once, a major stamp store on the west coast that frequently sells items on Ebay was offering a rather expensive overprint. I sent them an email asking them about a specific feature, not commonly known, that would confirm the stamp's authenticity. The seller quickly sent me a return email thanking me for the information and informing me the item had been withdrawn from sale. The point being that, if you have specific questions concerning a stamp you are considering purchasing, Ebay provided the means to contact the seller prior to the sale. Dealing with reputable sellers helps guarantee that you are getting what you pay for.
Every day Ebay presents a vast array of Chinese stamps for the potential buyer to view. Your knowledge of the field can expand significantly by watching Ebay and consulting your reference matheials.
Happy Stamp hunting.