Post Office & State Formation in Modern China


A review of The Post Office and State Formation in Modern China, 1896-1949, by Lane Jeremy Harris.

Despite the fact that China can boast one of the world’s longest recorded civilizations, remarkably few institutions have survived the wars, revolutions, rebellions, and political turmoil that have shaped the country in the twentieth century. Diplomats and journalists who are posted to mainland China for the first time often find to their surprise that their counterparts operate in institutions that are no older than the People’s Republic itself, or even younger. Yet there is one institution that has survived the vicissitudes of the Chinese state, to wit, the Post Office of China, which was established in 1896 and was one of the few institutions that remained intact from the Republican Era (1912-49) through the establishment of the PRC (1949-present).

Curiously, the Post Office has not been the subject of any specialized monograph for more than forty years (Cheng Ying-wan, Postal Communication in China and Its Modernization, 1860-1896, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), so the dissertation of Lane Harris, Assistant Professor of History at Furman University, is a most welcome addition to the growing field of studies on statehood, state building, sovereignty, and postal history (for instance, Wayne E. Fuller, Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Using archival material from the Second Historical Archives of China as well as a wealth of printed primary sources, Harris traces the evolution of the Post Office from its modest beginnings as a branch of the Imperial Customs Service, to a fully-fledged communications empire that delivered mail and remittances to every village in the nation. Rather than just telling a straightforward chronological story, Harris ingeniously uses the history of the Post Office as a way to show how the statehood of China made the transition from a political order where sovereignty was vested in the person of the emperor to a modern polity, where the sovereign functions of the state were exercised by a number of impersonal agencies.

The introduction and the first chapter of the dissertation takes a large view of Chinese postal history, situating the topic within the historiography of state-building and “strong institutions” in Republican China (Julia C. Strauss, Strong Institutions in Weak Polities: State Building in Republican China, 1927-1940, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), and tracing the trajectory of the Post Office from a mainly foreign-run enterprise by the late Qing to a professional postal service under the firm control of the Chinese government by 1949. The most striking theme that emerges from this part of the dissertation is the tension that existed between the state-building goals of different Chinese régimes, the warlord satrapies in the provinces, and the islands of foreign privilege that had enabled the establishment of the Post Office in the first place. While the foreign staff of the Post Office managed to cling on to their privileged positions through the early Republican and the Warlord era, they became targets of nationalist propaganda as soon as the new Nationalist Government had established its ostensibly hegemonic position by 1927. Yet, when the Nanking régime was in full retreat under the onslaught of Japanese imperialism in Manchuria only a couple of years later, the Government skillfully used its extraterritorially protected foreign staff, foreign enclaves, and other islands of alien privilege to contain Japanese expansion with a certain degree of success. This made it possible “to maintain postal connections with Manzhouguo from 1935 to 1941 and with the Japanese occupied zones during World War II from 1937 to 1943 (p. 129)”.

The second chapter delivers a fascinating account on how the Post Office set out to assert its monopoly over postal delivery against both foreign postal services operating in China and domestic competitors, such as the ubiquitous Minxinju, private firms that delivered letters in the provinces. This was one of the most enduring themes in the first decades of the Office’s existence, and it was through a combined strategy of co-opting local competitors and monopolizing chains of distribution that the Post Office managed of establish its hegemony.

Chapter 3, aptly entitled “The potentialities of the institution,” discusses how the post office enabled a more interventionist state and extended the reach of the government to realms that had not be touched by public governance before.  To many contemporary Chinese officials, it was not a forgone conclusion that the government should be in charge of delivering both official and private letters, and some Chinese resisted the innovation of the Post Office as it violated the “traditional notion of the proper division between public and private activities” (p. 171). In the fourth chapter, Harris explores the ways in which the Post Office created an information infrastructure and how this resonated with the perennial concern of the Chinese state to monopolize channels of information, a concern that had created the imperial relay system and the palace memorial system during the Qing. In the following chapter, Harris convincingly shows that this new mode of governance also created new ways of “policing the public sphere” by making it possible for the government to controlling public speech by denying postal service to publications that were deemed subversive. Indeed, “[if] the Qing government was too weak to enforce its own censorship regulations, the Post Office was strong enough to enforce registration” (p. 280).

In Chapter 6, the author analyses how the Post Office created a corporate identity and generated additional revenues through a variety of means, which included logotypes, uniforms, stamp sales, advertizing, the publication of Working Reports, the production of standardized atlases, and sometimes subtle manipulation of media. Indeed, many of these initiatives had an enduring legacy, such as the Romanization of Chinese place names used in the Postal Atlas, which lasted well into the 1980s (see also Lane Harris,  “A ‘Lasting Boon to All’: A Note on the Postal Romanization of Place Names, 1896-1949,”  Twentieth Century China 34, no. 1 (2008): 96-109), and the postal green color that was adopted in 1906 and is still in use on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In the final chapter, the author extends the inquiry to the Qiaopiju, the network of private remittance firms that operated in the transnational spaces where overseas Chinese worked and lived under colonial or semi-colonial conditions. Although the Qiaopiju competed with the ambitions of the Post Office to monopolize remittances, it initially opted to work with the Qiaopiju in order to exploit their financial networks and only later elected to squeeze out the remittance firms by removing the middlemen and getting involved directly in overseas remittances.

It is hard to do justice in a few words to a dissertation so rich in detail, archival discoveries, and subtle analytic insights, such as the one under review. Suffice it so say that Lane Harris has succeeded in telling a compelling story about the Post Office and its role in the making of the modern Chinese state, which should be of interest not just to historians of China, but anyone studying questions of sovereignty, statehood, and transnationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Pär Cassel
Associate Professor of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources

Second Historical Archives of China
North China Herald
Reports on the Working of the Chinese Post Office (Shanghai: Directorate General of Posts, 1904-1930)
Reports on the working of the Chinese Post Office Savings Bank (Shanghai: Directorate General of Posts, 1919-1930)
Zhang Zhihe and Hu Zhongyuan, eds. Quanguo geji zhengxie wenshi ziliao: youdian shiliao, 3 vols. (Beijing: yan shan chubanshe, 1995.)

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2012. 537 pp. Primary Advisors: Poshek Fu and Kai-wing Chow.


Image: Postal motorcycle, China c. late 1920s-early 1930s (Lane Jeremy Harris’ Collection)

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