Discovering Cultural Links Through Pounamu and Jade (軟玉)

Nelson Choi, Nigel Borell and Anaru Rondon discuss pounamu and jade objects on display during the Lantern Festival.

Nephrite jade is found in over 20 countries, but it is associated strongly with two peoples in particular – Chinese and Māori. During Lantern Festival 2014, experts from both cultures discussed this remarkable stone during a special display of collection objects at the museum.

If the most prized material in European history is gold, for Māori and Chinese it is nephrite. Both cultures – at different times – have employed it as a tool, a weapon, a talisman, an aesthetic object, and imbued it with spiritual meaning. It is a natural treasure, and as such, has been prized, fought for and exploited.

Anaru Rondon (artist and traditional pounamu tool maker) and Nelson Choi (specialist in Chinese ) explored the parallels and contrasts between Māori and Chinese nephrite. From its use in the imperial courts of Confucius, to pounamu’s links with Rangi and Papa in Māori legends.

Meaning and symbolism

Since the Neolithic Period, Chinese have admired nephrite jade for its strength and delicate colours, and it is recognised as a symbol of beauty, virtue and power. Jade is also believed to be beneficial for good health and long life. It was used to create ritual objects, ornaments and jewellery, and became a signifier of rank and affluence.

Kapeu - greenstone ear ornament. Īnanga greenstone. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnolo gy 49857.

“There is a lot of usage in our idiom of the word for jade – yù,” notes Nelson. “We have a saying ‘ting ting yù li’ which means fair, slim and graceful. Also, ‘yù jie bing qing’ in Mandarin means pure and noble.”

The Chinese have known jade for about 8000 years, Māori have known pounamu for about 700 years, but the meaning and symbolism is incredibly strong for both cultures. The stone helped Māori survive and prosper in a new land and its status is recorded in their whakapapa (genealogy); personified by Poutini and Waitaiki, whose story traces the major stone quarries in the North Island down to the West Coast of the South Island and the Arahura River, the famous bed of greenstone.

There are several types of pounamu with variations in colour and hardness. Some are as hard as steel and used for adzes, chisels and mere (war clubs). The softer stones were used for ornamental items like pendants and earrings. It was so precious that when a large piece – such as a toki (adze) – had come to the end of its life, it was often reworked into smaller items like hei tiki pendants or chisel heads.

Such was the importance of pounamu for Māori, that the South Island was named after it – Te Waipounamu, the waters of pounamu, or Te Wāhi Pounmanu, the place of pounamu. The regions where the stone is found are protected by an Act of Parliament and managed by Ngāi Tahu, the iwi (tribe) most closely associated with its trade and history.

Confucius and jade

Nephrite plaque, Qing Dynasty, 18th Century. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Mackelvie Catalogue 1885, no. 521.

Chinese nephrite is famous for its association with the imperial courts of China, where the ruling elite commissioned incredibly intricate objects. Its significance was reinforced over time by association with major religious and philosophical periods, most famously with Confucius who poetically ascribed the stone with 11 virtues such as benevolence, intelligence, loyalty, music, heaven and earth.

“These are symbolic meanings in Chinese culture,” says Nelson. “And to me jade is about delicacy and moderation – like the 11 virtues, there are no excesses or extremes.”

Māori whakapapa

“Pounamu has a genealogy or whakapapa from Io-matua-kore – Io the parentless one – who created Rangi and Papa,” narrates Anaru. “One of Rangi and Papa’s children, Tangaroa had an offspring called Poutini. He is the personification of pounamu to the old people. The story is that Poutini was born in the middle Pacific and was chased by his enemy Hine Tūāhōanga – sandstone, the stone used to grind and shape pounamu. So Poutini tried to escape his arch enemy first on Tūhua or Mayor Island. He was pursued again and moved to the Taupō area, and then eventually got down to Te Waipounamu (the South Island) and hid away from Hine Tūāhōanga. Other stones came out with them, but Pounamu is the most important.”

Creation myths about pounamu vary from region to region / iwi to iwi, but most include the two protagonists – Poutini and Hine Tūāhōanga.

Īnanga pounamu hei tiki

Īnanga pounamu hei tiki. Created in the hei tiki style found in Te Tairawhiti (East Coast) tribal region. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 27007.

Hei tiki

Hei tiki – the pounamu figure pendant worn at the neck – is the most notable example of Māori pounamu craft and is highly revered. “They were usually worn by people of higher rank or higher birth,” explains Anaru, “and handed down from generation to generation. Sometimes they were buried with the deceased and exhumed after a few years, following the appropriate protocols, to be handed on to the next person. So the connection with life and death is actually intertwined.”

Such is the relationship with pounamu, that Māori gave these crafted taonga (treasures) names, notes Nigel Borell Assistant Curator Māori, and imbued them with personal connection.

Some as hard as steel

Known as greenstone, pounamu or jade, all refer to the metamorphic stone nephrite. Scientifically it is a calcium magnesium silicate mineral with traces of iron. Jadeite is a different stone – much harder than nephrite – but is also commonly called ‘jade.’

These minerals are compressed and baked underground over millennia. As mountains grow, and then ice, sun, wind and water erode their surface, nephrite boulders become exposed and fragments fall away to be washed downriver.

Nephrite gets its strength from its crystalline felted structure, which can often be seen if the stone is backlit or under magnification.

Dragon ornament; Nephrite Jade; China; 20th Century. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. J425.

It can’t be flaked, as it shatters. It has to be cut and ground with water, sand and abrasive stones like sandstone or with diamond saws. In his practice, Anaru continues to work the stone in the traditional way, maintaining Māori stone-making technologies and knowledge.

Colours of the rainbow

Colours can range from deep to pale green, blue-grey, brown, orange and yellow to the creamy ‘mutton fat’ colour prized in China. There is white and ‘black’ jade, black often being a very, very dark green. The more iron present, the greener the stone. The iron can also streak the stone with red and orange.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori name different pounamu varieties by analogy to the natural world of plants and animals. For example, the dark, flecked kawakawa (a native tree with wide, dark green leaves); the brown striped kōkopu (a native freshwater fish); the red-stained totoweka (weka’s blood); and the very pale īnanga (whitebait).

380-kg nephrite boulder from the Arahura River named ‘Aotearoa'. Krzyztof Pfeiffer. Nephrite boulder. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The nephrite trade today has been globalised with many artisans working the material from different sources. In New Zealand, it is not uncommon to find Māori pendants made of British Colombian or Siberian sourced nephrite.

Part of the stone’s enduring intrigue is its incredible beauty and diversity of grain and character. It is amazing to touch and, as Anaru notes, while incredibly strong, it has a soft, waxy texture when only lightly polished. But for most people who work, wear or collect the precious stone, it is more than physical; it takes on a spiritual dimension; a connection with culture, the earth and ancestors.

Further reading at Auckland Museum Library

  • Russell Beck with Maika Maison, and Andris Apse (2010). Pounmanu: The Jade of New Zealand. Penguin Viking in association with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.
  • Jessica Rawson. (1995). Chinese Jade. From the Neolithic to the Qing. British Museum Press.

Online reading

Reflections on Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day means different things to different people. Andrea Stevens talks to Auckland Museum staff born in other parts of the world, to find out what this national day means to them.

Museum staff member Dina Jezdic (Serbia)

Dina talks with Mere Tipene next to the dog skin cape in the Māori Court. The tōpuni (dogskin cape) was a ceremonial cloak worn by high-ranking chiefs.

Dina Jezdic – Serbia

“What Waitangi Day means to me, as an immigrant, is about knowing my own whakapapa (genealogy) and understanding the kaitiaki (guardians) of this country at the same time. So I have a foot in two different countries.

For me as a mother, it is also important to teach my son this because I want him to have his feet in both countries too. So in a sense he will be a New Zealander first, and a Yugoslav second.

“But I also think there has been a huge partnership and relationship between people from Dalmacia and former Yugoslav with the Māori because we are quite similar – we are very family orientated, we love song and dance, and we love food. So there is a common understanding.

“The dog skin cape for me is a perfect way of understanding the knowledge of the whakapapa and the ancestors—because the dogs that the cloak was made from came from the original home land. We know the whakapapa of the dogs which was why they are the taonga. It’s about making roots in a new homeland but maintaining the links from where you came from.”

View the tōpuni in our Taonga Database.

Museum staff member: Valerie Noiret-Leblanc (France).

Valerie sits next to the carved ipu pungarehu (ashtray) in the Māori Court. A metal bowl sits atop a carved timber plinth of four carved figures, each with paua shell eyes.

Valerie Noiret-Leblanc – France

“The object that represents the Treaty for me, is an object in the gallery that has a traditional carving of a figure – a beautiful figure with a hand on the puku – but on top of the head an ashtray! And that for me really symbolises those two very different cultures, trying to become one but they don’t really have a clue about each other.

“And do they want to know? They’re not quite sure. For me this object is a perfect summary of the Treaty: the temptation to combine both, but they don’t have a clue how they shall do it.”

View the ipu pungarehu in our Taonga Database.

Ma’ara Maeva – The Cook Islands

“So what does Waitangi mean to me? Wai is water. Tangi is to cry or tears. So for me it is the flowing waters, it is the tears falling. So in that sense, I think Waitangi is about agendas brought upon some Māori, not all Māori, upon some iwi, driven by colonialist agendas and imperial paradigms, to fit into a certain mode of thinking.

“The collection objects we have at Auckland Museum related to the Treaty of Waitangi reignite the passion.

“Even in the Cook Islands today, the New Zealand expats celebrate their identity on this day. They hold a dawn service or the like, the partaking of food, the hangi, and then games of touch rugby, and haka. I think it is more meaningful outside the country as a day of national identity. Inside your country you take it for granted, but when you are removed from your culture, you miss your culture so you wish to remember. So that’s one way those in Rarotonga are doing it. Both Māori and kiwi Paheka.”

Staff member Johnny Hui (Hong Kong).

Johnny admires Te Toki a Tapiri, a waka taua (war canoe) built about 1836 near Wairoa on the East Coast for Te Waka Tarakau of Ngati Kahungunu.

Johnny Hui – Hong Kong

“Waitangi Day feels like the national day of New Zealand, and it gives us a chance to reflect on the diversity of cultures here. The focus is for Māori, but multiple cultures can reflect on the history here, in what is quite a young country. So to me Waitangi Day is a celebration of the growth and the cultures of New Zealand. But we have to respect the significance of Māori culture first.

“For me, the waka is symbolic of Waitangi Day. People first arrived on waka to New Zealand. It symbolises journey, how people got here.

“But for Chinese people in New Zealand, Waitangi Day always falls inside Chinese New Year. And during the two-week celebrations it is all about family. So I guess Waitangi Day, because it is a holiday, gives us a chance to get together and catch up with family and friends in the New Year. So it has another dimension for me. A celebration dimension.”

Read about the waka Te Toki a Tapiri.

Carl van den Berg – South Africa

“The Treaty to me was the starting point of a conversation. Initially it failed, and turned into a protracted war. But even though some people get frustrated around Waitangi Day with the protests and uncomfortable things that can happen, I think that is part of the process, part of the ongoing conversation.

“For me, the Treaty of Waitangi is an important conversation document in an era when multicultural diversity does sometimes mean the loss of identity. And having the start of a conversation, on a document such as a Treaty I think is an advantage.

”Coming from South Africa, with all its conflict, then coming here to New Zealand and seeing hīkoi in Queen Street happening around Waitangi Day – I see the protests as good democracy. To me it is not failure of the conversation. It is the conversation. It is the ongoing process, and the Treaty is the basis from which to talk.”

Staff member Moya Radley (South Africa).

Moya studies a series of pounamu (nephrite jade) adzes in the Māori Court. The large one on the left is made of a South Island pounamu known as totoweka – weka’s blood. Weka are native New Zealand birds.

Moya Radley – South Africa

“When I think about Waitangi Day, I think about land, people and inclusivity. This Pounamu adze is reflective of the land because it comes from the land. Inclusivity is a really big one for me because it is about including people, and everyone contributes to make something. We are all building together. People are respected for who they are, what they believe in, their culture, and they form part of the whole.

“This Pounamu is such a beautiful piece because it has all sorts of different colours in it, and the colours all form to make something really beautiful. So I think that is the thing about Waitangi for me; diverse people can come together and form something amazing.”


The opinions stated here are personal reflections, and not the views of Auckland Museum.

Further reading

Read about the history of the Treaty of Waitangi on Te Ara, The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, told by Claudia Orange.

Visit the online Māori Dictionary

Te Awe – a window into our taonga Māori collection

Letting people see inside our Museum stores and giving others a chance to connect with and gain a better understanding of our taonga collections is all part of the thinking behind our new space Te Awe.

Located on our ground floor just around the corner from our He Taonga Māori gallery, Te Awe offers a window into the ‘behind the scenes’ of the museum and will allow visitors to observe how we care for our collections.

Te Awe offers a window into the ‘behind the scenes’ of the Museum.

Named Te Awe, it is the first public-facing major project initiated by Future Museum. Te Awe describes the tufted decoration on a taiaha, a weapon of hard wood. It also means strength, power and influence. This name refers to the adornment on taonga in the collection and the mana they hold. The name also speaks to the work of this project – to improve our care of the taonga and enhance the knowledge associated with them.

This project will help revitalise the Māori galleries and other spaces in collaboration with iwi and other communities, enhance research at the Museum and provide richer experiences for visitors to the Museum onsite, online and offsite.

Starting with the Museum’s vast collection of hei tiki, the Te Awe team will digitise and record, in more depth, the taonga for future access via an online database.

A Museum collection technician photographs a taonga.

A member of the Te Awe team photographs a hei tiki.

Auckland Museum Director Roy Clare says: “The Museum has relationships with iwi, hapū and whānau right across Aotearoa New Zealand and we look forward to deepening these as we work to honour the taonga that has been entrusted to our care through many generations.”

Te Awe also sees the addition of five new staff who will work solely with the taonga over the next three years. They include three collection technicians, a storage technician and a dedicated Māori collection conservator. (Make sure you smile and wave if you’re passing – it can be a little unnerving working in a glass room for all the world to see!)

This team will utilise the latest technologies so that the processes are in keeping with the museum’s responsibility to provide the best care, protection and access to the taonga. The intention is that taonga will be conserved, documented and photographed and the data will be digitised in a record that will be available to iwi, hapū, whānau, museum staff, and researchers and in many cases the public at large.

We look forward to bringing you more information on the Te Awe project along with introductions to the team in our upcoming posts.

members of the Te Awe hard at work.

Make sure you smile and wave if you’re passing by.

Tangonge – The Return.

Tangonge … the karanga, keening calls of women opened the threshold for us to step into the ancestral meeting house at Pukepoto in Kaitaia where we were greeted by elders, the children of the school and departed whanau members whose photos line the walls.

Mihi King, Tehei Deanna Tamaariki, Roy Clare, and Haare Williams.

Mihi King, Tehei Deanna Tamaariki, Roy Clare, and Haare Williams.

You know there are moments in life when one can set aside as “ … I was there,” and Tuesday  in Kaitaia has to be one of those moments in life for me.  Call it serendipity or by any other name it still smells and feels like magic. First, Albert Walters sat between Roy Clare and myself; he was introduced as the grandson of the man attributed to ‘finding’ Tangonge, further more Dr Bruce Gregory and Hekenukumai Busby (kaumatua) pointed us in the direction of the discovery back in 1921.

Hekenukumai Busby and Gina Harding receive Tangonge at Pukepoto Marae.

Tangonge at Pukepoto Marae

Dr. Bruce Gregory, Roy Clare and Haare Williams.

Dr. Bruce Gregory, Roy Clare and Haare Williams.

This was followed by the grand entry into Te Ahu, The Kaitaia Heritage Centre as it prepares the taonga for the official opening this Saturday.  The other stand out has to be the perfectionism of our staff as they worked late into a long night, just to get a tiny beam of light in the right spot to catch the spirit and antiquity of a taonga come home.

Tangonge at the Te Ahu, The Kaitaia Heritage Centre.

Haare Williams offers a karakia to the group prior to the install of Tangonge at the Te Ahu, The Kaitaia Heritage Centre.

In all of these settings, reverence radiated around Tangonge, the kind or radiance that, apart from pulling communities together,  will inspire mokopuna, rangatahi and a community to come.  It’s journey continues …

Hoki atu e te taonga, hoki atu ki to kainga tuturu.  Haere atu ra.


Despite the constant stress of deadlines, exhibits to mount, enquiries to be answered, research to be done and taonga to be carefully housed there is one activity we do that never fails to uplift and inspire us as museum staff.  It is an honour to work at the Auckland Museum and this is always made so apparent to us when we get to witness and be close to taonga that have graced this land for centuries.  This morning before all the hustle and bustle that is the School Holidays descended upon us, and with only the low hum of the cleaner’s vacuum as background noise, we witnessed the careful demounting of Tangonge.

Tangonge casts a shadow in the gallery this morning prior to be demounted.

Tangonge casts a shadow in the gallery this morning prior to be demounted.

Display and Collection Technicians Ged Wiren and Wayne Ferguson removing the carving from the case.

Display and Collection Technicians Ged Wiren and Wayne Ferguson removing the carving from the case.

This taonga, more commonly referred to as the Kaitaia carving, is currently being prepared for a visit to its ancestral home in the Far North. The carving is spending a year at the Te Ahu Heritage centre in Kaitaia under the care of Te Rarawa iwi and will return in autumn 2013.

Tangonge is probably one of the oldest carvings in New Zealand.   It was made only a few hundred years after the settlement of Aotearoa/New Zealand between the 14th and 16th centuries.   It is a hugely important carving that shows a phase in the development of Māori art from its origins in Polynesian styles.

The carving was rediscovered in 1920, hidden in the swampy waters of Lake Tangonge, near Kaitaia, when the lake was drained. Its importance was quickly recognised.

While its style strongly resembles carvings of the kind seen in the Pacific galleries, several of its features also show the beginnings of the unique Māori art that developed in Aotearoa.

The return of the carving to the Far North is recognition of the bond this taonga forges between the Auckland Museum as its custodian, the people of Te Rarawa, its spiritual guardians, and Te Ahu Heritage.

As our Pae Arahi, Haare Williams said after karakia this morning there was only one word to describe our task this morning and that was mana.  It is our privilege to be the kaitiaki for Tangonge and other taonga in our care and while it can be exciting to witness these activities this job also comes with enormous responsibilities.   Our greatest responsibility now is to prepare this taonga for its journey home to the north to connect with its ancestral home and to continue to empower and inspire present day descendants.

Heike Winkelbauer (Conservator) discussing the carving with Haare Williams (Pae Arahi).  Janneen Love (Exhibition Developer) and Bethany Edmunds (Lifelong Learning Educator) looking on.

Heike Winkelbauer (Conservator) discussing the carving with Haare Williams (Pae Arahi). Janneen Love (Exhibition Developer) and Bethany Edmunds (Lifelong Learning Educator) looking on.

Safe arrival in Kaikohe – the heartland of Ngāpuhi

It was a interesting ride with Alert Taxi yesterday morning as I headed to pick up our car for the second wave of staff going north to Ngāpuhi’s heartland. Mr Edmonds, my driver, was telling his stories of his trips to Northland and connecting back to his family of early settlers. His great, great, great, (great?) Grandfather had helped build the original stone store in Paihia, and also lay the stone for the first printing press! In a round about way he went on to say that his family (from the UK), went on to settle into the community very well…we should expect to see a few of his family up at #Ngapuhi2012. The story evolved and we drove straight pass our stop…….I expect that will be an indication of the festival itself, interesting stories, interesting connections, worthwhile distractions.

Departing Auckland War Memorial Museum for the 2012 Ngāpuhi Festival

Carlin, Jeff and Amelia depart Auckland Museum for the Ngāpuhi Festival

The forecast was excellent for the weekend, but we arrived in the wind and rain and decided that set up would be best deferred to the morning, instead we decided to go and spend some time with the taonga in the Toi Ngāpuhi exhibition. It would be fair to say that our taonga was in some pretty amazing company, surrounding by some of Northlands very talented artists (including our very own Bethany Matai Edmunds). We met two of the artists (Will and Whiu) sitting with the ‘papahou’ on loan from Auckland Museum to keep it company. As we talked he wiped the glass case clean….someone had hongi’d the case. I suspect it was him after observing him sitting so close, and hearing him talk of the priviledge of being able to see it up close and around it.

Arriving at Northland College for Ngāpuhi 2012 with the Atamira in the background

Dot, Kirk, Jeff, Carlin and Bethany arrive to a wet Kaikohe for Ngāpuhi 2012

We had a lot of conversations about the role of artists and museums to build, value and acknowledge trditional knowledge (matauranga). Allen Wihongi and Bethany Edmunds were busy debating this surrounded by museum taonga and artists exhibition pieces, preparing for the discussion at the wananga later on Saturday.

Discussions between Auckland Museum (Bethany Edmunds), Ngapuhi runanga (Allen Wihongi) and artist Rhonda Halliday

Discussions between Auckland Museum (Bethany Edmunds), Ngapuhi runanga (Allen Wihongi) and artist Rhonda Halliday

We got our team photo in front of the Atamira, the first time one has been built (up north?) for over a hundred years, and a symbol for this years festival, and then headed to Waitangi/Paihia for our briefing and dinner at Shippies.

I have plenty of photos that capture the moments……

Te Kahu Kiwi a Tāwhiao – King Tāwhaio’s kiwi feather cloak

Welcome to this week’s preview of Tamaki Paenga Hira, an informative program currently featuring on Māori Television exploring 13 taonga Māori from the Auckland War Memorial Museum collections. This week Rahui Papa introduces us to the Second Māori King, Tāwhiao I, and shares some of the background relating to the kiwi feather cloak that Tāwhiao wore during his 1884 visit to England.

Tāwhiao's Kiwi Cloak
Tāwhiao’s Kiwi Cloak. Please note that the cloak is not currently on display.

Tāwhiao was born in 1822 at Orongokoekoea Pā near Taumarunui. His father, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, was the leader of the Waikato people and was eventually installed as the first Māori King in 1858. The Kingitanga, or Maori King movement as it became known, was advocated by a number of tribes to help promote unity among Māori in the face of growing aggression by the Colonial Government. It became centred in the Waikato region.

King Tāwhiao. Josiah Martin photo. Auckland War Memorial Museum 15400

King Tāwhiao. Josiah Martin photo. Auckland War Memorial Museum 15400

Tāwhiao ascended the throne when his father passed away in 1860 and led the Kingitanga for the next 34 years. Barely three years into his reign, the Colonial Government invaded the Waikato, forcing Tāwhiao and his people to retreat into what is now known as the King Country. Ultimately almost a million acres (4,000 km²) of Waikato land was confiscated.

Denied a fair hearing in New Zealand, Tāwhiao and a contingent of chiefs travelled to London to seek an audience with Queen Victoria. They hoped to persuade her to enforce the Treaty of Waitangi and to arrange for the return of the confiscated land. Somewhat predictably, the party was refused the audience, with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby, refusing to take any responsibility for the actions of the Colonial Government. There was a similar attitude back in New Zealand where the Premier, Robert Stout, asserted that all events prior to 1863 were the responsibility of the Imperial Government.

Disillusioned and with nowhere to turn, Tāwhiao then focused on developing initiatives to promote the independence and welfare of his people – but without Government backing and with diminishing iwi support from outside of the Waikato tribal area, he became marginalized and the Kingitanga’s influence decreased considerably.

Little information is recorded on Museum records for the cloak. But what we do know from the notes is that Tāwhiao was photographed during his visit to England wearing the cloak, and sometime after his return to New Zealand he gave the cloak to a Mr. Burt.  Burt subsequently sold the cloak to the Auckland Museum in 1897.