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Chasing the Dragon...and the Monkey and the Rooster

The Chinese zodiac's 12 animal signs are always popular symbols in both East and West. And when the Lunar New Year arrives, enthusiasts all over the world are eager to get their hands on the best collections. This year, the focus is on stamps. Han Bingbin reports.

Designer Chen Shaohua say his dragon stamp this year was inspired by the motifs on the imperial Qing robes and Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City. [Photo/China Daily]

As a zodiac mascot, the dragon soars above its peers as the symbol of the year. Compared to the rabbit (which just gave up its one-year reign), the ox, rat, snake, monkey, pig, goat, rooster, tiger, horse and dog, the dragon is a notch above. Why? Because it is the only mystical beast in the zodiac barnyard and it also bears the aura of aristocracy. Its fire-breathing looks sometimes give rise to a misunderstanding. For example, the official dragon stamp released to commemorate the Spring Festival this year was criticized for its ferocious demeanor. Chinese netizens were quick to criticize the image on the stamp as "overbearing" and asked if it should not have been more benign.

This monkey stamp with its red background is one of the rarest zodiac stamps from China. A single stamp can retail for as much as 10,000 yuan. [Photo/China Daily]

The stamp's creator, designer Chen Shaohua defended his design online in his blog, carefully avoiding confrontation by refusing media interviews. The dragon's role in mythology was to ward off evil, he says. As a deified image passed down through generations, it deserves the respect and dignity of preserving its legendary reputation, and should not be subjected to arbitrary changes.

Chen is no greenhorn. He had previously designed four zodiac stamps over the last 20 years.

The selection committee this year had requested a younger, more modern dragon, he said on his blog, but Chen justified his design saying his dragon image was inspired by the patterns on the imperial Qing robes and Nine Dragon Wall. He said it symbolized China's growing confidence and importance on the world stage.

Chen probably learned from past experience. In 2010, his stamp design for the Year of the Tiger featured an affable-looking mother tiger sitting with her cub. The design lost to a rival entry that showed a youthful and energetic tiger, standing hands on hips.

However, collectors are unfazed by the chatter online. The negative comments have had no effect on sales. All over China, people lined up in the chill of winter to snap up the dragon stamps. When the stamps sold out at the post offices and official sources, the private market starting getting active and price hikes sent the value of the stamps soaring like, well, dragons.

By early January, a set of 20 dragon stamps was selling for as much as 350 yuan ($55) at Beijing's Madian Memorabilia Market, the biggest stamp market in Asia, compared with the original price of 24 yuan from the post office. Experts say many collectors are already prepared to pay more.

"For the price to go up to 500 yuan is a piece of cake," says Yu Yanping, a senior stamp dealer at Madian. He says the dragon stamps from the last two cycles have performed really well in the market. (The zodiac cycle is 12 years, so the last two Dragon years were in 2000 and 1988.)

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