HomeAsian AmericansThe evolution of the Lunar New Year Stamp: from 1992 to 2024

The evolution of the Lunar New Year Stamp: from 1992 to 2024

By Fan Chen

Lunar New Year is only about two weeks away, and the joy is already floating in the air: gift shops full of red envelopes and hanging ornaments, lanterns lit up for the bustling streets, and numerous doors decorated by couplets and the character “fu”(福) upside down.

Among all the festive things is the Lunar New Year stamp. Issued by the U.S. Postal Service, the Year of the Dragon stamp goes on sale today, January 25, with 22 million circulation. It will be the fifth in the current and the third series of the Lunar New Year commemorative stamp program.

The commemorative series has lasted two decades since its 1992 debut, during a time when Asian immigrant communities also greatly diversified. Changes in the stamp design reflect such a trend over time, shifting from a dominant focus on Chinese traditions to more inclusive, pan-Asian customs with more symbolic elements.

“For symbolism of a particular culture to be depicted on the nation postage stamp is a sign that that culture has arrived,” said Daniel Piazza, chief curator of the National Postal Museum. “That they become part of the American fabric, part of American life.”

The First Issue: 1992-2004

The idea of advocating for a Lunar New Year stamp originated in the late 1980s from Jean Chen, a Georgia Chapter member of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA). Chen was reading to children at a library about the history of the transcontinental railroad and was shocked to discover that no Chinese people were included in a photo of workers celebrating the completion of the railroad in 1869.

She felt the need to recognize the long-neglected Asian contribution to the country, and one way was to urge the Postal Service to issue a stamp to honor the Chinese American community. The proposal soon gained nationwide support. As 1992 neared, requests from Congress also rose, as the congressional and presidential election year approached and stamps could appeal to specific voter groups.

Upon the very first issuance of the Year of the Rooster stamp in 1992, it immediately became such a hit that the Postal Service decided to extend it to a twelve-year series.

Designed by Hawaii artist Clarence Lee, the series featured the 12 zodiac animals in a traditional, rainbow-colored Chinese paper-cut design silhouetted against red, blue, turquoise, and purple backgrounds. On each stamp, a professional calligrapher wrote the name of the year in Kanji characters, a Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters that various Asian people could understand.

About 105 million Year of the Rooster stamps were printed. The Doyer Street post office in New York City’s Chinatown sold a total of 80,000 stamps, 16 times the station’s normal order for commemorative ones, according to Linn’s Stamp News.

The Second Issue: 2008-2019

In 2008, artist Kam Mak transformed the exuberant, modern, and symbolic design of the first series into a hyper-realistic, detailed, and nostalgic collection.

Growing up in New York Chinatown, Mak looked back at his childhood memories and sought inspiration from common, festive objects that represented traditional ways to celebrate the festival. In saturated color and delicate brushstroke, he oil-painted red lanterns, red envelopes, firecrackers, peach blossoms, and lucky bamboo.

“For me, Chinese New Year is just not about the zodiac,” Mak said in an interview with the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). “It’s about all the other things, the fireworks, lanterns, the paper.”

To acknowledge the zodiac, Clarence Lee’s paper-cut animals of the first stamp issuance were reproduced in gold on the upper left corner of each stamp.

Each stamp’s popularity was also related to its denomination where certain numbers are believed to be more auspicious in Chinese culture, chief curator of the National Postal Museum Daniel Piazza said.

Interestingly, the last denominated stamp was the 2010 issue painted with narcissus flowers on a yellow backdrop, priced at 44 cents. Number 4 is often considered unlucky as its pronunciation resembles the word death in Chinese. All issuances after have become forever stamped.

The third series: 2020-Present

(Image provided by the U.S. Postal Service and Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

In 2020, the Lunar New Year stamp returned to zodiac animals with a more intricate and symbolic three-dimensional look.

Designed by Camille Chew, an illustrator based in Rhode Island, the Dragon stamp features a yellow dragon with red eyes and nose, green whiskers, purple eyebrows, and a pair of turquoise pendants hanging from green ears. The inspiration comes from the masks used in the dragon or lion dances. 

“The first two series were very heavily focused on traditional Chinese zodiac symbols and the New Year’s customs,” Piazza said. “The current series seems to be a bit more pan-Asian approach.”

There has been an evolution in media used to create the images, with paper cut and calligraphy in the first issue, oil painting for the second, and three-dimensional design for the current one.

“There’s been sort of moving back and forth between traditional mythology into realism and now into representations that are more mythical or folkloric,” Piazza pointed out. 

Recently, the dragon design sparked criticisms within the Chinese community, who believe the fierce-looking animal does not resemble traditional Asian dragon at all, according to a recent coverage by The San Francisco Standard.

In a statement response, the USPS emphasized that the design team worked with a professor who specialized in “imperial and modern Chinese art history with a focus on gender issues and globalization of material culture.”

“Notably, as with most art, there is often latitude for a variety of interpretations,” the statement reads.

The postal authority will celebrate the first day of issuance publicly at the International District/Chinatown Community Center, 719 Eighth Ave. S., Seattle, WA on January 25 at 11 a.m.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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