Historic Māori Cloak in China

Historic Māori Cloak in China

Cloak on display-opening blessing for Te Papa exhibitions, National Museum of China, 31st October 2012. Photographer John B. Turner, Beijing.

“The smallest is as great as the largest.”

October 1st, 1957. Dusk descends on Tiananmen Square, Peking, now known as Beijing. Fireworks crackle light across the night sky, above a city alive with National Day festivities and celebrations. Two intrepid New Zealand film-makers- Rudall and Ramai Te Miha Hayward are there, documenting the life and times of communist China.

10th Anniversary celebrations, Tiananmen Square, 1959. Brian Brake image, Te Papa collection. Gifted from Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001.

Rudall, born in England, had a family background in theatre and cinema. Ambitious and motivated, he and his wife Ramai, of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngaitahu descent, were pioneer New Zealand film-makers. A spirited, independent woman, Ramai had her own photography studio by the time she was 19 years old. Later, she was a leading actress in Rudall’s early movies and became a talented cinematographer with her husband, producing travel, education and feature films.

The distinction of being the first English speaking foreigners to film unfettered in communist China was significant. The invitation to visit China was facilitated through the New Zealand China Friendship Society Inc. Poet and friend of the Hayward’s, Ron Mason, was the first National President of the Society. Ramai was also a member. The invitation extended to the Haywards as “the filmakers”. They filmed in Canton, Shanghai, Peking (Beijing) and Wuhan. It was a small window of opportunity for Westerners to gaze on a country that was largely a mystery to the outside world since 1949.  The unfortunate irony was that two of the documentaries; “Wonders of China”, and “Inside Red China”, were considered to be communist propaganda, and were not distributed outside of New Zealand. Only “Children of China”, written and directed by Ramai, managed to be sold around the world.

“Inside Red China”, is a fascinating short film that covers the Hayward’s experiences of China. It includes the National Day activities, a highlight being Ramai presenting a beautiful Māori feather cloak to the founding leader of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong. This exceptional film, with Ramai’s recollections, led to the rediscovery of the cloak in the National Museum of China collection, 55 years later. The fact that the cloak was gifted from King Korokī, the 5th Māori King, to Chairman Mao- from one great rangatira (chief) to another- gives the cloak immense prestige and significance.

John McKinnon, New Zealand’s ambassador to China from 2001-2004, showed “Inside Red China” at the Beijing embassy on his second assignment there. In 2004 after “a year or so of detective work” , by staff at the Beijing embassy, the inquiries finally ended at the National Museum of China, where the cloak was found stored with other foreign gifts to China’s leaders. The cloak had an erroneous provenance to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The confusion was that the Chinese translation for New Zealand is Xinxilan, very close to Xilan, the translation for Ceylon. At that time, Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, was in China attending the UNESCO world heritage committee meeting. Sir Tumu was able to verify that the cloak was indeed Māori. He and his delegation recited karakia over the cloak, an important process acknowledging spiritual and ancestral connections.

Ramai’s recollection
Ramai eloquently described the occasion in “New Zealand Women In China”, by Tom Newnham, 1995, Graphic Publications, Auckland-pages 94-100:

“We knew that in the evening we would have an opportunity to present the cloak from King Korokī, as a gesture of goodwill from the Māori nation, so I was dressed in a piupiu that Princess Te Puea had given me. At the last moment we learned that we were going to be taken up to the top of the Tian An Men building.”

As they were leaving their hotel room, Rudall, sensing the moment, grabs his movie camera. Ramai says to him, “You can’t take that, Rudall.” Rudall, a determined character, takes no notice. When they and Ron Mason reached the historic Tian An Men building, soldiers lined the steps all the way up. Ramai was half expecting someone to confiscate Rudall’s camera, but no one did. When they reached the top, there “were rows of VIP’s”, and Rudall by this time had his camera out and was filming.

Ramai continues, “Then someone came over and took Ron and me over to where Chairman Mao was standing with Premier Chou En Lai and indicated that I could present the cloak to Mao. He had an interpreter, and I was standing barefooted with my interpreter right in front of him.

Mao greeted me, and then I put the cloak on his shoulders and tied it. I said it was a gift from our Maori king of Aotearoa-New Zealand, a gift of goodwill to the leaders of China. I said

“We are the smallest nation in the world, giving this gift to the largest nation in the world.” He smiled and said, reassuringly, “The smallest is as great as the largest.”

The cloak’s symbolism today
The extraordinary circumstances of the cloak’s presentation from the Haywards to Chairman Mao, on behalf of King Korokī, has particular resonance today, as we celebrate 40 years of New Zealand and China diplomatic relations, and 60 years of the New Zealand China Friendship Society Inc. As Ramai says, the cloak was a gift demonstrating goodwill between two nations. Cloaks are important taonga, and have traditionally been given and exchanged to honour significant relationships, alliances and events.  The cloak today remains a tangible and powerful symbol of cultural understanding and engagement into the future.  How astute of King Korokī and Princess Te Puea at that time, to be honouring significant international relationships with such an exuberant and determined emissary as Ramai Hayward.

The National Museum of China has displayed the cloak in association with the Te Papa touring exhibitions Kura Pounamu and Brian Brake, which opened on the 31 October. Te Papa hopes to be able to loan this cloak for a period of time next year, so that people in New Zealand have an opportunity to see it and learn more about the connections and context to its gifting.

Cloak on display adjacent to a Brian Brake image of Taramakau river, Southland. Photographer John B. Turner, Beijing.

Cloak details

Te Papa is currently working with the National Museum of China and other agencies to research the cloak further. The cloak kaupapa (foundation) and ties are wool. Hokimate Harwood, Te Papa bicultural science researcher, has identified the feathers as chicken, ring-necked pheasant, mallard duck, toroa (albatross), and pūkeko (purple swamp hen) from images taken by the NZ Embassy staff in Beijing . If you want to ask more questions or are interested in providing us your feedback please do so.  More later as we update this story.

Close up of cloak,chicken hackle feathers. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Embassy, Beijing.


  1. What a fascinating blog. Thanks a ton. Do you know where the cloak is now? Also, do you know that Beijing Foreign Studies University is going to start Maori classes? How does that feel? Do you have an email where I can reach you?

  2. Kia ora John. Thank you! So sorry. Will correct the credits immediately. Would you mind emailing me at awhinat@tepapa.govt.nz so I could ask you more details? Thank you.

  3. Kia ora, Thanks for a good article. Lovely to see Ramai credited. The show was very good – impressive – and the two photographs from the opening are mine – wrongly credited to the National Museum of China.
    – John B. Turner, Beijing

  4. Thanks Adele. Very fascinating story. It’s been really interesting delving into the research, especially learning more about China’s history and people

  5. Heard about this on the TV the other day, now seeing it on this site, lovely colour of the feathers.. Look forward to learning more about the cloak thanks.

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