Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Joseph Rock in Northwest Yunnan

                                  by Jim Goodman

dawn over Dayan, Lijiang's old city
       After a long and arduous journey overland starting from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, up through northeast Burma, into Xishuangbanna and then through Simao Prefecture to Dali and further north, Joseph F. Rock arrived in Lijiang in spring of 1922.  As a professional botanist who had made a solid reputation for himself working in Hawaii, Rock had an assignment from the U.S. Agriculture Department to collect specimens of a blight-resistant chestnut tree, to help alleviate a blight crisis with the tree in the American species.  He was also to collect seeds of any other previously unknown ornamental or useful plant, native birds and small mammals.   For Rock, the job gave him a chance to go to China, a long cherished dream.
typical red wooden Dayan houses
one of the canals running through Dayan
       Lijiang lay on a high-altitude plain (2400 meters) dominated at the north end by Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5596 meters), its heavily wooded slopes filled with thousands of different plant and flower species.  It was certainly an attractive place to work.  But although he frequently visited Dayan, the old town of Lijiang, for picking up supplies and taking photographs, he took up residence in Nguluko, a village close to the mountain and the last settlement north of Dayan. 
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain  and the Dry  Plain above Lijiang
       Fascinated by China since his teenage yehen he was still in Austria, (he had already learned to read the language) Rock was there at last, in the peak of health in his late 30s.  It wasn’t a very Chinese part of China, though, for most inhabitants were Naxi, a separate minority with their own distinct traditions.  Eventually, when he completed his botanical assignment, he got more involved in recording and studying Naxi customs, culture, history and especially their unique dongba tradition. 
       The dongbas were a kind of shaman, versed in myriad ceremonies minor and major, who read their prayers with the use of books with a mostly pictographic script, unique in Yunnan.  Over time, Rock with his meticulous devotion to detail, collected the books, learned to read them and translated many.  He also wrote a long and detailed two-volume history of Lijiang.
Dayan waterway
       Rock enjoyed both his work and that he was doing it alone, on his own terms.  He got along fine with his Naxi neighbors, learned their language, too, employing many of them, but did not develop; anything like friendship with them.  He taught them how to collect, preserve and press plants, taxidermy on wildlife specimens, how to cook Western-style food for him, assist his photography sessions and photo processing, but never hung out in a tavern for a drink with them or otherwise be socially engaged.  He was kind to them, looked after their health and family matters, but always viewed them paternally, likening the villagers to children, as he wrote in his diary, unsophisticated and innocent.
old town street
       Lijiang was not the only place with chestnut trees and when Rock felt his work crew was trained enough he took them on botanical caravans to Tengchong, Dehong and northern Burma.  Aside from his botanical work, the journey whetted Rock’s appetite for exploration.  When his work for the Department of Agriculture concluded Rock got jobs from National Geographic for organizing expeditions of discovery to remote parts of western China. 
Rock's photo of a Dayan market day
       Beyond Lijiang he traveled up to Deqing through Shangrila County and the forests of the Baima Mountains.  From Deqing he turned south through the Lancangjiang canyon to the Christian settlement of Cizhong.  From there he ascended the Biluo Mountains, crossed the crest of the range and descended to Dimaluo in Gongshan County.  Mountains still dominated the landscape, peaks of the parallel Gaoligongshan Range across the Nu River already visible. 
       It was certainly a photogenic route and Rock stopped often to take dramatic photos.  He chose his angles carefully and produced wonderful shots of scenery, hilltop churches, remote temples and local lifestyles, like caravan ponies being sent across the swirling rapids of the Nu River on rope-bridges.  
rural road in autumn
village north of Dayan
       Technically speaking, it was quite a chore not only to set up and take the photographs, but also to process and print them in the field.  The camera was big and bulky, required a sturdy tripod and used large plates with a very low film speed, and thus long exposures.  This was fine for still-life landscape shots, but for portraits Rock had to ask his subject to remain absolutely still for half a minute or more to avoid any possibility of blur.
Tibetan village, Deqing County
       On these expeditions Rock brought a portable darkroom tent where he developed the negatives and later made prints.  He dried them by pinning them to lines strung across the shadier parts of his campground.  If the expedition were to be a long one, he sometimes dispatched a couple of his workers to take the plates and prints back to Lijiang.
       Never in a hurry, fascinated by everything exotic he encountered, he also traveled in grand style, intentionally designed to impress folks along the way.  Besides the contingent of workers and aides, the caravans included armed guards.  These were turbulent times in southwest China, with warlord armies and local armed gangs on the loose.  He brought a portable rubber bathtub so he could stay clean and a fully outfitted kitchen for his cook to prepare his Western food.  His meals were served on a proper dining table with Western chairs and Rock always dressed for dinner, even though he rarely dined with a guest, and listened to Western operas and symphonies on his portable phonograph.
Baimashan forest, Deqing County
       He was passionate about detailing everything he witnessed, eager to learn the precise meanings and intentions of the rituals, for example.  At times he included so much detailed esoteric information that his editors felt that they had to take much of it out.  Rock fumed, but in the end worked out some sort of modus vivendi with National Geographic.  They sponsored more expeditions to even further remote places in Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai, where he discovered new unknown mountains and recorded elaborate Tibetan rituals.
Meiile Snow Mountain group, highest in Yunnan
       All that suddenly came to an end with the Wall Street crash at the end of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression.   National Geographic could no longer financially support expeditions like Rock’s.  The explorer lost his job. 
         Rock returned to his Nguluko home and absorbed himself even more in Naxi history, traditions and religion.  In his view the village dongba tradition, unique to Naxi culture, was in danger of extinction.  Rock was already familiar with it and had written one National Geographic article about it early in his career.  Now he decided to record and preserve for posterity everything he could learn about this tradition, from the purpose and meaning of every ritual detail to the deciphering of the manuscripts.
Rock's portrait of a Naxi woamn
Rock's portrait of a dongba in action
       He was on the alert for any kind of dongba rite anywhere in the vicinity and was there with his camera and notebooks.  Some were simple, involving a single dongba and lasting less than a day.  Others, like special funerals, required a group of them and a series of rites, maybe even with dances, that carried on for several days and nights. 
Lion Mountain rising above Lug Lake
       In his eagerness to get everything exactly right he won the confidence of his informants.  Once, very early in his studies, the performing dongbas asked him not to photograph the rites so as not to upset the attendant spirits.  Rock put away his camera and just took notes.  When it was over, and they agreed that the spirits were no longer around, he persuaded them to re-enact the rites for his camera.
       Not many Westerners were ever in Lijiang in the 1930s, other than a few temporary travelers.  Dayan had two Christian missionaries and a church, but they made no converts the entire time they were there and Rock usually avoided them.  Peter Goullart, a White Russian emigrant, was the only other Western resident.  He had a government job forming co-operatives and personally a naturally gregarious personality who enjoyed socializing with the locals in the Dayan wine shops.  Rock, of course, was the opposite, quite content at being a loner with his own worthy mission. 
Rock's retreat at Lugu Lake
       Rock viewed Dayan as a place already compromised culturally by Chinese Han influence. He fretted the same would happen to Naxi culture in the villages, with the demise of the dongba tradition.  He went to Dayan for supplies or research or photography, but for social calls only occasionally when he felt unbearably lonely and craved some time with fellow Westerns.  The encounter might just be for a dinner or an overnight stay and then we was back to his research work.    He got along with Goullart, but didn’t cultivate a friendship with him.  Rock also knew Edgar Snow, the American reporter covering the Chinese Revolution, and traveled through central Yunnan with him.  Snow was a bit of a libertine compared to Rock, and his willingness to indulge in some of China’s illicit pleasures shocked the rather sanctimonious Joseph Rock.
A Yongshan and his family
       With his dongba informants Rock kept a strictly professional researcher relationship.  In all his time in northwest Yunnan the only true friend he made was A Yongshan, the tusi (local magistrate) of Yongning, who lived on Nyorophu Island in Lugu Lake, northeast of Lijiang and the most beautiful body of water in Yunnan.  As the tusi’s guest Rock stayed in the island palace in an environment of peace and natural wonders, perfect for working on his manuscripts and enhanced afterwards by his long and interesting conversations with his host.
       The majority of Yongning District’s inhabitants are Mosuo, a branch of the Naxi minority nationality.  The primary difference between them is that the Mosuo are still mostly matrilineal, with property owned by the women and passed on to the daughters.  Mongol armies conquered the area in the 13th century and Kubilai Khan left some of his officers behind to govern the territory.  These men married Mosuo women, but within their clan retained the Mongol patrilineal inheritance system.  This clan, the A, was the smallest of the five Mosuo clans, so that matrilineality still characterized nearly 90% of the Mosuo.
self-portrait in native garb
from the northern shore-- Nyoropho (top)
       With his innate aristocratic, mandarin prejudices, Rock considered the Mosuo system primitive.  The Mosuo had no marriage ceremony to formalize sexual relationships, employing the ‘walking marriage’ custom wherein the male only comes to the female at night, returns to his own mother’s house in the morning, and all children belong to the mother’s side.  This left the woman free to change partners to try to get pregnant, since it didn’t matter who the father was.  Rock simply assumed that meant they were naturally promiscuous.
       Rock didn’t go to Lugu Lake to research the Mosuo, anyway, but as a place to relax and put his Naxi research findings in order.  From Nyoropho he had a direct view across the 2700 meters-high lake to Lion Mountain, rising to over 4000 meters on the northwest shore.  He rarely left the island on his sojourns there and relished the relationship he had with A Yongshan, his best friend in China.  Unfortunately, this friend died in the summer of 1933 and Rock never found an equivalent replacement.
witness to a dongba rite
Rock took solace in his work, for he was convinced of its importance.  Other scholars were specializing in Tibetan studies but he himself was the only one working with the Naxi tradition.  Besides, he didn’t particularly like Tibetans; interesting rituals but as a people dirty and uncouth.  He didn’t like the Yi in the mountains, either, partly for the same reasons but also for their slave system.  He was never inclined to visit them, but given Rock’s mandarin pretensions, one wonders what might have happened had he visited a village and been hosted in grand style by a Black Yi aristocrat.  Maybe he would have learned about the bimaw, the Yi dongba equivalent, and the Yi books with a separate alphabet, covering Yi myth and history, legends, prayers, riddles and pharmacopoeia.  A change of opinion, then?
       Rock quite liked Naxi people, however, and maintained friendly relationships with his staff and his neighbors.  The aim he had set for himself, to record the entire history of the Naxi nationality, translate the dongba manuscripts, record and explain all the traditional rituals, was enormous.  And in view of the cultural threat coming from modernization and assimilation, Rock was in a race against time.  He devoted as much time and energy to his projects as humanly possible, until the new post-Revolution government in August 1949, forced Rock to pack up his boxes of research and leave China.  He was never allowed back.
       Just as Rock had foreseen, changes soon overtook the old ways.  The dongba tradition was all but forcibly wiped out, surviving only in remote villages.  Decades later, with the launch of the Reform Era, minority culture was no longer disparaged.  It didn’t mean every ancient practice revived, but it did enhance pride and interest in ethnic culture and history.  For the Naxi, with a very unique history and culture, the prime source of information is the work of Joseph F. Rock, the prescient preserver of their ancient traditions, a man who worked passionately to achieve just this kind of legacy.

Dayan 45 years after Rock's departure
                                                                   * * *           
.  for more on Joseph Rock, Lijiang and the Naxi, see my e-book Children of the Jade Dragon