An Issue of Authority: Robert Hart, Gustav Detring and the Large Dragon Stamp

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited or keynote talk at national or international conference


When the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs opened a limited daily postal service to the general public in 1878, it issued the first postage stamps produced by the Chinese government. As well as a means of payment, these postage stamps were visual and tangible representations of the issuing authority. Not previously considered in detail by historians, the first Customs Post issue precipitated a struggle for control among the foreign officials of the Maritime Customs which arose from significant disagreements over both communications and globalisation in China. Robert Hart and James Campbell sought to use the new postal service to situate China within Western-dominated global norms of governance and administration, while Gustav Detring’s focus was on expansion of Chinese communication networks. These conflicting objectives spilled into disagreements over the design of the first stamp, which were eventually resolved by the Large Dragons. The stamp dispute initiated deep divisions over authority within the Maritime Customs as Detring’s relationship with Hart deteriorated, and Detring’s role as Li Hongzhang’s advisor expanded. The episode also illustrates the diverse and sometimes contradictory approaches to Chinese reform among Westerners in the late Qing, and their complex alignments with Chinese authorities and Western interests.
Period04 Aug 2018
Event titleThe Large Dragon Stamp and the Customs Post of the Qing dynasty: International conference
Event typeConference
LocationBeijing, ChinaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational