The Year of the Rooster stamp designed by Shao Bolin and Lyu Shengzhong. 

An exhibition celebrates the contributions of a nonagenarian former designer and his associates to China’s postage stamps, Lin Qi reports. 

A chilly winter day might not be the best for an elderly reunion. But for two esteemed artists, Shao Bolin, 90, and Jin Shangyi, 86, such a meeting is of great value to relive the excitement of a collaboration that happened more than three decades ago.

Jin joined Shao for a retrospective exhibition on the latter at the China National Post and Postage Stamp Museum in Beijing on Dec 20.

Shao is a retired chief designer of China Post. The exhibition paid tribute to his career spanning decades, with dozens of iconic postage stamps he designed or co-designed with Jin and other artists on show.

Two stamps designed by Shao Bolin feature the 2,000-year-old silk paintings unearthed in Chenjiadashan, Hunan province. 

The display included one stamp issued in 1986 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary leader, which Shao co-designed with Jin.

Seeing the stamp and its design draft on show evoked in the two artists the memory of another cold winter day in 1985. Shao paid a visit to Jin, inviting the oil painter, who was famed for making realistic portraits, to work on a new stamp.

Both graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in the early 1950s. Jin spent months back then to complete an oil painting which depicts Sun against a riverside landscape of Guangzhou. He says that, in the work, Sun’s black suit corresponds with the accumulating gray clouds over the city to deliver a solemn revolutionary atmosphere.

A set of stamps featuring archaic Chinese bronzes Shao designs on show. 

Shao then added elegant decorative patterns and a black background outside the portrait centered on the design. The stamp was the first of its kind to feature an oil-painting portrait on Chinese postage stamps. It was thereafter hailed as the “best stamp of the year”.

Shao says he respects Jin, who overcame cold weather and other difficulties to create “a historic piece of work”.

He says Jin received 500 yuan for the portrait at the time which sounds “unbelievable”, given that Jin’s paintings sell for hundreds of thousands to millions of yuan today in the art market.

Shao worked with prominent painter Huang Yongyu, 96, to issue the golden monkey stamp in 1980.That year, China Post began to issue specially designed stamps featuring each of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac to celebrate Chinese New Year. The first piece of the zodiac rotation was the Year of the Monkey stamp.

Shao designs a stamp featuring the Zeng Houyi Chime Bells which he couples with a record of the sound of the archaic musical instruments.

Shao reached out to Huang, a friend who taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts for years, to co-create the design. The stamp, which was on show at the Beijing exhibition, became iconic and is sought after by those into philately even today.

After Shao was appointed the chief designer in 1985, he took a reformative initiative to regularly collaborate with artists on stamps. Also, the success of the golden monkey stamp ignited great interest in artists when they were approached by Shao for commissions.

The exhibition included a Year of the Rooster stamp issued in 1981 and painted by Zhang Ding, the late artist and Tsinghua University professor; a Year of the Snake stamp in 1989, created by Lyu Shengzhong, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts; and a set of four stamps in 1986 which depicts ancient Chinese sports events and was designed by Zhou Jingxin, a leading painter in Nanjing, Jiangsu province.

A stamp commemorates the 120th anniversary of the birth of Sun Yat-sen which Shao Bolin co-worked with Jin Shangyi.

Shao invited painter Zhou Jingxin to co-design a set of four stamps themed on ancient

Chinese sport events.   

A Year of Snake stamp issued in 1989 which Shao and artist Lyu Shengzhong co-worked on.