Daks, couriers, and tallies: the ancient Chinese postal system

I just took a trip to China, and I had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring Shanghai and some surrounding towns.   In Zhujiajiao, a small water-town about an hour and half outside of Shanghai, there was an old post office that had been turned into a museum.

Letter box outside the Daqing Post Office Museum
Letter box outside the Daqing Post Office Museum.

Though I don’t have a strong interest in post offices or stamp collecting, I sat next to a philatelist in a writing class last year, and his enthusiasm was catching.  Through our small conversations and his writing, he told me a lot about the study of stamps – he even brought in some of his collection for me to look through. Furthermore, in an odd coincidence, I was reading a novel during my trip that centered around the Penny Black.  So to the museum I went.

The museum was tucked into a tiny street somewhat off the beaten path. While navigating our way there, we wandered past houses, tiny shops, and chirping birds in cages that hung from doorways. Near the end of the narrow pedestrian street stood an old brick building: The Daqing Post Office.  The post office was founded in the late 1800s under the reign of Emperor Tongzhi during the Qing Dynasty and was one of the 13 official post offices of the Shanghai region.

Development of a Postal System

Though the building itself dates from the 1800s, the museum it now houses documents a much richer history. Not surprisingly, China was one of the first countries to have a postal service system – starting early in the Zhou dynasty (1111-255 BC).

Three thousand years of postal history.

Fish-shaped envelopes (right) and letters written on pieces of wood (bottom left). Qin dynasty.
Fish-shaped envelopes (right) and letters written on pieces of wood (bottom left). Qin dynasty.

In the beginning the postal service was used for official documents only, primarily military in nature. A system of daks, or stations, was developed to aid in transferring the messages.  All messages were transferred by couriers, who would travel from dak to dak. Upon arrival at a dak, the first courier would hand off the message to a new courier who would begin the next leg of the journey, and so on.

In the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC), small kingdoms were brought under unification and a nation-wide postal system was developed. Though the period of peace and unification did not last long, the postal system components remained in use regionally and could be easily be brought back together during a new peacetime.

In the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the postal system reached the Roman Empire via the silk road, demonstrating its vast network. The postal system continued to expand and develop, with couriers traveling by land and water to reach their destinations.

Express Mail

Express tallies signifying rate of delivery
Express tallies signifying rate of delivery.

Flash forward several centuries to the prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907), and the postal system was flourishing along with country itself.  There were more than 1600 daks at this time. Couriers had set schedules and efficiency increased. Under the Sung dynasty (960 – 1270), ‘express’ mail was created, primarily in response to the frequent wars and invaders on the north and west borders. Mail was ranked using three categories called tallies:  gold, silver, and copper depending on the urgency. Mail with a gold tally should be sent at 250 km per day, silver at 200 km per day, and copper at 150 km per day.

By the time the Yuan dynasty rolled around in the late 13th century, the mail system was so vast that Marco Polo was compelled to comment on its scale and efficiency.

During the majority of the postal system’s history, the mail was used for official government communication and military use. It wasn’t until the 15th century that private post offices appeared, and traders began to use the private post as a way to communicate and make payments.

Modernizing

In the late 1800s the system began to be influenced by those in Western countries. The government issued its first stamp in 1876, the great dragon stamp. By the time of the 1911 revolution, the Chinese government closed all daks to make way for more modern and efficient means, and had brought the majority of the private post companies under control of the government.

In 1949, a Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications was established, and it reorganized the system into what is known today as the China Post. The modernization allowed for even broader reach into the rural towns and areas that had been largely ignored by the postal system in past centuries.In a matter of decades, the  postal system that had been a part of China for thousands of years was ended.

A museum plaque noted that  Confucius once said the spread of virtue is even faster than the delivery of messages.

Would the same thing be said today with the advent of email and other technologies?  As these technologies begin to eclipse the need for a postal system – I wonder if, in a decade or two, we’ll see another section added to this museum acknowledging the end of China Post, and perhaps even explaining the importance of a stamp.

Sheet of Great Dragon stamps, the first Chinese stamps
Sheet of Great Dragon stamps, the first Chinese stamps.

Notes

All photos taken by Meg Doherty at the Daqing Post Office Museum. 

For this post, I used information provided by the museum and also the Encyclopaedia Britannica for additional details. Some dates and spellings differed. When in doubt, I went with the museum’s version. 

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