GoKunming, a blog reporting from the capital of Yunnan province, has been posting an excellent series this month of 1930s photos by Austrian-American polymath Joseph Rock (pictured above), who spent much of his life in China’s southwestern frontiers. Rock was one of the first to bring Western classification systems in linguistics, anthropology and botany to bear on China. A regular contributor to National Geographic throughout the 1920s and ’30s, he was arguably the first China travel blogger.
Today, GoKunming has a fantastic post with Rock’s photos of the Naxi people, a minority spread across northwestern Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan. If you visit the UNESCO Heritage Site of Lijiang today, you can imbibe Naxi culture in any number of ways (Naxi traditional music is quite distinctive), albeit packaged for tourist consumption. Rock was in Lijiang long before the backpacking hordes, of course, and contributed enormously to Western understanding of the area, penning a 1,094-page dictionary and two histories of the Naxi. GoKunming writes:
Rock was enraptured by them, spending more time in Naxi villages than he did anywhere else in China. He was especially interested in dongba — which he often wrote as “dto-mba” — a curious word which can refer to the Naxi language, their holy men, religion and some cultural traditions.
Check the full photoset (which GoKunming has helpfully annotated with excerpts from Rock’s field notes) here, and find previous posts from the series (they’re following Rock’s travels in China from south to north over the series of several weeks) here.
Bonus: If you want to see what rogue ethnography in Yunnan looks like today, here’s VICE exploring the culture of bug eating:
Cover photo: Fine Art America