Death of Rewi Alley

27 December 1987

Rewi Alley, c. 1927 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-036405-F)

The former Cantabrian died in Beijing after living in China through six tumultuous decades.

After serving in the First World War and then struggling on a backblocks farm in south Taranaki, in 1927 Alley moved to Shanghai, where he was a fire officer and factory inspector before becoming involved in government-sponsored relief work. He helped establish the Industrial Co-operative movement, which advocated village-level development. Its slogan Gung Ho (‘work together’) entered the English language. From 1944 Alley ran the Shandan Bailie school in Gansu province.

The communist victory in the Chinese civil war complicated Alley’s running of the school and fundraising for it in the West. After moving to Beijing in 1953, he became an advocate for the new People’s Republic and involved in the international peace movement. As well as many writing books and pamphlets, he acquired a significant collection of Chinese artefacts and artworks.

Following New Zealand’s recognition of the People’s Republic in 1972, Alley played a significant if unofficial diplomatic role. Prime Minister David Lange eulogised him on his 90th birthday, just weeks before his death.