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1920s China through the lens of Joseph Rock: Simao

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Street and gate March 10, 1922
Street and gate March 10, 1922

For the next few weeks GoKunming will publish a series of articles featuring photography by Joseph Francis Charles Rock, the Austrian-American author, geographer, linguist and botanist who explored western China extensively in the 1920s and 30s. We'll begin in southern Yunnan and then make our way north and then west, seeing what caught Rock's fancy as he moved through the countryside.

Rock's photo titles are often extremely brief, so, wherever possible we will include his unamended field notes or parts of corresponding diary entries under each image. Our first destination is Yunnan's Simao (思茅), a city which changed its name to Pu'er (普洱) in an attempt to cash in on a tea craze in 2007. These pictures were taken when Rock visited the region in February and March of 1922. There, he tended to focus on street scenes, merchants in town and the surrounding landscape.

Rock's photo titles and descriptions use a Romanization system that has been discontinued, or that he himself invented. For instance, he often writes 'Simao' as 'Szemao', while in other places names and places are inconsistently spelled. We can forgive him, as the photos provide an amazing view of southwest China as it existed 95 years ago. The photos and text below are published here unaltered, with special thanks to the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library at Harvard University for graciously allowing us to use them. An enormous collection of Joseph Rock photos is available through the university's Visual Information Access web portal as well.

Four soldiers with rifles posed on a path March 13, 1922
Four soldiers with rifles posed on a path March 13, 1922

"Part of my escort, four Chinese soldiers photographed on the top ridge between Szemao and Nakoli."

Village street with rocks and thatch roofed buildings March 1, 1922
Village street with rocks and thatch roofed buildings March 1, 1922

"Village of Muang Hing, Chinese name Puting, Between Szemao and Chin Lung Chiang."

Street with people March 3, 1922
Street with people March 3, 1922

"Street scene in Szemao"

Group of people March 6, 1922
Group of people March 6, 1922

"Lissoo women and men. Danish Mission at Szemao."

 Group of people March 8, 1922
Group of people March 8, 1922

"Lissoo women in gala dress."

Caravan of pack animals in front of buildings March 10, 1922
Caravan of pack animals in front of buildings March 10, 1922

"Cotton caravan from the Kentung State, being inspected at the Szemao, Yunnan, Custom House."

 Street with pack animal and buildings March 10, 1922
Street with pack animal and buildings March 10, 1922

"The Szemao custom house with a cotton caravan just starting after examination."

Temple March 10, 1922
Temple March 10, 1922

"Temple on the heights outside the city wall, east gate of Szemao, Yunnan, China."

Custom house with animals in front March 10, 1922
Custom house with animals in front March 10, 1922

"Custom house - Cotton caravan in front."

Brick gate with tree March 10, 1922
Brick gate with tree March 10, 1922

"North gate of Szemao - The tree to the left is Mai Yom."

City gate March 10, 1922
City gate March 10, 1922

"East gate of Szemao."

View through archway of street March 10, 1922
View through archway of street March 10, 1922

"Main Street - looking through the south gate."

View of temple, hills, and trees March 10, 1922
View of temple, hills, and trees March 10, 1922

"View from the room on top of North gate looking towards a temple and the hills."

City rooftops March 10, 1922
City rooftops March 10, 1922

"View of part of Szemao inner city from the top of South gate."

Crowded street procession with soldiers March 6, 1922
Crowded street procession with soldiers March 6, 1922

"Procession of the great Buddha in Szemao."

Crowded street procession with people carrying idols March 6, 1922
Crowded street procession with people carrying idols March 6, 1922

"Idols being carried in the religious procession."

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Thanks.

Mentions Danish mission on one photo. Just saying, digging into individual missionaries can open an enormous treasure box. Several years ago I digged into the Danish mission in Simao, and got in contact with a 90-year old man who used to be located at that Danish mission in Simao. And through him, to another old man, who did same. Just imagine the stories, about tigers, bandits and crossing thr Black River etc. Since they were still very religious, they took my Yunnan connection to them as a "sign" of some kind, and we even started planning them to revisit Simao. There are namely some missionaries and relatives of them who died there. I went down there to local church and got hold of their old passports copies from 1930's, took photos of them, that 'mysteriously' dissappeared. This just strenghtened their idea that they should visit in person, and there was some 'sign' involved. Then we found on letters sent from Simao on ebay from one of the mens sister who was buried there. Anyway, health issues came in here, and they finally couldn't make journey abroad. Would have made a great story.

Point being, find one missionary and start digging into him/her. You end up with diaries, photos, stories and whatnot. Very interesting. Unfortunately most are gone now. Like the Flying Tigers.

Good that you have access to, and can publish, these old photos.
Interesting that the one photo that could have been taken in many places in Yunnan today is the 9th one, of the temple - virtually no difference in the widespread architectural style.

I'm thinking his romanizations can be forgiven, given that putonghua was not standard and he's probably hearing a variety of dialectic Kunming hua and the incredibly diverse minority languages and dialects, when the locals or guides provide descriptions of various names and places, not to mention the various linguistic eccentricities of the various european missionaries.

Note that there was no pinyin at the time - his romanization was more or less Wade-Giles..

My guess is that its not Rocks romanization, you had several people using similar romanizations, and Szemao has been used by many others than Rock. But you can find a lot of different romanizations despite that (Ssemao, Ssumao etc). The French had their own way on some places too (Yunnanfou), the English their own, even the Italians had some Italian style here. Why even mention Italians? Well, they were the ones busy building the Yunnan Hanoi railway, and some up in Deqin. Yuy used to have greek people in Yunnan too. That is a mystery some say. But dig into ethymology of Yunnan and theres Yunan/Ionian, and a possible connection.

And I do not think Rock did any mistakes on romanization. That is probably the last guy who improvised. "Simao" is a recent way of romanizing 思茅. Szemao is the most common from historical perspective. Many places have changes their names too, and several times. Say, there was no "Jianshui", or "Kaiyuan" etc. Jianshui was Linan for ceturies. Only changed recently. Even "Kunming" goes back only a half century+.

In Dali prefecture was once showed an "old invaluable map", with romanization. Heh, you had "Simao" there. "Lijiang" even Sikkim was there as a part of India. Fake.

I'm presuming Rock's Simao is what was renamed Pu'Er a decade or so ago. (The previous Pu'er village was renamed Ning'Er, I believe).

@Ocean: right on both counts.

Does anyone have any idea where "Nakoli" is? I'm assuming, based on the picture caption, that it's a town or village next to Simao...

@Xiefei: H. R. Davies, in his YUN-NAN: THE LINK BETWEEN INDIA AND THE YANGTSE (pub. 1909; p. 99) writes that he started from Simao and started north (?) for Puer; road was "fairly easy"; they went up to 6,300 feet and descended to "Na-k'o-li" in one day, then spent the night there; following day they went 12&1/2 more miles to "Pu'erh Fu, the most important official town as Ssu-mao is the chief commercial town in this part of Yun-nan."
So, yeah, the names of the places are a little confusing.

Alien, theres one of best Yunnan maps ever, associated with that book. I remember Edgar Snow saying his was gazing at it, like you stare at the ocean or a fire. Its huge, detailed and it got lot of fancy details. So Nakola will be on it.

Rock used to name the passes too. Nakoli sounds tibetan, and if it was Nakola, youd say thats a pass in Tibet.

@Peter: Yes, It was his map that was the most widely-used one among western foreigners for quite awhile, but unfortunately y copy of the book does not have the map. However, in Davies' 1895 itinerary of his 2nd trip, her makes Nakoli at 4600 feet altitude, 12 miles north of Simao.

If found the Davies Yunnan map as a huge PDF file online, some years ago. Free download too. Detailed like the original. Had it on my laptop, and it dissappeared somewhere when I got a new laptop. I mean, hey, that map, that map. Theres some archive out there in the Internet jungle that has/had it - havent been able to find it again.

Sory slightly out of topic. Alien, you really got a copy of the Davies Yün-Nan book? You can find it in some libraries with rare Asia collections and such, but you need to put efforts to get the hands on it. Now if you dont mind asking, how did you get a hold on one?

Oh, copy. Sorry. You got a copy version of some kind.

@Peter: copy, yeah.

Where is Doctor Rock buried? In the States most likely.

Someone who lives in same US area should bring a bag of Yunnan soil there, and put on that grave. Rainbows will immediately fill the sky.

A bag of Lijiang soil, a Naxi baba, some water from Yangtze bend, a sprinkle of Naxi baijiu - oh, thou who dont believe in miracles...

I think Rock is buried in Hawaii.

Someone from Hawai could also dig some soil of Doctor Rocks grave and bring to his former house in Yuhu village (Lijiang prefecture). Dont say it has been demolished? Doctor Rocks old house was still there with some of his tools 7 years ago. The old stone wall there at the long and winding road. The Jadedragon Taoist Doctor Ho in Baisha village next to Yuhu, who is still alive and past 90 years now, also knew Rock. He would know where to put the soil, for perfect feng shui. Oh, there would be an earthquake.

Dr. Rock is the only Western Yunnan prophet. There are several Chinese Yunnan prophets though, and many from outside Yunnan, some even from outside China. Like Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. You got the 忠爱坊 arch in center of Kunming for him, he is still remembered. Then theres guys like Sun Rangwen who Heaven sent the Daguan Lou poem, and he is still remembered. But Rock is the only Western Yunnan prophet, may he never be forgotten.

@Peter: don't understand why you use the word 'prophet', or why Rock is the only Western Yunnan one.

@A

Oh, it was meant as a Westerner not West Yunnan. These things shall not be analyzed (particularly from the Western mind) too much, the Tibetans dont make analytical dissertations on their lamas either. Rock was a Yunnan Rock Star. And still is.

I have high resolution digital copies of both Davies map (scanned from the Harvard map library) and Davies' book (scanned from the San Francisco Public library archives). PM me if you want copies.

Don't know about possible copyrights or whatever - I'd imagine there'd be no problem today - but it would be really GREAT if your copy of this very important map were available through gokunming - a real public service.

Thats great to hear Geogramatt.

BTW. The Yunnan provincial library near Cuihu Lake has a cardbox filled with all kinds of old documents in English. Its in the same room with all the English books there (last time I looked is three years ago - things could have changed). They opened the lock for the bookshelf when I asked if its possible, and I started checking those documents, some really old and falling apart. Some where from Joseph Rock and where given as donations to the English section of the library. I remember reading somewhere that the library was originally started at a foreigner initiative, so apparently Rock donated some of his books there. You had a short text there in the book, like "best wishes for the library" and then the words "J.F Rock" under them. They are still there somewhere and librarian not aware of this.

@Peter: Do you know if the staff will let you photocopy them (at least the ones that are not falling apart)?

This is 3 years ago, so things could have changed. They were in a very bad shape, so hopefully they have been put somewhere for better protection. And I did take photos myself, with a mobile phone that froze later, so the photos are gone. But all were cool with taking photos. They were just not aware it was a small 'treasure'. You have a lot of these treasures in libraries allover Asia, now just imagine Hanoi where French had their colonial capital.

Anyway, about Kunming, you might want to find some manager and check with this. And possibly relocate the cardbox. Best done with guanxi of course. Start by checking the locked glass shelf in the English room.

@Peter: thanks.

I can say a story here, in 2008 I scanned the Hanoi old colonial library for Yunnan documents. It was clear some had not been touched since 1930's. Got my hands on old photos and maps and such. I dont steal this stuff - only loosers do - but took photos and copied some stuff. One map was so huge I had to smuggle it down to the street to get it copied, but I brought it nicely back. Same week I wanted to locate old Hanoi cemetaries to see if some old Yunnanfu days people possibly where buried there. So most cemetaries were gone, and built over, but I was shown one with a handful Chinese people, and including the consulars tomb. Initially I was looking for foreigners, not any Chinese tombs. The tombs were overgrown and since the graveyard workers were eager to clean them for a tip, (this was almost mandatory), I paid them and they tidied the Chinese tombs. Even pit some flowers there. Heh. Went back to the library and there was a huge conference, of friendship, between the historical society of Yunnan and Hanoi, and the consulars. Was thinking, shall I go adn grab the microphonr and say I just cleaned the tombs guys, and copied an old Yunnan map and photographs - from this same room, you guys have the conference in, and none of you historians not even thinking about taking a look. Later I donated the map to Dali and some excavation is now being done according to it.

Lotta cross-border stuff, including Rock.
The National Library in Hanoi is indeed good - I went there too, but had no camera - doubt if they have anything about Rock, though.

Some stuff of Rock is in Calcutta. He even worked there. Plenty to dig up in Calcutta too. But Indian bureaucracy is designed such, that 'normal' people can hardly get a library card. Some of this has been copied by the English class system and merged together with the Ibdian cast system - so just imagine difficulty.

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