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February 9, 2014

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Tracing footsteps of early explorer

Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock (1884-1962) traveled throughout southwest China for more than 25 years and his writings inspired the myth of Shangri-La and James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.”

Rock was a skilled linguist, ethnologist, botanist and ornithologist who lived in some remote areas never before documented by Westerners. He was also an eccentric and recluse who traveled with servants, a full set of silverware for all meals, and an Abercombie & Fitch canvas bathtub in which he regularly enjoyed warm baths.

Though lacking formal qualifications, he was a polymath who wrote articles for National Geographic and other magazines about mysterious areas in Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. He left China in 1949.

A biography of Rock by American Stephanne Sutton has just been translated by Li Ruohong, a sociologist focused on ethnic conflicts and interactions in China’s borderlands and the history of relations between the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and Tibet, before it became an autonomous Chinese region.

Li is assistant director for academic programs at the Harvard-Yenching Institute for Asian studies. Her translation was published last month by the Shanghai Lexicographic Publishing House. The translation is based on Sutton’s Book “In China’s Border Provinces” (1974), which is based on Rock’s diaries between 1922 and 1949.

Rock spent a great deal of time in Yunnan around Lijiang and around what is now Zhongdian, a primarily Tibetan county in northwestern Yunnan, which in 2001 renamed itself Shangri-La to attract tourists. Much of the ancient town burned in a fire accident earlier last month.

“... Both (James) Hilton and Rock, through different ways, discovered China’s borderland and identified themselves with the land of Shangri-La. Hilton discovered Shangri-la from his fantasy and wrote the story in 1933 whereas Rock lived through Shangri-La,” Li told Shanghai Daily in an interview.

Q: How did you come to translate the book?

A: In 1992, my (late) Tibetan teacher at Oxford, Dr Michael Aris (Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband), showed me his new book on Rock and Rock’s photos in China’s borderlands ... A decade later at the Harvard-Yenching Institute that holds some of the Rock archives, the biography of the fascinating explorer came to my attention.

I decided to translate because Rock had unique experiences in the Tibetan borderlands that I’m passionate about ... and because Rock had a unique and difficult personality. There has been a great deal of interest in him and his beloved Lijiang, however, information on this extraordinary character was less than accurate and adequate.

Q: What was Rock like as a person and what was his contribution?

A: He was undoubtedly a genius with eccentric personality traits. He was talented in many areas.

As a botanist, he was a completely self-taught expert. As an explorer, he is the first Westerner to live in Lijiang, Yongning, Muli and Zhuoni for a significant period. The areas where he trekked are among the most mountainous and treacherous, not easily accessible today.

Southwestern China, especially Yunnan, was a heaven and terra incognita for botanists and explorers. Rock arrived in Lijiang in 1922 and remained on and off until 1949. Lijiang was his base for botanical research and his study of the Naxi religion and language. He found his long-lost homeland in Lijiang and fell in love with Yunnan.

Q: What was the most attractive part of the biography?

A: The vivid description of his childhood and youth as he made painstaking efforts to search for his true passion, identity and his own way of life ... In the end, he could not escape the fate of a loner; he could not get along with people from his own culture and ultimately could not completely settle down with his beloved Naxi natives either.

Q:. What difficulties did you encounter in translating?

A: Identifying names spelled in the local dialect of the time was most difficult ... A large chunk of information on Rock’s life cannot be reconstructed since he never married, though he cherished his family in Vienna.

Q: What’s the academic significance of the translation?

A: To put southwestern China into an international context, we come to understand that Rock was one of many foreign explorers who lived in that multi-ethnic, multilingual part of the world in the early 1900s.

More research is needed on Western botany in the area and explorers’ interactions with ethnic groups. Rock’s observations of this region in the turbulent early 1900s (He documented many battles between Muslims and Tibetans) shed light on China’s social, cultural and political arena.

Q: Have you trace Rock’s footsteps?

A: I have traveled in the Sichuan-Tibetan border region but I have never traced Rock’s routes. I hope to one day. ... It is essential to understand and preserve the Naxi culture and history in the border between China’s Han ethnics and Tibetans.

Naxi tradition reflects interaction and juxtaposition of multiple ethnic groups in the region.


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