DEFINITIVES, 1933-1959

First Issued: ??? 1933
Currency: Tibetan tangka (2 chekey = 1½ shokang = 1 tangka)
Production: Government printing works, Trabshi

Away now to a very obscure destination (philatelically speaking) — Tibet. In the earlier part of the 20th Century Tibet was basically de facto independent: the various régimes which found themselves governing China claimed it as part of their territory, but had very considerable difficulty in actually exerting their authority over it (with certain periodic exceptions). Tibet had its own language, religion and system of government, and little inclination to listen to the administrators sent over to try to run the place. Such authority as Peking was able to exert seems to have effectively collapsed when the Emperor was overthrown in 1912 — the governments which followed were too short of cash, and too busy fighting each other (and the Japanese), to do much about this impoverished, mountainous region on the country's periphery.

Anyway the Empire's collapse in 1912 seems to have convinced the ruling régime in Tibet (seemingly a sort of semi-feudal theocracy, though people on the pro-Tibet side of things offer a more benign view of it) that full independence was now a feasible prospect, and so they tried to get a bit of modernisation going, including — of course — setting up a postal service with stamps. A modern factory had already been established at Trabshi (a few miles outside of Lhasa), and this operated as a sort of portmanteau arms factory and printing works: it produced weapons, banknotes and, in 1912, the country's first postage stamps. 

I'll pass over the 1912 issue in silence — it's a pleasant enough design, but genuine examples are fiddly to get hold of, so for the purposes of this page I'll just note that it exists and looks like this. Anyway skip ahead 21 years and we reach 1933 — the 1912 issue is finally retired, and we have this issue to replace it. I'm absolutely infatuated with the look of these — this has to be one of the handsomest designs in what we might call (hopefully without too much condescension) the "naïve" idiom. It's a crude production, but the design is a clear, simple one with strong lettering, so it can (more or less) withstand the very variable printing. The design itself shows the mythical snow lion, the heraldic animal of Tibet. The currency is the central figure of the left-hand column and the amount is the central figure of the right-hand one. The top inscription apparently reads "Tibet Government." I've got no idea who designed these, unfortunately.  

These were printed in sheets of just twelve stamps — the clichés were carved individually on wood and bound together.[1] Printing seems to have been carried out on a very ad-hoc basis: new sheets were run off when existing stocks were running low. As can be imagined, quality control wasn't a priority: the ink and paper used seems to have been whatever was available at that moment, with little consistency. The stamps vary hugely in colour: I've tried to get a reasonable spread here, but there's enormous variation outside of these examples. The 1 chekey can be anywhere from yellow to brown, via orange; the 1 shokang can be red, red-orange, red-brown, etc., and the 1 tangka has a lot of shades on the red to red-purple spectrum. The 2 and 4 tangkas are a little more consistent — mostly shade variations rather than substantively different colours. Paper is mostly thick-ish, though occasionally very thin stuff was used: cf. the 1 tangka on the pictures here. These mostly come imperforated — an attempt at perforation  in 1933 was fairly unsuccessful and the idea seems to have been dropped. Anyway on a simplified level, this is the entire issue.

Tibet never got into the Universal Postal Union, so these stamps were valid for postage within Tibet only. Letters to foreign destinations seem to have been carried to the border with Nepal where, extra postage having been paid, they entered the British postal network. These stamps did seem to get a lot of usage, though at the lower levels prices seem roughly equal for mint and roughly (but presumably sincerely) used — and one can get suspiciously neat postmarks for not much extra. On the whole this seems a pretty "genuine" issue: the extreme remoteness of Tibet seems to have prevented collectors from patronising its posts to any real extent. Some antics do seem to have gone on in the 1950s as the postal service wound down, however.

Tibet's stamps, very correctly, have a real "specialists only" sort of reputation — rest assured I feel highly dilettantish in trying to get a face-different set and then stopping immediately. The stamps have been forged absolutely extensively and, as usual for any cruder production, many fakes are extremely hard to distinguish from the originals.[2] I claim no knowledge whatsoever in this area: I purchased these stamps from a reputable specialist dealer and have no reason to doubt these are all legitimate.

Anyway, as we know, the Communists came to power in China in 1948, and they turned their attention to Tibet not long after. Tibet was formally annexed to China in 1950, but was allowed to retain a good deal of autonomy in its internal affairs. The Tibetan post and the Chinese post seem to have co-existed at this point, I'm not entirely sure. Anyway Tibetan-Chinese tensions eventually led to an armed uprising in 1959: the Tibetans were defeated and Tibet's autonomy was stripped from it. The Tibetan post ceased to operate at this point, and here ends the story. What exactly happened to the post's supplies, I also don't know, but certainly a lot of stuff seems to have made its way into the market, one way or another.

[1] The clichés were moved around over time, as the plates were separated for maintenance and then re-assembled — the very determined can do a lot here in the way of plating individual stamps, identifying settings, etc. Entire sheets are available, but not cheaply. For what it's worth, the clichés of these were identified to me by the seller as: 1 chekey, cliché 7; 1 tangka, cliché 6; 2 tangka, cliché 12; 4 tangka, cliché 9. The 1 shokang was unidentified but appears to be cliché 4, per the excellent sheet images available here.