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Book Review: China on the Wild Side, Volume I

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The larger-than-life botanist, explorer, photographer and ethnographer Joseph F Rock may not have discovered western China, but he was one of the first outsiders to introduce its kaleidoscope of geography, flora, fauna and ethnic groups to a curious outside world.

China on the Wild Side: Explorations in the China-Tibet Borderlands Volume I, Yunnan and Sichuan is a look at the then-untouched hinterlands of Yunnan and Sichuan through Rock's own eyes. The book is a collection of articles written by Rock that were published in National Geographic Magazine between 1924 and 1935.

As a botanist with a gift for languages and – most importantly – securing sponsorship from overseas, Rock was born to be an explorer. He took exhaustive notes about everything he witnessed, as a scientist would, and in Lijiang he dove into the realms of linguistics and ethnography. His dictionary of the Naxi language is still the best there is and his writings about the culture and customs of the Naxi are a vivid record of the traditions that have been disappearing over the past several decades.

One of Rock's Naxi assistants
One of Rock's Naxi assistants

Given the publication he was writing for and his reputation as a serious and often intense individual, most of Rock's writing is that of a detached observer. But he does have moments where he genuinely seems overcome by his surroundings, sometimes resulting in astonishment, sometimes in elation.

The book's opening article, "Banishing the Devil of Disease Among the Nashi of Yunnan Province, China", is Rock's account of a Naxi ceremony for exorcising demons from the sick that he witnessed in Nguluko, now known as Yuhu Village (玉湖村), in Lijiang.

A Naxi man was suffering from an infected tooth, sore gums and ulceration of the palate. He initially sought Rock's help, but to no avail, so he hired dongba priests to drive the demons believed to be behind the ailment from his body. Rock provides a rich account of a ceremony involving spirit-possessed dongba priests, a devil made of dough, wild dancing, chicken sacrifice and even one participant licking a red-hot plow.

Rock obviously revels in the feeling that he's the first white man to experience the natural scenery and biodiversity in this part of China – much of which still exists today. When these articles were published more than eight decades ago, it was the first for National Geographic readers to learn of the towering peaks and deep gorges that characterize this part of China.

A wealthy Hlihin woman
A wealthy Hlihin woman

For readers of this collection today, it is when Rock turns his keen eye to the region's ethnic patchwork that the reader gets the greatest insight into the world that once was. Sadly, several of the cultures and traditions that Rock witnessed and meticulously recorded vanished in the social upheaval of the 50s through 70s as well as the last twenty years of economic development. Additionally, many of the peoples that Rock encountered were assimilated into other groups when the People's Republic classified its 56 officially recognized ethnic groups.

Into Yunnan's three parallel gorges
Rock's most physically demanding expedition in southwest China formed the basis of his 1926 article for National Geographic entitled "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia". The journey passed through the gorges of the headwaters of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers in northwest Yunnan, where they are known as the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu rivers, respectively. The rivers all flow southward in close proximity to each other for 200 kilometers, and their valleys are separated by massive snow-capped peaks.

Rock and his entourage of muleteers and soldiers started on the west side of the Yangtze where its flow bends northward at Shigu (石鼓), heading northward to Judian (巨甸) before crossing over mountains to reach the east side of the Mekong, which they followed north before crossing the roiling rapids on a rope bridge.

To cross the bridge, which was simply a rope hanging across the valley above the rushing waters of the Mekong, one needed a bamboo slider and sling to attach to the slider. Additionally, one had to grease the slider with yak butter to avoid ending up dangling motionless above the middle of the river. A general rule of thumb at the time was to not traverse rope bridges that were over three months old.

Rock got into his sling and was the first to cross:

"...there was a yell of "Let go!" and off I shot, far into space, at the rate of 20 miles an hour. A glimpse of the roaring river far below me, a smell as of burning wood, caused by the friction of the slider, which raced over the unevenly braided, bumpy rope, and I landed, like a heavy mule, on the rocky west bank of the river."

For Rock, who generally preferred to err on the side of caution, the experience must have been quite intimidating. But it does appear that he did have a bit of a fun streak in him.

"It was a great relief to be across and have it over with," he wrote, "but thereafter I must confess I actually enjoyed sliding over rope bridges whenever I was assured that they had not seen too long service."

One of Rock's horses crossing the Salween
One of Rock's horses crossing the Salween

After braving a blizzard to cross the mountains between the Mekong and Salween, Rock descends into the Nu Valley and finds a drunken wedding party celebrating a local man's purchase of a woman who will become one of his several wives.

"All were gloriously drunk," Rock wrote, "but, not-withstanding their condition and the feast, they offered at once to ferry us across the broad, swift-flowing Salwin."

"There were several dugout canoes on the sandy beach, but only two were serviceable, and these were almost as tipsy as the 14 men who comprised the crews. A rope bridge spans the river here, but I preferred the drunken Lutzu to the old rope."

Befriending royalty
Emboldened by his successful traversing of the three river gorges, Rock set his sights northward into southern Sichuan's kingdom of Muli (木里). If Lijiang was Rock's home in southwestern China, Muli was his home away from home. Rock and Chote Chabha, the rotund King of Muli, became quick friends, with the king offering Rock VIP accommodations and treatment and Rock bringing him firearms and knowledge of the outside world.

Rock with the King of Muli (r)
Rock with the King of Muli (r)

The king knew very little of the world beyond Muli's outskirts, which is understandable given Muli's remoteness and that it was 1924. At one point, the king asked Rock about the First World War in a way that rendered Rock's interpreter somewhat embarrassed: "Have the white people stopped fighting and are they again at peace?"

The king was more than 10 years his junior, but Rock's friendship with him was to open doors to even more remote areas that were infested with bandits. These were areas that Han Chinese dared not enter, but years earlier the story had been much different.

Braving the bandit kingdom
The regions of Konkaling (Gonggaling, 贡嘎岭) and Hsiangcheng (Xiangcheng, 乡城) in present-day Sichuan had been relatively harmonious under the rule of a Tibetan prince who ruled from Litang, but after a Han-led army overran the royal family, the territory fell into chaos and became a land of bandits.

When Rock arrived in the area, it had already been in disarray for 20 years. Of the 31 administrative regions that composed the territory, only nine were under Han control. The remaining area was dominated by Tibetan outlaws.

Luckily for Rock, one of the most powerful outlaws in the area was on friendly terms with the Muli king, who provided soldiers and wrote a letter that provided Rock with a VIP pass into the dangerous domain, home to the three sacred peaks of the Minya Konka range: Shenrezig (仙乃日), Jambeyang (央迈勇) and Chanadorje (夏诺多吉), which were named after three bodhisattvas. Today the region is part of the Yading Nature Reserve. Rock summarizes the region's beauty and remoteness nicely:

"A scenic wonder of the world, this region is 45 days from the nearest railhead. For centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such privileged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them. And the cost of traveling in this part of the world is prohibitive for an ordinary mortal."

Rock's camp below the sacred peak of Chanadorje
Rock's camp below the sacred peak of Chanadorje

The treacherous terrain, especially high up in the mountains took its toll on the entire caravan, with Rock serving as the de facto doctor. At one point up in the Minya Konka, snowblindness became an issue.

"As the storm continued, to go on the next day was impossible," Rock wrote. "The soldiers of the Muli king and my muleteers were snowblind and were suffering terribly. Fortunately, I had cocaine, with which I made a solution, and this I dropped into their eyes to relieve their pain. I followed this treatment with cold compresses."

Rock's entourage preparing to cross the Yangtze on inflated goat skins
Rock's entourage preparing to cross the Yangtze on inflated goat skins

In this first volume of China on the Wild Side, Rock brings some of Yunnan and Sichuan's most remote and fascinating regions alive in a way that gives the reader a palpable sense of discovery. These dispatches from the Chinese hinterland made Rock a celebrity and are believed to have inspired the novel Lost Horizon.

Civil war and animosity toward foreigners would eventually drive him from China, but Rock managed to squeeze expeditions into Gansu and Qinghai in before then. These travels are covered in China on the Wild Side: Explorations in the China-Tibet Borderlands Volume II, Qinghai and Gansu, which shall be reviewed here soon.

China on the Wild Side: Explorations in the China-Tibet Borderlands Volume I, Yunnan and Sichuan, published by Caravan Press (2007) is available at Mandarin Bookstore and Prague Café's Beichen location. It can also be ordered online at mandarinbooks.cn or Amazon.

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Great post! Joseph Rock has been on my watch list for ages now. Will def get my hands on that book

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