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Postcards reveal Asia’s political, social revolution

In the course of evaluating an inquiry from a reader regarding vintage postcards from Asia, Antique Trader contributor Dr. Anthony J. Cavo saw the opportunity to explore the subject in more detail.

By Dr. Anthony J. Cavo

Recently one of our readers submitted a group of early twentieth century postcards to our Ask The Experts column requesting help in identifying and evaluating the group. Originally, they were presented as Chinese postcards; however, most are actually Japanese, if not in subject matter, then in origin. It was immediately apparent this small collection was worthy not only of an appraisal, but an article as well. Their content reflects political and social revolution occurring in both China and Japan. Information crucial to the identification and evaluation of these cards appears on the back of cards. Unfortunately, images showing the back of the cards are not available.

Exploration Reveals Imperial Chinese Emperors' Tale

Chinese Emperor abdication postcard

Rare 1912 postcard announcing the abdication of the last Chinese emperor. The card is conservatively valued at $300. (All photos submitted)

At left is an extremely rare postcard announcing “The Edict of the Chinese Emperor abdication of the last Chinese Emperor, Feb. 12, 1912,” which appeared in Chinese newspapers on that date. In the upper left hand corner of the card is a photograph of the Empress Dowager Cixi. (慈禧太后, Cíxǐ Tàihòu, Tz’u-Hsi T’ai-hou, 1835-1908). Opposite her in the upper right hand corner is an image of the last emperor. This is Qing Emperor, Aisin-Gioro Puyi (溥仪, 溥儀, Pǔ yí, 1906-1967).

There is also a photo of Chinese President Sun Yat-sen (Sūn Yìxiān, 1866-1925). In addition, Chinese Premier Yuan Shikai is shown. (凯, 袁世凱, Yuán Shìkǎi, Yüan Shih-k’ai, Róng’ān, 容庵, Yuán Xiàngchéng, 袁项城, 1859-1916). In the center, written in Chinese, is the edict.

The Empress Dowager Cixi died on November 15, 1908, after having installed 6-year old Puyi as the new emperor the day before her death. Interestingly enough, she died only a day after the death of the Guangxu Emperor whose doctor’s records show that he suffered “Spells of violent stomachache” and that his face turned blue. Recent studies on the Guangxu Emperor’s remains shows that he died from arsenic poisoning and the main suspect is the Empress Dowager who it’s thought cleared the way for Puyi.

Back of Postcards 'Speak' Volumes

Without seeing the back of this postcard or being able to verify the existence of a postage stamp and cancellation mark it is difficult to place an exact value on the piece and as an evaluator I will assume neither of these are present and consider it as such. Because the market for early Chinese postcards continues to be strong and because this postcard is historically significant and difficult to find I would have no problem placing a value of $300 for this little gem.

Next we have two tinted postcards with Chinese Imperial Stamps depicting young Chinese girls also from the first decade of the twentieth century. The four characters of the postcard identify the image as a “Chinese beauty.”

It is of interest to note that the first two characters read 支那 (Shina) is a word considered quite offensive by Chinese people today. Originally, the Chinese and Japanese used this word in a neutral manner; however, after the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 the term took on a derogatory meaning and rapidly became a racial slur. In addition, these young girls wear the traditional outfit of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1911.

Costumes Aid in Identification

Although there are more than 52 ethnic minorities in China, each with their own traditional costumes,

Tinted Japanese postcard with musicians

A tinted Japanese postcard from the first decade of the twentieth century valued at $15 to $45.

these young girls are most likely from the Han culture. The girl at the left is definitely Han as noted by her lotus feet and lotus shoes, commonly known as bound feet – a custom adhered to by the upper classes of Han people throughout the Qing Dynasty. She sits next to a table upon which rests a vase painted with the Shu motif for longevity.

Clues that date these postcards to the first decade of the nineteenth century are the Qing Dynasty outfits, the bound feet, and the Imperial Chinese postage stamps, issued until the revolution of 1911. If the cancellation marks can be deciphered, they will provide an exact date. I would evaluate this pair of tinted Imperial postcards of young girls with the Imperial Chinese stamps at $80 to $100 for the pair.

Although gruesome, among the postcards are actual depictions of sights commonly seen in China during the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, ending 2,000 years of Imperial rule; the revolution established the Republic of China. It is estimated that around 2.4 million people died during the Chinese Revolution. Although postcards of this type are offensive to today’s sensibilities, they were not uncommon during the early twentieth century. Most people today could not imagine sending friends and relatives such a postcard but people all over the world were intrigued by the mysterious East.

Postage Stamps Add to Treasure

These cards bear Imperial Chinese Postage stamps and it would be fascinating to see the back of the cards to know where and to whom they were sent. The official date of the beginning of the Chinese Revolution is recognized as October 10, 1911 although there were many violent and deadly revolts and uprisings prior to that date. These photos are most likely from those battles since the fighting ended four months later, February 12, 1912, with the abdication of the last emperor. One postcard depicts a group preparing to behead two men. Another shows a corpse with bound hands and presumably decapitated. It is marked “S. Iyda Peking, 29th February 1912.” The surname Iyda is Japanese rather than Chinese. With a pre-1911 date I would value these at $45 to $60 each.

Next up are three tinted late Meiji Era Japanese postcards from the first decade of the twentieth century. Two of the cards bear Japanese stamps from the 1899 to 1910 issue and the card at the top bears a remnant of the same. Represented are female Japanese entertainers, or Geisha and Maiko. Contrary to popular western belief, Geisha are not prostitutes – they are simply entertainers; they sing, dance, and play music known as Ohayashi. (Oiran is the name for women who provide sexual entertainment.)

Postcards Provide Lessons in History

The young girls pictured in some postcards are likely Maiko, or Geisha in training. Age, hairstyle, and kimonos hold subtle clues as to who is a Geisha and who is a Maiko. They often depict Japanese women in traditional dress promenading through an iris garden in Kamata. It is likely that these cards are all hand-tinted and as such are more than simple photographs. Images of Geisha setting out tea, or performing on stringed instruments are of more value than a Geisha simply posing for a photo. In conclusion, the postcards range in value from $15 to $45.

At first glance, the photographs of young Japanese women in western-style swimwear appear to be from the 1930s or 1940s considering Japanese women dressed in traditional costumes until after the WWII. They are, however surprisingly, from the first decade of the twentieth century. It was common for Geisha and Maiko to dress in this manner for bathing.

Stamps to Scandalous Clothing

Tinted Asian postcard with stamp

Another tinted early 20th century postcard with a Japanese postage stamp at top center.

One postcard bears a Japanese postage stamp from the 1899 to 1910 issue. Swimwear such as this is a scandalous thought for a woman in the United States or even Europe at this time, so it is a bit astounding that women from a more traditional society would wear an outfit as skimpy as these were for the time. These Geisha and Maiko posed for these images during the last part of the Meiji Era, which lasted from 1868 to 1912; although these photos are more likely from 1903 to 1907. The bathing outfits are a popular style of the time. It is the one most often seen in cards of this type.

Finally, we have postcards from around 1905 of the emperor and empress of Japan. Emperor Meiji (November 3, 1852-July 30, 1912) was the 122nd emperor of Japan and reigned from 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912. He is credited with taking Japan from an isolationist feudal state to and industrial world power.

Having a Pair of Emperor Postcards Adds Value

Empress Shōken (May 9, 1849-April 9, 1914) legacy is as an extremely intelligent woman. She is something of a child prodigy in classical Chinese tests, reading, poetry, calligraphy, and Japanese drama. In addition, she also chose to shun convention and allow herself to be vaccinated against smallpox. The major objection against her marrying the emperor was that she was three years older than he. However, this problem resolves when her birthdate officially changes.

Of interest to note is that the empress was unable to bear children; however, the emperor fathered fifteen children by five of the court’s ladies in waiting. The empress adopted the emperor’s oldest son by a concubine and he succeeded his father as emperor. Furthermore, it appears an emperor can overcome any obstacle. In addition, I have seen this pair in black and white sell in the $40 range. Furthermore, I would place a value of $60 to $70 for this pair.

This collection is an altogether historically significant grouping that depicts social and political change. This ranges from the gentle Geisha to the gruesome casualties of revolution. Furthermore, many of these postcards have found their way into private and university collections and will become more difficult to find in the future.

More Examples of Political and Social Postcards

About our columnist:
Dr. Anthony J. Cavo is an honors graduate of the Asheford Institute Of Antiques and a graduate of Reisch College of Auctioneering. He has extensive experience in the field of buying and selling antiques and collectibles; at age 18, he became one of the youngest purchasers and consigners of antiques and art for a New York auction house. Mr. Cavo is an active dealer in the antiques and collectibles marketplace in the U.S. and abroad.

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