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July 14, 2011

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Maori mysteries

THE mysteries of New Zealand's Maori culture are revealed in a four-month exhibition at the Shanghai Museum showcasing the history and rituals of the people known as the "navigators of the Pacific Ocean." Wang Jie pays a visit.

More than 1,000 years ago, the Polynesian Maori people arrived in waves by canoe in Aotearoa, meaning "Long White Cloud," the name they gave to New Zealand.

Their origins are mysterious. Some say they crossed the South Pacific from their ancestral homeland near what is today Tahiti or the Marquesas Islands; some say they came from Southeast Asia and Taiwan; some even say they came from Central America (based on evidence of identical crops).

Known as the "navigators of the Pacific Ocean," they are considered the indigenous people of New Zealand who had their own language, culture and elaborate rituals. They used jade ware that some ethnologists and anthropologists link with the jade culture in China.

A four-month-long exhibition of Maori culture will be held at the Shanghai Museum. It showcases around 300 objects from New Zealand's Otago Museum in Dunedin on the country's South Island.

The museum, with one of the most significant collections of Moa (the giant ratites that once inhabited New Zealand) eggs, contains more than 2 million relics and items of natural history.

"The exhibits are carefully selected to represent Maori art and culture created before and after European contact and most artifacts were of practical use," says Chen Xiejun, curator of Shanghai Museum.

Objects from the Maori civilization, developed in isolation from the rest of the world, include spectacular carvings from double-hulled canoes, jade ware, weapons, textiles, utensils and carvings.

There was a rich mythology, warrior culture and distinctive crafts and performing arts. Tribal society was based on Polynesian social customs and organization. Horticulture flourished with plants they introduced. Maori history and stories of ancestors are passed down orally from generation to generation in the form of legends and folk tales.

With the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 17th century, the tribal Maori people were drawn into an alien world that denigrated Maori culture, disrupted the Maori balance between man and nature and upset the indigenous social balance.

Maori culture survived this dark period and underwent a revival in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Shanghai exhibition organizer designed a ritual meeting hall based on the originals in New Zealand.

According to Chen Kelun, the person in charge of the Maori exhibition, a recent finding has established that based on DNA, the Maori people are very close to Taiwan minority people. "In other words, they are very close to our Chinese. In fact, there are only three cultures in the world that are related with the culture of jade, including Chinese, Mayan (in Central America) and Maori. Visitors will find something in common through the show."

He emphasized that visitors should respect Maori tradition and taboos, which prohibit taking food or drink near sacred jade items, weapons and sculpture. Museums around the world prohibit food and drink, except in designated areas.

The exhibition is one of the year's biggest at the Shanghai Museum and is expected to attract many visitors. The Otago Museum in New Zealand receives around 400,000 visitors a year, though the city's population is only 100,000.

"I hope the exhibition will ignite interest in Shanghai in Maori culture," says Chen Kelun.

Date: July 22-November 6, 9am-5pm

Address: 201 People's Ave

Admission: Free


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