The most politically explosive stamp in the world

Stamp collecting is a sedate and scholarly world. 

Isn’t it? 

It can be. 

But stamps are political. 

They’re about nations, national identity, borders, language, symbols.  

They touch on the most combustible areas of world affairs. 

And sometimes they themselves become combustible. 

Pretty much all stamps meet the definition of propaganda. Soft power if we want to be polite. 

One stamp more than any other - with an error that carried massive significance - tells us about a conflict that might shape all of our futures. 

Its accidental message was so explosive, it was immediately removed, destroyed as far as possible, and became one of the rarest stamps in its country's history.

It’s: The Whole Country is Red, a People’s Republic of China issue from 1968. 

It’s got a very nicely typical illustration for the period. 

The Whole Country is Red
One of the most famous mistakes in stamp design history.

 

A worker and a soldier lead the way as the Chinese people march - metaphorically - forward. In their hands are small, or rather little red books. 

Behind them, a map of their homeland. 

It’s a very fine example of the sort of political propaganda that was being produced in China at the time. 

Unite for Greater Victory by Yan YongshengThis is Unite for Greater Victory from 1974 by the artist Yan Yongsheng. The figure of the nurse and soldier are very close to those in the stamp. 

 

And it caused a major uproar. 

The uproar is over the map. 

Because the whole country isn’t red. 

An island off the south coast of China is outlined in red but coloured in white. 

That’s Taiwan. 

And that’s why the stamp was withdrawn within half a day of its issue, why almost all stocks were destroyed and why the artist who designed it has said he feared he might be arrested. 

Let’s see why. 

When was The Whole Country is Red Issued? 

This stamp came out on November 24, 1968. 

If you’re a student of history you’ll recognise 1968 as a year that was famously turbulent around the world.

In Paris, students and striking workers came close to overthrowing the government.

In London, a massive demonstration against the war in Vietnam outside the US Embassy was labelled The Battle of Grosvenor Square. 

In the US, Doctor Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy (the slain JFK’s younger brother) also fell to a murderer’s bullet. 

And in China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (or to outsiders The Cultural Revolution) was at its height. 

Launched in 1966, it was an attempt - in the view of those who led it - to revitalise and defend the Chinese Revolution. 

Critics say it was an attempt by Chairman Mao, the country's founding father, to force his way back to the centre of power. 
China 1967-68 Poem's of Mao Tse-tung set of 14, SG2372/85

Mao the poet is celebrated in these 1967 stamps, but was it Mao the ruthless political operator who forged the Cultural Revolution? 

It was chaotic and at times very violent. 

There were purges, riots, denunciations, even massacres. It may be best understood as something like a low-scale civil war involving rival factions within the Communist Party of China.  

Its meaning and significance are still being discussed today. 

And they still affect us now.

Not least, because among those caught up in events was China’s current leader Xi Jingping.

His family was purged from the Communist Party of China and he ended up spending a long period working in the countryside. 

It's said to have been a formative period for him. 

The cultural revolution produced a mass of propaganda. 

A lot of it looking like this stamp. 

Red, the colour of communist revolutions, and large groups of people, often with archetypal workers of various types leading the way. 

This image doesn’t feature Mao, as many such images did, but he’s there in the shape of his book. 

China 1968 PRC General Issues Directives of Mao Tse-tung, SG2397aThere's no doubting who the star of this stamp is, and it's typical of Cultural Revolution-era PRC issues. 

 

Known informally as the Little Red Book it is Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, a short collection of the Chinese leader’s words on a variety of topics. 

The stamp was designed by Wan Wei Sheng, one of China’s most celebrated stamp designers. 

What’s the big problem with the image? 

The problem is Taiwan. 

Taiwan is not red. 

How can that matter? 

Taiwan's a different country isn't it? 

Is it?

Not to the government of the People's Republic of China it isn't. 

And not to many Taiwanese politicians either. 

Here isn’t the place for a detailed history of China and Taiwan. 

The short version is:

The Communist Party of China became the government of China after a long civil war against a nationalist party called the KMT (Kuomintang).

As they were defeated, the remnants of the KMT’s military fled mainland China and seized the island of Taiwan. 

From there they intended to reinvade the mainland. 

That never happened. But the KMT considered and still considers itself, in the shape of the Republic of China, to be the legitimate government of all of China in exile. 

The PRC considers Taiwan to be a rebellious province temporarily occupied by a rebel army that awaits reunification. 

The East is Red still"Down with Chiang Kai-shek liberate the whole of China!" The final scenes of the 1965 propaganda epic The East is Red focus on the KMT, who fled to Taiwan under their leader. 

 

How this contradiction is resolved. Or not. Could have a major effect on world peace. Especially as America may take a view on the matter. 

For a long time, the US recognised the Republic of China. That switched after President Richard Nixon’s visit to the PRC in 1972, which eventually led to full diplomatic relations being established between the PRC and the USA. 

However, the question of Taiwan has remained touchy. 

A stamp like the Whole Country is Red would cause a major storm today. 

The stamp error 

Wan Weisheng was commissioned to produce a series of stamps during the Cultural Revoultion. 

This one lasted less than half a day. 

A member of staff at the China Cartographic Publishing House bought one and saw Taiwan. 

He made a call. 

Apparently just six were sold. 

The rest were withdrawn and their destruction ordered. Some other cartographic errors were cited. 

But issuing stamps in China involves huge numbers. 

There’s no doubt that more survived the cull order. 

Nevertheless, they are extremely rare, and have been sold for very high prices at auction. 

In 2009 one made £290,000 at a Hong Kong sale. 

In 2010 £60,300 was paid for one. 

In 2014, a buyer in Germany shelled out $57,000. 

And in 2014 another was sold for $445,000, again in Hong Kong. 

The withdrawn stamp is matched by a large format version that was never issued. 

Large format The Whole Country is Red
The large format version of the stamp was never issued. It's now the most expensive and sought-after PRC rarity. 

 

Around 10 of these are thought to exist. 

One sold for $652,542 in 2014. 

And, the stamp held the price record for a single Chinese stamp from its sale for $1.1m in Beijing in 2012.

The designer 

Although western media love to include Wan Weisheng’s reported fear of arrest they rarely include the rest of the quote. "Officials told me that it was a really big mistake, but in the end nothing happened."

He went on to enjoy a long and successful career as one of China’s top stamp designers.  

He’s credited with designing “150 editions of 40 popular stamps, postcards, first-day covers and souvenir sheets,” according to a People’s Daily profile. 

He designed stamps for the 2008 Olympics. And his stamps have even gone into space on board the Shenzhou V, the PRC’s first manned spacecraft. 

His personal favourites are sets from 1957 showing children, a 1979 Great Wall set and a design with swans from 1983. 

"Stamps connect the artist with people around the world and are an art form that influence the public sphere," according to the designer, who was 79 at the time of the 2012 interview.  

He was enjoying a retrospective show in Beijing, taking the opportunity to criticise a recent dragon design stamp as too aggressive looking.

He may be the only stamp designer in the world to have a gallery dedicated entirely to his work. 

If you’re a China collector you should surely seek some out. 

And if you find his most famous, and most famously wrong piece of work, you’d better grab it fast. 

But check you're not being flogged a forgery first.

The Cultural Revolution is a highly collectible period, and a flood of Chinese money into the market this century has tempted in some bad-faith actors. 

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