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1920s China through the lens of Joseph Rock: The wilds of Lijiang

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Mountains with plain in foreground May 1922
Mountains with plain in foreground May 1922

"The Lichiang snow range as seen from the Village of Nguluke."

For the next several 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 field notes or parts of corresponding diary entries under each image. We first went to Simao (思茅) — today called Pu'er (普洱) — and then moved on to Dali (大理). Our third destination is Yunnan's Lijiang (丽江). Today a tourist playground, in Rock's day it was absolute heaven for a man who loved both botany and geography.

Rock's photo titles and descriptions use a Romanization system he possibly invented on his own. For instance, he often writes 'Lijiang' as 'Lichiang', while in other places the names are inconsistently spelled. We can forgive him, as his photos provide an amazing view of southwest China as it existed 90 years ago. The pictures and text 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 Rock's China photos are available at Harvard's Visual Information Access database.

Mountain range May 1922
Mountain range May 1922

"The lower crops of the Lichiang snow range mostly composed of limestone. Elevation 15000-16000 feet."

Plant habit May 24, 1922
Plant habit May 24, 1922

"Primula Bessiana — Along a brook in boggy meadow, eastern flank of Lichiang snow mountains, elevation 10000 feet."

Mountain peaks August 27, 1922
Mountain peaks August 27, 1922

"The snow peak Sa tse to of the Lichiang snow range, as seen from an elev. Of 16000 feet."

Mountains behind slope with vegetation May 1922
Mountains behind slope with vegetation May 1922

"The Lichiang snow range as seen from halfway across the northern end of the Lichiang plain opposite Nguluke."

Man in native dress performing religious dance September 1922
Man in native dress performing religious dance September 1922

"Moso wizard from Nguluko on slopes of Lichiang snow range; he is in attitude of dancing the sacred Moso dance with sword and gong."

Mountain peaks July 8, 1922
Mountain peaks July 8, 1922

"The limestone crags and peaks below the actual snow peak of the Lichiang snow range, photographed at 16500 feet."

Mountain peaks July 8, 1922
Mountain peaks July 8, 1922

"The limestone crags and peaks below the actual snow peak not visible in this photo. The Lichiang snow range, 165000 ft. elev."

Mountains with conifers May 25, 1922
Mountains with conifers May 25, 1922

"The Lichiang snow range as seen from the big gulch 30 Li Nguluke."

Full body view of man in native dress carrying sticks May 10, 1922
Full body view of man in native dress carrying sticks May 10, 1922

"A native of Lichiang, met on the way to Lashipa on the Lo shin tung plateau."

Mountains June 3, 1922
Mountains June 3, 1922

"Looking up the main peak on the eastern flank of the Lichiang snow range, from the broad, dry stream bed."

Branch with leaves and fruit September 1, 1922
Branch with leaves and fruit September 1, 1922

"A wild plum found at the foot of the Lichiang snow range, northern end of the Lichiang plain."

Trees at edge of meadow July 8, 1922
Trees at edge of meadow July 8, 1922

"On the edge of the Mahoang Patze, an alpine meadow on the Lichiang snow range, an elev. of 12000 ft."

Trees with mountains beyond May 1922
Trees with mountains beyond May 1922

"Main peak of the Lichiang snow range 21,000 ft. in height, Trees in foreground Abies Forrestii."

Tree habit May 1922
Tree habit May 1922

"Pinus sinensis on the extreme northern end of the Lichiang plain."

Group of people in native dress with two mounted on horses June 2, 1922
Group of people in native dress with two mounted on horses June 2, 1922

"Tibetans encamped near the Peshive plain, 60 Li north of Lichiang. They came from Tachienlu, a distance of 25 days north."

Men with plant specimens sitting outside of house September 1922
Men with plant specimens sitting outside of house September 1922

"Lan Lee and Sin no (plant collectors) changing driers on plants collected on the Lichiang snow range in courtyard of my Moso house. Nguluko, Yunnan, China."

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Astonishing how the tall, mature pine trees were abundant in NW Yunnan a century ago.
Presently,on the west flank of Jade Dragon mountain we can still see remnants of these old growth forests which were chopped down, dragged downhill to the Yangtze and floated downriver...

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