By Huo Jianying, China Today Staff Writer
In August 1982, the First Congress of the All-China Philatelic Federation convened in Beijing, and the Chinese Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a stamp sheetlet in commemoration. The stamp motif depicts an ancient courier galloping on horseback, while in the background wild geese fly in graceful formation. Wild geese are migratory birds, and every autumn they can be counted on to set off on their thousand-kilometer migration southward to warmer climes. With no better means of communication, ancient Chinese who wished to send messages over great distances took advantage of the birds' north-south odyssey by attaching tiny scrolls to their feet. The phrase, “hongyan chuan shu” (wild geese deliver messages), has survived the millennia to become one of the oldest idioms in the modern Chinese language. By Huo Jianying, China Today Staff Writer
In August 1982, the First Congress of the All-China Philatelic Federation convened in Beijing, and the Chinese Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a stamp sheetlet in commemoration. The stamp motif depicts an ancient courier galloping on horseback, while in the background wild geese fly in graceful formation. Wild geese are migratory birds, and every autumn they can be counted on to set off on their thousand-kilometer migration southward to warmer climes. With no better means of communication, ancient Chinese who wished to send messages over great distances took advantage of the birds' north-south odyssey by attaching tiny scrolls to their feet. The phrase, “hongyan chuan shu” (wild geese deliver messages), has survived the millennia to become one of the oldest idioms in the modern Chinese language.
The Wild Goose as Messenger
The earliest record of “hongyan chuan shu” can be found in Chronicles of the Han Dynasty: The Biography of Su Wu. It reports that during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), Su Wu traveled to Xiongnu (Hun) as a Han imperial envoy to the Western Regions, but was detained along the way by the Xiongnu khan and exiled to Beihai to herd sheep.
When Han Emperor Zhaodi succeeded to the throne, he tried to maintain good relations with Xiongnu, and again sent an envoy to ask for Su Wu's return. He was told, however, that Su had died. Only later did the envoy learn the truth from a member of Su Wu's entourage. He confronted the Xiongnu khan, and using a ruse of his own, claimed that the Han emperor had caught a wild goose on whose leg was attached a letter from Su Wu, informing him that he was herding sheep near a wetland. Believing his lie to be exposed, the khan apologized to the envoy and released Su Wu.
Su Wu's story may have been no more than a legend, but an actual, documented instance of a wild goose serving as a courier dates back to 1274, when a Mongol envoy during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), Hao Jing, did exactly that. When the powerful Mongol cavalry swept across its northern territory and pushed toward the Yangtze River, the Southern Song Prime Minister Jia Sidao pledged obedience to Kublai Khan and offered annual tribute in return for peace. Kublai Khan agreed and withdrew his troops, sending Hao Jing to the Southern Song to negotiate a formal peace agreement.
Upon returning home, Jia Sidao bragged of his “heroic leadership” in “defeating” the Mongol army, mentioning nothing of a peace deal. When Hao Jing arrived at Zhenzhou (now Yizheng, Jiangsu), he first contacted Jia Sidao, who detained the Mongol envoy immediately fearing the truth would be revealed.
Hao Jing was imprisoned in Zhenzhou for 16 years. He wrote a letter to the Song emperor every month, begging for a meeting, but all were intercepted by Jia Sidao. Finally, Hao raised and trained a wild goose and wrote a letter on a piece of silk, which he attached to the goose's leg. He reported his situation, and at the end of the letter, he wrote: “This bird was let go on the first day of the ninth moon in the 15th year of the Zhongtong Reign (1274). Anyone who catches it should not kill it. The letter is written by Imperial Envoy Hao Jing in the New Hall of the Zhenzhou Loyal and Gallant Army Barrack.”
Hao Jing released the bird in the autumn, and the next spring the Mongols received the letter and presented it to Kublai Khan, who immediately dispatched his troops to attack the Southern Song. When the Mongol troops approached the Southern Song capital Lin'an (today's Hangzhou), Jia Sidao's lie was exposed. Hao Jing was released and returned to the Yuan capital Dadu (now Beijing). His 16-year imprisonment had ruined his health, however, and he died soon after at the age of 53. But he had written many letters to the Song imperial court during his long captivity, amounting by some estimates to hundreds of thousands of characters, in addition to hundreds of volumes of articles, poems and reading annotations. In 1279, the Yuan Dynasty overthrew the Southern Song and united China. Hao Jing's “wild goose letter” was later preserved in the Yuan imperial archive.
Messenger “Fish” and Birds
A souvenir stamp sheetlet issued in November 1990 for the Third All-China Philatelic Federation Congress takes the ancient Gusu (present-day Suzhou) Post as its motif, and its background sheet is printed with the ancient character “yu,” or “fish.” The prototype of this pictograph is actually a sketch of fish, and its use on a commemorative stamp recalls another post-related Chinese idiom, “yu chuan chisu,” or “Fish delivers foot-long plain silk.”
Apart from bamboo and wooden slips, the ancient Chinese also wrote letters on strips of plain silk. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a silk letter measured about a Chinese foot in length, and a letter was therefore called “chisu,” or “foot-long plain silk.” To deliver it, a “chisu” letter was usually tied into the shape of double fish, hence the term “yu chuan chisu.” Moreover, the “envelope” for a “chisu” was fashioned out of a pair of wooden plates cut into the shape of a fish.
Before paper was invented, letters written on bamboo, wooden slips or silk would be sandwiched between these two fish-shaped pieces, whose outer surfaces would be carved with grooves to accommodate the cord that bound them together. Many ancient poems include such terms as “fish letter,” “fish silk” and “double carp,” which allude to this early postal service.
In October 1998, China Post issued a set of four postcards to celebrate the 22nd Universal Postal Union Congress in Beijing. Three of the postcards depict a flying bird, in acknowledgment of the ancient idiom “qingniao chuan shu,” or “A bluebird delivers a message” – a far older myth than the stories of wild geese and fish.
Chinese mythology has it that the Queen Mother of the West had three bluebirds as her messengers. Wherever she went, one of the birds would fly across the mountains and rivers to deliver her missives. Consequently, the ancient Chinese worshipped bluebirds as messengers of auspiciousness. In later mythology, bluebirds evolved into the “Queen of Birds” – the mythical phoenix, which rises intact from the ashes of its own destruction.
From Beacons to Mounted Estafette
The souvenir stamp sheetlet issued in 1994 for the Fourth All-China Philatelic Federation Congress features the remains of the Han Dynasty Kizil Beacon Tower in Xinjiang's Kuqa County. The tower was built 2,000 years ago during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), and its remains are about 15 meters tall.
In ancient times, beacons were built at regular intervals in frontier areas. During the night, fires would be lit to pass messages along the route, and during the day smoke took over the function. Dried wolf excrement was the best material for generating thick smoke, therefore a beacon was also known colloquially as a “wolf smoke tower.” It was an essential installation during the construction of the Great Wall.
Beacons were first adopted as a means of communication for military purposes 3,000 years ago, around the turn of the Shang (c. 1600-1046 BC) and Zhou (c.11th century to 476 BC) dynasties, and they remained in use for more than 2,000 years. The Han Dynasty built more beacon towers than any other dynasty.
Beginning in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 BC), chariots and horses were employed to enrich the beacon communication system, and the ancient mounted postal system came into being. After Emperor Qinshihuang united China in 221 BC, he built many postal roads and stations and expanded the system into an established institution.
The mounted estafette shown on the stamp sheetlet for the First All-China Philatelic Federation Congress is modeled after an estafette, or military relay courier, as depicted on a brick picture found in a tomb from the Wei (Kingdom)-Jin (Dynasty) Period (220-420) in the Gobi Desert, in Gansu's Jiayuguan City. There are hundreds of ancient tombs in the desert, and eight of them were excavated in 1972. More than 600 murals and pictures were discovered on the walls and bricks in six of the tombs, usually with one picture per brick. The estafette was on one of them.
In early times, an estafette only delivered military and official communications, never private correspondence. Before the Han Dynasty, an estafette traveled mostly by chariot or boat, and later horses were used as a more efficient and economical means. During the Han Dynasty, a post station was set up every 15 kilometers to furnish relays. According to historical records, an estafette could travel as much as 200 kilometers a day, and one who bore a red and white envelope indicated he was carrying an “emergency delivery.”
Every dynasty had its own rule for its postal services, and each set post stations at regular intervals along the country's main roads. The posts were administered by the military forces of their locality, and they provided accommodation, replenishment and post-horses – or chariots and boats, if needed – for estafettes and traveling officials. Apart from a post manager, they had couriers to replace exhausted estafettes, as well as post corvees to provide needed services.
The Han Dynasty built post stations along the roads from the capital to all its vassal states, and the Gusu Post depicted on the 1990 souvenir stamp sheetlet was one of them. During the Tang Dynasty, there were more than 1,600 post stations, including terrestrial and riverine, as well as combinations of the two, that employed more than 20,000 servicemen.
In 1995, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a set of two “Ancient Post Stations” stamps. One of them, the Yucheng Post Town in Jiangsu's Gaoyou County, was a land-water post built in 1375, in the early Ming Dynasty. More than 80 post buildings spread over an area of 1.4 hectares have survived to this day.
The second, the Jiming Mountain Post in Hebei's Huailai County, was set up in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and developed into a 20-hectare post town, equipped with such facilities as a post administrator's office, hotels, barns for grain and stables for post-horses, and pastures. The Jiming Mountain Post Town is the best preserved of its kind in China.
The Second All-China Philatelic Federation Congress stamp sheetlet features a tiger tally, a credential carried by an ancient estafette. The origin of the tiger tally is not known, but it was widely used during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). A tiger tally was composed of two halves, made of gold, jade, bronze, bamboo or wood, in various shapes, mostly of a tiger. They were issued by the imperial court (or a commander) to an officer dispatched on a mission. One half of the tally was kept by the issuer, and the other half by the dispatched officer. The messenger of either side had to match his half tally with its counterpart to ensure secure communications.
Several such tallies from the Warring States Period have been unearthed, including a bronze dragon tally. The nine characters carved on the tally ordered that post stations should provide food and lodging to the bearer of the tally. A pair of round tallies have also been unearthed from Western Xia ruins.
The 2000 Fifth All-China Philatelic Federation Congress souvenir stamp sheetlet shows a Qing Dynasty postal service record sheet, which was attached to each official piece of mail. The sheet detailed the type, amount and date of the mail, and relay posts along the way were required to fill in related information, such as when the mail arrived at a given post.
The stamp sheetlet issued in 1996 for the centenary of modern China's postal service contains the first eight stamps issued by the Qing Post Bureau on February 2, 1897. The background margin shows two lines from a government paper requesting imperial approval for the establishment of a postal service. On March 20, 1896, Emperor Guangxu gave his imperial approval, marking the birth of the modern postal service in China.
Reprinted with permission from China Today (http://www.chinatoday.com.cn)