Joseph Rock's house in Baishi, near Lijiang

Joseph Rock was one of the first Westerners to lay eyes on the Naxi (pronounced Nah-shee and often spelled Nakhi). He was an eccentric botanist-explorer-anthropologist who traveled around with a collapsible bathtub and chairs large enough to support his obese body. When he came to an important city or capital of a kingdom, he donned a tie and jacket and had himself carried in on a sedan chair. "You got to make people believe you're someone of importance if you want to live in these wild places," he once said.

Rock translated ancient Naxi pictographs that described Naxi history and religious beliefs, hired the Naxis as porters and took a couple of Naxis back with him to America. He wrote two books on the history of the Naxis and put together a 1,094-page Naxi dictionary with support from Harvard University. He cataloged many of the plants in Yunnan Province. On a trip to Yunnan during the Great Depression, Rock wrote: "we know nothing of depressions...nobody works for a living — that is in an industrial capacity — hence there are no hard times."

Life of Joseph Rock

Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “Joseph F. Rock - ''Dr. Lock'' as the Nakhi remember him - was the Austro-American botanist and explorer who lived in the Lijiang Valley, off and on from 1922 to 1949. He is our excuse for coming here. My interest in him goes back many years to a summer evening in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, when I found that all the trees I liked best bore Rock's name on their labels. [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986 ^]

“Rock was the son of an Austrian manservant who ended up as major-domo to a Polish nobleman, Count Potocki. His mother died when he was 6. At 13, already under the spell of an imaginary Cathay, he taught himself Chinese characters. I like to think that, from the library of his father's employer, he read, and acted on, an 18th-century Count Potocki's novel of aristocrats in far-flung places: ''The Saragossa Manuscript.'' ^ “Tuberculosis notwithstanding, young Rock ran away to sea: to Hamburg, to New York, to Honolulu - where, without training, he set himself up as the botanist of the Hawaiian Islands. He wrote three indispensable books on the flora, then went to Burma in search of a plant to cure leprosy. He ''discovered'' Lijiang, thereafter to be the base for his travels along the Tibetan border: to the former kingdoms of Muli, Choni and Yungning, and to the mountain of Minya Konka, which, in a moment of rashness, he claimed to be the highest in the world. (He had miscalculated by about a mile.) Yet, though he introduced hundreds of new or rare plants to Western gardens and sent off thousands and thousands of herbarium specimens, he never wrote a paper on the botany of China. ^

Rock in Muli

“Instead, he gave his life to recording the customs, ceremonies and the unique pictographic script of his Nakhi friends. Lijiang was the only home he ever knew; and after he was booted out, he could still write, in a letter, ''I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone.'' This, then, was the meticulous autodidact, who would pack ''David Copperfield'' in his baggage to remind him of his wretched childhood; who traveled ''en prince'' (at the expense of his American backers), ate off gold plate, played records of Caruso to mountain villagers and liked to glance back, across a hillside, at his cavalcade ''half a mile long.'' ^

“His book ''The Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of South-West China,'' with its eye-aching genealogies and dazzling asides, must be one of the most eccentric publications ever produced by the Harvard University Press. Here is a stretch of his embattled prose: ''A short distance beyond, at a tiny temple, the trail ascends the red hills covered with oaks, pines, Pinus Armandi, P. yunnanensis, Alnus, Castanopsis Delavayi, rhododendrons, roses, Berberis., up over limestone mountains, through oak forest, to a pass with a few houses called Ch'ou-shui-ching (Stinking water well). At this place many hold-ups and murders were committed by the bandit hordes of Chang Chieh-pa. He strung up his victims by the thumbs to the branches of high trees, and tied rocks to their feet; lighting a fire beneath he left them to their fate. It was always a dreaded pass for caravans. At the summit there are large groves of oaks (Quercus Delavayi) . . .'' No wonder Ezra Pound adored it! ^

Rock's Explorations and the Kingdom of Muli

Rock traveled in the Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu provinces in the 1920s with 26 mules, 17 men and an escort of 190 soldiers brought along for protection against bandits. His personal baggage included a folding bed, chairs, a table, china and a battery powered phonograph for listening to opera. The porters were paid 20 cents a day and the armed soldiers were usually provided by warlords or leaders in return for a Colt 45 pistol. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, January 1997]

The titles of some of Rocks stories were as impressive as the stories themselves: “Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws.” His caravan traveled at a rate of 10 to 20 miles a day. Describing one encounter with bandits, Rock wrote: "We pushed on under fire as best we could...Thanks to the bad aim of the brigands only one soldier was killed.

location of Muli (in pink) in Sichuan

In National Geographic articles Rock photographed oracles in elaborate ceremonial robes and dancing Tibetan monks dressing in skeleton costumes and wrote of hostile nomadic tribes, wars between Muslims and Buddhists, Buddhist monks who rarely bathed, Muslim soldiers who were "absolute robbers” and troublesome Chinese officials. The oracle, Rock wrote, became possessed by a demon when he donned his robes that caused him to froth at the mouth, howl and shake as if in an epileptic fit. To cast out the demons he shot arrows into the air.

In 1924, Rock crossed a 13,000-foot pass in Sichuan province to reach Muli, a New-Hampshire-size Buddhist kingdom with only 22,000 people. Rock ate "ancient mottled yak cheese, intersperses with hair" and cakes "heavy as rocks" with the overweight, 6-foot-2-inch monarch. His black, greasy attendant "showed that soap was not in demand." Describing dinner with the local ruler, Joseph Rock wrote: “The king’s uncle, a dried mummy, plastered and gilded, sat in a golden chorten (shrine) in the same room where we had lunch. The king explained, “My uncle died sixty years ago.” Thus royalty in Muli is never lonely.”With little knowledge of the outside world, the monarch asked Rock questions like: Was it possible to ride a horse from Muli to Washington? Was Washington near Germany? Could Rock’s binoculars see through mountains?

Joseph Rock Influence on the Naxi

Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “The Doctor is a passionate plant collector, though of a rather different stamp. Behind his surgery is a garden with paths of pebble-mosaic where a plum tree casts its shadow, like a sundial, on the whitewashed walls, and there are raised beds for growing medicinal herbs. Most of the herbs he has gathered himself, from the slopes of the Snow Range: heaven's hemp (for the bladder); orchid root (for migraine); Meconopsis horridula (for dysentery), and a lichen that will cure shrunken ovaries, or bronchitis if taken with bear's grease. [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986 ^]

“He owes much of his botanical knowledge to his student days in Nanjing. But some he learned from the strange, solitary European - with red face, spectacles and a terrible temper - who taught him his first smattering of English; at whom, as his retinue passed up the village street, the boys would clamor: ''Le-Ke! Le-Ke!'' - ''Rock! Rock!'' - and scamper out of reach. ^

On a beautiful Tibetan monastery on the slopes of Jade Dragon Peak and, Rock wrote: ''It is the home of rats, whose excrements lie inches deep . . . dangerous to visit . . . books wrapped in dusty silks . . . the most forlorn and forsaken lamasery I know of.''...''Tell me,'' the Doctor asked on a previous visit, ''Why was Le-Ke so angry with us?'' ''He wasn't angry with you,'' I said. ''He was born angry.'' I should perhaps have added that the targets of his anger included the National Geographic magazine (for rewriting his prose), his Viennese nephew, Harvard University, women, the State Department, the Kuomintang, Reds, red tape, missionaries, Holy Rollers, Chinese bandits and bankrupt Western civilization. ^

“At Rock's former lodgings in Lijiang town, we have seen his bookcase, his pigeonhole desk, his wide chair (''because he was so fat!'') and the remains of his garden beside the Jade Stream. At Nuluko (the name means ''the foot of the silver cliffs'') his country house is almost as he left it, except that, instead of herbarium specimens, the porch is spread with drying turnip tops. The present occupant, Li Wen Biao, was one of Rock's muleteers; he showed us the master's camp bed and the washhouse where he would set up a canvas bath from Abercrombie & Fitch. ^

Naxi and Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound was one of the most important American poets of 20th century. His main work, "The Cantos", is so full of symbolism and hidden meanings that since his death, in 1972, critics and scholars have spent decades trying to unravel its meainng—as they have done with James Joyces’s “Finnegan’s Wake”— are work out Pound’s true intent. In turns out that the Naxi hold an important key to understanding the symbolism and meaning of the poem. [Source: Ethnic China]

The relationship between Pound and China goes back to the early years of his literary career. His fascination with Chinese characters is well known and has been the subject of numerous scholarly works. But not so well known was Pound’s knowledge of the Naxi world, through the books of Joseph Rock, and the impact of this on the last part of “The Cantos.”

In her book “Confucianism in Pound's Cantos”, the Chinese scholar Su Jinmei suggests that the theme that support the whole narrative structure of The Cantos is the search for a Confucian paradise as alternative to the Western world’s quest for money and success. Su believes that the unspoiled Naxi of Rock’s time (the 1920s and 30s) was a living example of this paradise Pound was longing for. He wrote: "The harmony between man and nature the Nakhi community established sets against the American "trailer life", which is "non-productive / non-agricultural...It seems that the Nakhi world had been dwelling in Pound's mind during the years he wrote the last cantos. The Nakhi community appears in Canto CX "it reappears in the fragment "From CXII" which depicts the Nakhi paradisiacal landscape...The Nakhi world with clear air, spring water, flowing "jade stream", luxuriant forest and the magnificent Mount Hsian Shan or Elephant Mountain becomes the symbol of the earthly paradise. "The firm voice amid pine wood", shows that man is but an inseparable part of the world." [Source: Su Jinmei. “Confucianism in Pound's Cantos.” Nankai University Press, Tianjin, 2003]

Stone Drums and Joseph Rock's Influence Ezra Pound

Bruce Chatwin wrote in the New York Times, “Pound appears to have got hold of Rock's ''Na-Khi Kingdom'' in 1956, at a time when he was locked up as a lunatic in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington; from it, he extrapolated the upland paradise that was to be, in effect, his lifeline. Over the last week we have been walking the roads of Lijiang country and finding, to our delight, that the world Rock ''saved us for memory'' - to say nothing of Ezra Pound's borrowings - is very far from dead. We have been to Tiger Leaping Gorge and seen the cliff line plummeting 11,000 feet into the Yangtze. We have watched the Nakhi women coming down from the Snow Range, with their bundles of pine and artemisia; and one old woman with a bamboo winnowing basket on her back, and the sun's rays passing through it: “Artemisia Arundinaria Winnowed in fate's tray . . .”— Ezra Pound, ''Canto CXII'' [Source: Bruce Chatwin, New York Times, March 16, 1986 ^]

The wild pear trees are scarlet in the foothills, the larches like golden pagodas; the north slopes ''blue-green with juniper.'' The last of the gentians are in flower, and flocks of black sheep brindle the plain. “When the stag drinks at the salt spring and sheep come down with the gentian sprout, . . .” — ''CANTO CX'' ^

At Shigu, where the Yangtze takes a hairpin bend, we have seen the Stone Drum: by the waters of Stone Drum, the two aces . . . — ''Canto CI'' The drum is a cylinder of marble in a pavilion by the willows. The ''aces'' refers to two Chinese generals - one lost in legend, the other of the Ming dynasty, whose victory is recorded on the drum itself. Our friend Tzong-Zong raised his hand to the surface and rattled off the characters:

Snowflakes the size of a hand Rain joining sunset to sunset The wind quick as arrows . . .
Commands quick as lightning
And the bandits loose their gall . . .
Their black flag falls to the earth . . .
They run for their lives . . .
Heads heaped like grave mounds Blood like rain . . .
The dikes choked with armor and rattan shields The trail of foxes and the trail of jackals
Have vanished from the battlefield . . . ^

“Rock wrote of a tradition that, should the Stone Drum split, a catastrophe will fall on the country. About 15 years ago, some Red Guards did, indeed, split it. (It has since been stuck together.) We wondered if, secretly, the iconoclasts had seen the foxes and jackals in themselves. “And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock's world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air— ''Canto CXIII'' ^


Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, National Geographic, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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