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Discovering cultural links through pounamu and jade (軟玉)

Discovering cultural links through pounamu and jade (軟玉)

by Andrea Stevens - Friday, 7 March 2014

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.

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

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
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

Kapeu - greenstone ear ornament. Īnanga greenstone.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Ethnolo gy 49857.
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.

“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.

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 – 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.

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

Dragon ornament; Nephrite Jade; China; 20th Century

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. J425.
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).

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

  • Post by: Andrea Stevens

    Andrea is a freelance features writer, author and editor. Her special interests are culture and heritage, architecture and design. She was co-author for the book Beyond the State: State Houses from Modest to Modern (Penguin, 2014).

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