Antiquities offer insight into China's art of diplomacy with New Zealand

Updated: 2016-04-28 19:57


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WELLINGTON -- New Zealand researchers say a vast collection of Chinese art -- with items dating back 5,000 years -- is offering new insights into diplomatic links between the two countries since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

New Zealander Rewi Alley, who helped to pioneer China's Gung Ho movement during the war against the Japanese and to found the Shandan Bailie School, was instrumental in creating the collection through his links to China's early Communist leadership, said researchers Thursday.

Much of the historically significant collection, held in Canterbury Museum, in Christchurch, was amassed during the 1950s and 1960s through Alley, who lived in China, and Canterbury Museum's then director Roger Duff.

Researchers from the museum and the University of Canterbury and Waikato University have launched a public website ( that features the art, which includes ceramics, jades, Tibetan scripts, prints, paintings and bronzes.

They are investigating the scope of the collection, why and how it developed, and the extent to which the artefacts and artworks encouraged favorable perceptions of China in New Zealand.

"Rewi Alley gifted the objects over a long period, from 1932 until his death in 1987, as a way to promote understanding of Chinese culture and post-1949 sympathy for New China in New Zealand," University of Canterbury art history researcher Dr Richard Bullen said in a statement.

The collection, came together with the approval of the People's Republic of China government, is a very early PRC exercise in the use of art for cultural diplomacy, said Bullen.

Bullen and Waikato University Associate Professor James Beattie travelled to China last year to examine the sites where some of the art was gathered, and other parts of Alley's art collection held in China's Gansu Province.

"The trip enabled us to understand where Alley discovered some of the key objects in his collection, how he obtained them, and the conditions he had to deal with during the Japanese occupation and civil war of the 1930s and 1940s," Beattie said in the statement.

"We were also able to comprehend the fascinating relations between the Canterbury Museum Alley Collection and the remainder of Alley's art collection in Shandan, Inner Mongolia."

Highlights of the collection included neolithic objects discovered on the Shandan Bailie School farm, Han Dynasty ceramics from the Gobi Desert, a collection of jade, belt buckles, snuff bottles and paintings by two important 20th Century Chinese artists as well as furniture from the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing given for the 1958 opening of Canterbury Museum's Hall of Oriental Art.