The expat origins of ‘gung-ho’: Rewi Alley, a New Zealander in China

The expat origins of ‘gung-ho’: Rewi Alley, a New Zealander in China

History curator Kirstie Ross writes about the impact that a New Zealander, Rewi Alley, had on China and spoken English, 90 years after his arrival there.

‘Gung-ho’ is a phrase that I use quite often, to describe a ‘boots-and-all’ attitude. According to the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary:

Photograph of an excerpt of a dictionary displaying the definition of gung-ho
Definition of ‘gung-ho’ from the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005) p. 479

What I didn’t know is that it made its way into everyday English thanks to one of New Zealand’s most famous expatriates, Rewi Alley (1907–1987), who made China his home for six decades.

Chiefly namesake

Canterbury-born and raised Alley – named for the Ngāti Maniapoto rangatira Rewi Maniapoto – arrived in Shanghai on 21 April 1927.

So where and how does the Mandarin Chinese phrase ‘gung-ho’ fit in the story of a New Zealand ‘farmer, teacher, social, reformer, peace activist and writer’? [1]

Curious eyewitness

In 1927, after he left an uneconomic farm in Taranaki, Alley travelled out of sheer curiosity to China. This portrait (below) was taken around the time he left New Zealand.

Rewi Alley
Rewi Alley. Burt, Gordon Onslow Hilbury, 1893-1968 Negatives. Ref 12-036405-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. records22548741

He initially worked in Shanghai as a fire officer and a municipal factory inspector. The latter took him to places where he witnessed child labour and appalling work conditions.

Alley also travelled extensively as a relief worker, working with Chinese who experienced poverty and hardship due to famine and floods.

Getting to gung-ho

In 1938, Alley was involved in the formation of the Association of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (INDUSCO). These collectives became known by the slogan that Alley came up with: ‘Gung Ho/Work Together’.

The photograph below shows a banner with the Chinese characters that represent ‘gung-ho’, which also featured on a badge designed for members of the collectives.

Spinning thread
Spinning thread, China. Alley, Rewi, 1897-1987 Photographs. Ref PA1-o-899-04-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. records22723611

The collectives were a response to the economic and industrial decimation caused by the Japanese invasion of 1937. The collectives were bi-partisan ‘small-scale self-supporting cooperatives which created employment for workers, while continuing to support resistance against the Japanese’. [2]

INDUSCO set up ‘several hundred small factories, workshop, power plants, transports, and mines….[It] became a reasonably sound prototype of a democratic, co-operative society, producing a wide range of goods of war value’. [3]

‘Guerrilla industry’

In 1941, one friend reported on this work, writing that: ‘Rewi Alley is unique because he has achieved greatness in a country where few foreigners ever managed to create an authentic ripple.’

He went on to note the extent of Alley’s influence in China:

[Alley] means to China to-day at least as much as Colonel Lawrence meant to the Arabs and perhaps more. Where Lawrence brought Arabia the destructive technique of guerrilla warfare, Alley is teaching China the constructive organisation of guerrilla industry. [4]

Create and analyse

Another initiative dear to Rewi Alley was education and the school he helped run, which was arranged on industrial co-operative principles.

Rewi Alley teaching at Shandan School, Gansu, China
Rewi Alley teaching at Shandan School, Gansu, China. Alley, Rewi, 1897-1987 Photographs. Ref PA1-q-685-7-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. ecords23079924

The school eventually moved, in 1944, to Shandan, in Gansu province (above). Known as the Shandan Bailie School, its guiding principle was ‘create and analyse’. The idea behind it was to prepare young Chinese for the Gung Ho co-operatives.

Mission for peace

Alley was able to remain in China after the Communist Party assumed control of the country in 1945 – somewhat unusual for a foreigner.

In 1953, he moved to Beijing, but his sphere of influence and activity was increasingly international, as he travelled around the world on behalf of peace organisations.

Alley also authored over 50 books, many of which were about his adopted home. Ron Meggett, a New Zealand pacifist, kept this 1951 pamphlet (below) which was circulated by the Wellington District Peace Council.

’Rewi Alley’s Letter to New Zealand’ pamphlet
’Rewi Alley’s Letter to New Zealand’ pamphlet, 25 March 1951, China, by Rewi Alley, Universal Printers Ltd, Wellington District Peace Council. Gift of Leslie and Shirley Megget, on behalf of Joyce Megget, 2016. Te Papa (GH024942)

However, in the context of the Cold War, Alley’s association with a Communist-ruled country generated ambivalence amongst some New Zealanders. This became more entrenched due to his stance on peace and his public opposition to the Korean War.

Official recognition

Towards the end of his long life, both the Chinese and New Zealand governments recognised Alley’s contributions to their respective countries.

In 1982, he became an honorary Chinese citizen. A few years later, he was made Companion of the Queen’s Service Order for Community Service (QSO) by the New Zealand Government (a ceremony was held at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing in 1985).

‘Something of the greatness’

In his autobiography, published in the year of his death, Alley summed up his personal feelings about his long-life connection to China:

Little as I knew when I arrived from New Zealand, I had come to learn something of the greatness of the Chinese civilization and of its potential for the future.

I realised China was a crucible where a new kind of people was being forged….It was my privilege to have close contact with the working folk, to live with them and join in their struggle. [5]

Chinese and New Zealanders at Rewi Alley's funeral
Chinese and New Zealanders at Rewi Alley’s funeral, China. Wright, Kathleen Mary, d 1992 :Photographs of Rewi Alley. Ref: PA1-f-148-449-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22866442


[1] Roderic Alley, ‘Alley, Rewi’
[2] Roderic Alley, ‘Alley, Rewi’
[3] ‘Edgar Snow on Indusco (Gung Ho)’, from Edgar Snow’s China, New York, 1981
[4] Press, 13 March 1941, p.6
[5] Cited in Rhonda Bartle, ‘A Life of Deeds and Some Little Fame – Rewi Alley’.



  1. Thanks for this Kirstie! Just checking that you knew about the project between the University of Canterbury, University of Waikato and Canterbury Museum, which is looking at Rewi’s diplomatic ties and the amazing objects he had brought to NZ. The objects are all available to view here

    1. Author

      Hi Marguerite
      Thanks very much for alerting me to this interesting and useful website and database. I knew that Canterbury Museum had collected material related to Rewi Alley – and now I know where to find out more about it!
      All the best

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