Nicolas Sarkozy revealed last week that he's a stamp collector. Nestled amid the bemused coverage of the news was a surprising statistic: There are approximately 50 million philatelists in the world, and a full third of them reside in China. Sarkozy claims that philately soothes his nerves. What's the appeal for the Chinese?
It's a status symbol. Stamp collecting became popular in the United States during the Great Depression—in part because it's a cheap diversion and also because President Franklin Roosevelt, an ardent philatelist, encouraged the hobby. Although many Americans indulge in the pastime to this day, the image it brings to mind of nerdy schoolchildren has made the practice less modish both here and in the United Kingdom. The Chinese, however, don't harbor such negative feelings about stamp collecting. On the contrary, the hobby is a sign of middle-class status and an indication of a respectable, scholarly disposition.
There's also some dirigisme at work. Starting in 2000, the Chinese government made it an official policy to foster stamp collecting among youngsters—by encouraging elementary and high-school teachers to organize clubs—as a way to foster interest in national history. As in other countries, Chinese postage stamps often bear the image of local heroes or historic events—there are stamps commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Long March, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the republic, and the 50th anniversary of the victory of the War of Resistance Against Japan. The country currently has almost 50,000 philately associations, and universities in Fujian and Jiangxi offer elective courses in stamp collecting.
The sheer size of the Chinese population also goes a ways to explain its large representation in the international philatelist community. As of July 2008, the Chinese population stood at about 1.3 billion, or approximately 20 percent of the total world population. So it's not that surprising that one out of three philatelists would be Chinese. It's also possible that the figure for stamp collectors around the globe undercounts participation by non-Chinese, since it's based on membership in associations. Maybe there are lots of closet American or European philatelists out there, furiously philateling in the privacy of their own homes. Stamp collectors might be more likely to join clubs in China, where there's no stigma attached to the habit.
China's stamp market is primarily local: Like other philatelists, Chinese collectors typically start out by stockpiling stamps from their own region and then develop pet interests in particular foreign countries or time periods. Early stamps from the first stamp-issuing countries, including Great Britain and Switzerland, are quite popular as well.
The Qing Dynasty didn't start issuing its own stamps until 1878—on copper plates depicting a dragon against a clouds-and-waves backdrop—although Western stamps were available by the end of the 1839-1842 Opium War. It was Sir Rowland Hill of Great Britain who first came up with the prepaid stamp concept in 1837 and spearheaded the development of the Penny Black—the world's first stamp—in 1840. Before that point, the person receiving a letter was responsible for payment.
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Explainer thanks Geoff Anandappa of Stanley Gibbons.