The U.S. Postal Service celebrates the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar with two distinct postage stamp series.
The Lunar New Year in China
Many U.S. stamps have celebrated aspects of Chinese heritage and culture. The Lunar New Year stamps embody an aspect of Chinese culture and tradition that has left an indelible mark on the United States and also found a place in popular culture.
The Chinese lunar cycle is based on a twelve year repeating cycle. According to legend, the signs of the Zodiac were determined when Buddha invited all the animals of the kingdom for a meeting. Only twelve animals showed up: the rooster, dog, boar, rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram and monkey. Buddha gave each animal its own year; thus, it is believed that people will possess the nature and characteristics of the animal that represents the year in which they are born.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, artist Clarence Lee was selected to design the first Chinese lunar stamp, the “Year of the Rooster.” Issued in 1992, the stamp met with such success that he continued to design the stamps for the rest of the twelve-year series. When designing the first stamp of the series, Lee created a distinctively modern and Chinese design, hence the paper-cut two dimensional look. On each stamp of the series, a professional calligrapher wrote Kanji characters to state the name of each stamp. Kanji is a Japanese adaptation to Chinese characters and can often be read by a variety of Asian groups from differing countries and cultures.
The first in the Lunar New Year series, this 29-cent Year of the Rooster stamp was issued on December 30, 1992.
Lunar New Year Stamps
In 2008 the Postal Service began a new series of Lunar New Year stamps. The stamps focus on some of the common ways the holiday is celebrated. The series continues through 2019.
Ethel Kessler worked on the new series with illustrator Kam Mak of Brooklyn, New York, to choose festive ways the occasion is marked across cultures. Kessler also incorporated elements from the series of Lunar New Year stamps designed by Clarence Lee of Honolulu, Hawaii, who created paper-cut designs for all twelve animals associated with the Chinese lunar calendar as well as the calligraphic Chinese characters drawn by Lau Bun, also of Honolulu.
The 2008 Year of the Rat stamp features red lanterns, a common decoration at New Year celebrations.
Year of the Rooster Lunar New Year Stamp
The Year of the Rooster Forever stamp was issued on January 5, 2017. The illustration depicts a colorful rooster emblazoned on a red envelope. The color red symbolizes luck in Chinese culture, while rooster imagery is often used to ward off evil spirits. The characters at the top of the envelope form a common Chinese greeting of celebration and wish for prosperity and good fortune, used most frequently during Lunar New Year.
Year of the Dog Lunar New Year Stamp
The Year of the Dog Forever stamp was issued on January 11, 2018. The illustration, originally created using oil paints on panel, depicts an arrangement of lucky bamboo (Dracaena braunii). To the right is a lozenge-shaped piece of red paper with the Chinese character fu, meaning good fortune, rendered in calligraphy — a common decoration on doors and entryways during Lunar New Year festivities.
Created by MJ Meredith, Museum Specialist, and Joan Flintoft, Intern, National Postal Museum
References used in this exhibit include:
People and Places of the Pacific: A Celebration on Stamps. United States Postal Service Publication 153. May 2002.
U.S. Post Office Department Stamp Design Files. Collection of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, National Postal Museum branch.
Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbook. Various Years.