A KING IN CHINA
2003, 52 minutes
|ORDER DVD||PARTNERS||EXHIBITION||JOSEPH ROCK LINKS|
Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962) was one of the last classic explorers of the 20th century, arriving in western China in 1922 and spending most of the next twenty-seven years of his life there. He collected plants, hunted birds, took photographs and shot film, and explored the mountainous regions of western China for various prestigious American institutions including the US Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic Society and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Having established himself in a village near Lijiang in the province Yunnan, home of the Naxi, an ethnic minority in Southwest China, Rock set out to explore the previously closed provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai along the Tibetan border and ventured into north-eastern Tibet, areas little known to the western world.
Rock was a complicated man, proud, self-made, extraordinary, imperfect, and a loner. Setting out for years at a time, he would travel like royalty. Hs baggage included tents, a folding bed, a table and chairs, table linen and china, and even a portable rubber bathtub. The caravan would often include up to 26 mules and 17 men, escorted by 190 soldiers with rifles to ward off the bandits who preyed on travellers in China's backcountry in the 1920s. He himself would head the caravan travelling on horseback, except when visiting a local ruler when he would be carried in a sedan chair. When the four porters put it down the figure who alighted would be wearing a white shirt, tie and jacket, and the many astonished peasants would believe him to be a foreign prince. "You've got to make people believe you're someone of importance if you want to live in these wilds," he once said.
Rock was born in Vienna, the son of a nobleman's servant who determined that the boy would become a priest. His mother died when he was six and Rock developed into an introverted adolescent who decided that he wanted to travel. He prepared himself by studying exotic languages at night by candlelight when he was supposed to be sleeping. At the age of eighteen, he defied his father and escaped from Vienna. One day he signed on as a cabin steward aboard a passenger ship bound for New York and arrived there in 1905. Working as a dishwasher and suffering from attacks of tuberculosis, he haphazardly made his way to Hawaii where he landed penniless in 1907.
Within a few weeks he found a position teaching Latin and natural history in a secondary school in Honolulu. He had no university degree but gave himself the title of Doctor which nobody questioned. Rock's obligation to his natural history students forced him to investigate the flora of Hawaii. He discovered that he liked working alone outdoors and slowly his health improved. For the next decade he gave botany his undivided attention and became the unchallenged authority on the flora of the Hawaiian Islands. He joined the Division of Forestry of the Territory of Hawaii as their first botanical collector, assigned to set up a herbarium. This involved long expeditions into the difficult volcanic terrain of the islands where he learnt the skills he would need for his future career as an explorer in Asia. By 1911 he had joined the faculty of the College of Hawaii (today the University of Hawaii) where he taught botany and continued to identify new species and amass his beloved herbarium.
As an agricultural explorer in China, Rock lived in wild and troubled provinces in a chaotic nation. He witnessed civil wars, tribal wars, provincial wars, a world war, and a national revolution, not to mention the random savagery of bandits who plundered the Chinese countryside. On his expeditions he got to know Kings, Regents and Warlords, often staying at the Buddhist monasteries which populated the Eastern Himalayan foothills, filming and photographing their rituals. Always searching for his own personal Shangri-la, he found it amongst the Naxi, an ethnic minority in Southwest China. He was fascinated by their unique religious pictographic script and started work on his magnum opus, an encyclopaedic dictionary of the pictographic language of the Naxi religious texts, at the same time a description of a culture on the verge of extinction. His pioneering work amongst the Naxi created an awareness of their culture for the first time in the West and he was instrumental in saving their culture from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution yet to come.
Rock spent his last few weeks in China under communist regime. Though no one laid a hand on Rock or his belongings, he was clearly unwanted. The work on his dictionary had anyway come to a halt as the Naxi priests vanished overnight, Rock's interpreter with them. Some went underground and others were killed. Naxi men who had been Rock's servants for years were jeered in public and labelled "imperialist lackeys". In 1949 he returned to Hawaii to complete his encyclopaedia. Rock had hoped to see it published by his 79th birthday on the 13th of January 1963, but unfortunately a month before its publication he died of a heart attack at home on the 5th of December 1962, surrounded by his beloved Naxi pictographs.