United States Postal Service

Culture & Tradition - The Lunar New Year Collection


An Official Licensed Program of the United States Postal Service, March 31, 2005

The Lunar New Year Collection is Authorized by the United States Postal Service as a Tribute to the Contribution made by Chinese Americans, and in Honor of Asian Culture and Traditions

NYJPW takes great pleasure in introducting this page with the remarkable 12 beautifully engraved new stamp ingot collection: Culture and Tradition for The Lunar New Year, the trademarks and copyright are properties of the United States Postal Service.

"The 12 beautifully engraved ingots represent the fulfillment of a commitment that began in 1988, when the Organization of Chinese-Americans proposed the idea of a postage stamp that would commemorate the important contribution of the Chinese people in America. Three years later, with support from members of Congress, nation-wide community groups, and Postmaster General Anthony Frank, the dream began to take form. In 1992, renowned graphic designer Clarence Lee was selected to design one stamp depicting the Chinese lunar symbol for 1993, the "Year of the Rooster," to honor Chinese Americans. The overwhelming demand for the stamp made it one of the most successful issues in the history of the United States Postal Service. It struck a chord not only with Chinese and other Asian Americans, but also with the country as a whole and the world beyond. The result was the creation of a series of 12 stamps, one for each of the animals in the Chinese lunar cycle. Since 1993 one new stamp has been issued every Chinese New Year, taking 12 years to complete the series, and ending with the "Year of the Monkey" unveiled to the public for the first time on January 13th. At the culmination of this important program all 12 celebrated stamp designs have been re-created as engraved solid silver ingots, layered with 24-karat gold, thus preserving them forever in a magnificent collection that is destined to be handed down from one generation to the next as a treasured and visible symbol of an ancient culture and continuing tradition." - The United States Postal Service.

Clarence Lee was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and trained at the prestigious design school at Yale University. In 1992 he was selected to design the first Chinese lunar stamp, the "Year of the Rooster." Its phenomenal success led to a 12-year commission to create all the animal images in the lunar stamp series, one of the most popular series ever issued by the USPS. His latest design, for the "Year of the Monkey," released in January, is shown here together with its shining re-creation in the solid silver and pure gold.
The Chinese Lunar Cycle: 12 Years for 12 Animal Symbols As most people know, the Chinese lunar cycle is not based on 12 linear months, as in the Western or Gregorian calendar, but on a 12 year repeating cycle. Each astrological animal symbol represents not a month, but a year. And again, unlike the Western calendar tha is based upon the movements of the sun, the Chinese astrological calendar has its deep and ancient roots in the movement of the moon.

There are many myths and legends about how the 12 animals representing the 12 years in a lunar cycle came into being. One of the most popular is that the Lord Budda called all the animals to come to him before departing this earth. Only 12 animals came, and as a reward he named a lunar year after each according to the order in which it arrived. The Rat was the first to get there, crossing the final river on the back of the Ox and jumping down in front. Following them were the Tiger, Rabbit (Hare), Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (Ram), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig (Boar).

Yin and Yang, the cosmic forces that are believed to balance the universe and all human nature, are also important elements in the lunar calendar, with each of the 12 animals symbolizing either Yin or Yang.

Character Traits and Omens: Influence of the Zodiac Animals According to legend, once each of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals was assigned its place in the lunar cycle, it then endowed that year and those born in it with its particular traits.

People born in the year of the Rat are famous for their charm, but are "fussy" about details. Year of the Ox people are quiet, agile with their hands, and mentally alert. Those born in the year of the Tiger are short-tempered but show great affection for those they love. Rabbit people are financially luckey, ambitious and talented. Those born in the year of the Dragon display self-confidence and power. Year of the Snake people possess great wisdom and are fortunate with money. Horse people are cheerful and popular but talk a little too much. The Ram imparts imagination and love for beauty. Those born in the year of the Monkey are clever, skilled, and inventive. Rooster people are dedicated to their work, and seem to always be busy. Year of the Dog traits include hard work, loyalty, and sympathy for those in need. Those born in the year of the Pig have an immense inner strength.

The legend of the Chinese zodiac animals and their horoscopes are part of an ancient tradition that lives on into present day, and which gave inspiration to The Lunar New Year Collection.

Paper-Cut Design: A Traditional Chinese Folk-Art Chinese-American designer Clarence Lee, creator of the Chinese Lunar New Year Collection, explains that using paper cut designs for the series was the obvious choice.

"The art of paper-cutting images has a long tradition in China since the people in many instances had little recorse to artistic materials. Cutting paper became a simple and effective means of artistic expression. The Postal Advisory Board was insightful enough to recognize that the paper-cut motif represented a folk-art tradition in China that goes back more than 2,000 years, and it was graphically different from anything else ever done." - C.L.

People in China used their paper-cut artwork in many ways. They displayed them in their homes, included them in New Year and other holiday observances, and gave them as gifts. The Lunar New Year Collection combines this centuries-old art form with an original interpretation by the designer. The result is a colorful, culturally-inspired depiction of the animal signs of the Lunar Zodiac, in a unique 12-stamp collection.

Craft of Minting The intricate patterns of the paper-cut lunar stamps challenge the skills of the engraver to the utmost. Not only do the very fine lines of the animal designs have to be perfectly reproduced, but the montage of Chinese characters and lettering has to be raised to differentiate the separate elements.

Each master ide is the result of an exacting process. First, each image is photographically enlarged and engraved by hand onto a plaster template. The sculpted image is then places on a reduction pantograph that over a period of many hours traces every minute shape and cuts the image directly into a steel minting die, to the exact size of the original stamp. The master die is placed into a massive 360-ton proofing press and struck on 2.2mm-thick polished sold silver blanks. After minting, the perforations are precision diamond cut to create an impeccable finish. The result is a perfect replica of the original stamp, with each image clearly displayed against a mirror-polished background. Finally each stamp ingot is generously layered with 24-karat gold, and proudly takes its place alongside the other 11 stamp ingots that comprise the Lunar New Year Collection.

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