AN INTRODUCTION TO THE REWI ALLEY COLLECTION OF CHINESE ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY, CANTERBURY MUSEUM

Richard Bullen and James Beattie

Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, has New Zealand’s largest collection of Chinese art and antiquities, thanks to New Zealander Rewi Alley (1897-1987). One of 'Ten International Friends of China', Alley gifted objects to Canterbury Museum over a period of nearly 60 years, from 1932.

Early Life: Alley moved to China in 1927, living there for the remainder of his life. Having worked as a fireman and factory inspector in Shanghai, in 1937 he was intrumental in establishing the Chinese Industrial Co-operative Movement, know as INDUSCO. Well-known for promoting China abroad, from 1952, Alley worked for the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a propagandist, writing over 60 books, giving hundreds of lectures and radio broadcasts, and writing thousands of letters. During the PRC's leadership of the World Peace Movement (1952-1966) and later during the Reform and Open period (1978-), Alley was an important figure in international cultural diplomacy and is still very well known today – in a poll of 56 million people run by China Radio International Alley was voted the seventh-most influential foreigner of the twentieth century, garnering over 2.3 million votes.1

Collecting Overview: Over his 60-year career in China, Alley amassed a sizeable collection of artworks: his donations to Canterbury Museum became the Rewi Alley Collection of Chinese Art and Archaeology. Comprising some 1400 objects obtained through purchase and archaeological investigation from the late 1920s to the 1980s, the Collection encompasses four thousand years of Chinese culture, and includes ceramics, hand-jades and bronzes, as well as paintings and currency. In the mid-1980s, the bulk of Alley’s remaining artworks were donated to a purpose-built museum in north-western China, at Shandan, Gansu Province: the Rewi Alley Museum.

Shanghai Collecting: Alley's collecting took place in three main phases, each of which correspondended – by and large – to where he was living at the time, the opportunities these places gave him to collect, and his main activities. Gifts in the 1930s to the Canterbury Museum were sourced largely in Shanghai, then centre of the Chinese antiquities market. Particular highlights of this period include a Tang-dynasty (618-906) bronze figure of a Sogdianan dancer (C1957.408), three Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) 'Nestorian Crosses' (C1957.922, C1957.923 & C1957.925), and three Qing-dynasty (1644-1911) ancestor portraits (E137.77E, E137.77F, E137.77G). At this time, Alley also gifted a Mongolian helmet (C1956.69) of the Yuan dynasty – today, the most well-known item in the Rewi Alley Collection at the Museum. A painting given to Alley by colleagues in 1932 (C1958.89) records Alley’s interest – even then – in Chinese art.

Gansu Collecting: The next phase – from the mid-1940s to early 1950s – moves to north-western China, and arose from Alley's role in establishing the Shandan-Bailie School. The Gansu Corridor, where Shandan is situated, provided Alley with exciting opportunities to acquire earlier artifacts, including neolithic pottery, Shang-dynasty (1558-1046 B.C.) bronzes, and Han-dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) ceramics. Alley's pupils discovered a pre-historic site on the school farm at Sibatan, and a number of objects from what is now identified as part of a broader Siba culture made their way to Christchurch (for example, C1948.39). Later, in 1956, the Sibatan site was subjected to an official archaeological investigation. Alley also picked up objects from other sites in Gansu, such as Heishuiguo and Lanzhou, which he gifted to Canterbury Museum.

A purpose for the Collection: In the late 1940s, Alley came to the realisation that his Collection in Christchurch could be used to promote positive views of China and its people, initially to assist in encouraging donations to the Shandan-Bailie school, then to advance cultural understanding during a period of strained diplomatic relations with New Zealand. In this, he was assisted by Roger Duff (1912-1978), Director of Canterbury Museum, and a supporter of New China and the peace movement.

1940s-1950s: This was the key period for both aquisitions and the building up of Canterbury's collection. Political circumstances favoured the use of objects as a means of cultural diplomacy, and Alley was encouraged to develop relations between Canterbury Museum and, in particular, the Palace Museum, Beijing. This involved exchanges of objects, advice and information between the Palace Museum and Canterbury Musuem.

Cold War, People's Diplomacy and the PRC: The gifts evolved from the focus on people's diplomacy and China's leadership of the Peace Movement. Both were the brainchild of the brilliant and charismatic Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), New China's first Foreign Minister (1949-1958) and Premier (1949-1976). People's diplomacy combines elements from China's own rich history of dealing with foreigners under a tributary system with Soviet policies dating from the 1920s. China's policy of waishi – an abbreviation of waijiao shiwu (diplomatic matters) – encompassed control of everything from foreign perceptions of China to how Chinese citizens should interact with and perceive foreigners.

Zhou's policy utilised culture as a diplomatic bridge and as a means of nation-building, paying 'substantial attention to museums as part of the "culture" business of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]'. Zhou allocated considerable sums of money to museum-building and display management as he recognised their importance in building a modern nation and in educating the populace in the achievements of the communist state.2 Alley used Chinese traditional culture and the new institution of the museum to cultivate China's foreign relations abroad.

Beijing: Like 1930s Shanghai, 1950s Beijing was a good place to be buying antiquities, and Alley became well known in its antiques market, the Liulichang. Visitors at the time describe Alley proudly displaying his objects. In 1956, Canterbury Museum Director Roger Duff, mentioned above, visited Beijing as a guest of the PRC. Alley used his visit as an opportunity to present to the Museum his entire collection at that time. In all, seven crates of objects were shipped to Canterbury Museum. These included a significant number of ceramic and jade objects, as well as a painting by Li Keran (1907-1989, C1956.674). Alley took a special scholarly interest in ceramic art, and in the 1950s Roger Duff instigated an official policy of increasing the Museum’s holdings of East Asian ceramic ware. In 1958, the same year in which Canterbury Museum opened its Hall of Oriental Art, Alley gifted a collection of belt buckles (daigou), a form about which he had published an article in 1956.

1956 Gifting: The 1956 gifting of Chinese artworks to a non-communist country is unique in that it was made possible only by the PRC lifting its own export ban on antiquities. Permitting the export of Chinese art was a significant gesture by the PRC and demonstrates the importance it placed on cultivating relations through art diplomacy. The PRC prioritised the protection of Chinese objects as a means of asserting sovereignty and legitimating its rule.

Alley’s last significant gift of objects to the Museum came in 1960 on his first visit to New Zealand since 1937. After this visit, with the ending of the peace movement, Alley was unable to obtain licenses to send objects overseas.

Legacy: The legacy of Alley's generosity and the PRC's foresight is that today Canterbury Museum has the best collection of East Asian artworks in New Zealand.


1.'The Top Ten International Friends of China', http://english.cri.cn/3126/2009/11/23/Zt1781s531145.htm

2. Tracey L-D Lu, Museums in China: Power, Politics and Identities (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 112.

Further Sources: James Beattie and Richard Bullen, 'Embracing Friendship through Gift and Exchange: Rewi Alley and the Art of Museum Diplomacy in Cold War China and New Zealand', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol.16, No.2 (2016): 149-166. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14434318.2016.1240648

'Rewi Alley Art Collection' Nine to Noon, Radio NZ National, 24 May 2016