By Patrick Scally in Features

"Two Ngaw-la, or spirits of victory, with face paint, eagle claw, sword, and helmets with pheasant feathers next to an altar with a statue of Mùan-llü-ddu-ndzi, the father of the Naxi."

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. On this journey with Rock, we first went to Simao (思茅) — today called Pu'er (普洱) — and then moved on to Dali (大理) and Lijiang (丽江). Our fourth gallery is of the Naxi people (纳西族) who live in and around Lijiang. 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.

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 published here with permission. Special thanks to the Yenching Library at Harvard University for graciously allowing us to use them. An enormous collection of Rock's China photos are available through Harvard's HOLLIS image database.

11590.jpg
Naxi man with drawn sword wearing traditional Hli-khin warrior's armor made of rhinoceros blades lacquered red and helmet of iron segments at the foot of the Lijiang snow range Undated

"Armor dating from the days of the Sung dynasty or earlier. Made of Rhinoceros hide. Photographed at Nda-za gko eastern slopes of Li-ch'iang Snow Range, N.W. Yunnan."

11582.jpg
Sze-chung bpo ceremony for the prolongation of life Undated

"Scene from the Naxi Szi chung bpö ceremony for the prolongation of life showing men with sword and gong dancing around Muan-llü-ddu-ndzi, father of the Naxi, depicted as an old man with a white beard."

11583.jpg
Human and animal figurines sculpted from barley flour and butter dough for use in a Naxi religious ceremony Undated

11584.jpg
Naxi family performing a Muan bpo ceremony outdoors near Lijiang February 1931

"Na-khi Muan bpo or propitiation of heaven ceremony. Every family that is clan of one name, as Li, Ho, etc., has its own place of worhship called Muan bpo da."

11585.jpg
Naxi dto-mbas with headdresses, knives, and musical instruments performing a religious ceremony in the courtyard of Joseph Rock's house Undated

11586.jpg
Naxi Llü-bu in a trance wearing a red turban with prayer papers and offering a chicken near Lijiang 1931

11580.jpg
Naxi altar with tree branches and inscribed k'o-byu Undated

"Dter-la-llü k'o for the propitiation of souls who have died unattended, that is by accident or suicide. They become 'olter or headless demons."

11581.jpg
Six Naxi k'o byu with animal figures Undated

"The larger k'o-byu given to the Nagas for animals hunted and killed."

11589.jpg
Naxi Llü-bu with a gong and wearing a red turban with prayer papers about to go into a trance near Lijiang 1931

"Moso sorcerer at Likiang performing."

11587.jpg
Members of a Naxi funeral procession carrying a coffin out of the village of Nv-lv-k'ö with the Lijiang Snow Range in the background Undated

11591.jpg
Two Naxi swimmers wearing inflated goatskin floats standing next to a goatskin raft used as a ferry for crossing the Yangtze River Undated

11588.jpg
Nine houses of the Nagas altar erected for the Naxi Naga cult Ssu-ddü-gv ceremony Undated

11592.jpg
Detail of a statue of the nine-headed demon monster Sso-na-ngv-gu used in a Naxi Dto na k'ö ceremony performed in the courtyard of Joseph Rock's house Undated

"Front view showing: serow, pig, bear (left); rabbit, donkey, ghost (center); ghost, crow, dog (right)."

11594.jpg
The Dto-na-k'o ceremony. Li-chiang Undated

"Naxi dto-mbas dancing with swords around a statue of the demon monster Sso-na-ngv-gu prior to setting him on fire in a meadow near Li-chiang."

11596.jpg
Three Hli-khin women of the Tso-so La T'u-ssu family Undated

"Tso-so women of chief's household."

11593.jpg
Naxi dto-mba reciting from the book Shi-lo ssaw at the sacred grotto Shi-lo ne-k'o on a mountain in the Bber-dder District in northwest Yunnan Undated

"The founder of the Bon or his later reincarnation is said to have lived there. North of Li-ch'iang in Chung-tien territory, Yunnan."

11597.jpg
Village and mill on a river near Lijiang with Yulongxue Shan in background Undated

11598.jpg
Joseph Rock (in light-colored suit) and crowd standing in front of the Kunming, a Ford Tri-motor airplane, at the landing field north of Lijiang 1936

"During my brief sojourn in my old village... thousands had come. Many had come to see me Li-ssu-shiang, the lama from Yü-fung Ssu, the old village headman from Nv-lv-k'o, Li-wen-kao, Ho-ssu-tsang, Lau-rü,... the old woman I operated on on a gangreened [sic] foot, the man who had been stabbed and whom I healed.... We returned to the plain [sic] surrounded by a mob. I gave a last handshake to Li-ssu-chin and Lau-rü, the two boys who had been with me to New York and Washington. Li-ssu-chin could hardly speak."