Sunday, February 25, 2007


In monte munera ... the rewards are at the top : such was the device of my old school and I should have remembered it, that day last September when I was cycling with my wife on the slopes of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) just outside Lijiang in Yunnan province. Unfortunately, not the lack of material but a lack of sufficient upfront training made us give up on the way to our destination of that afternoon. I felt bad about it again after I read this today:

“For nearly twelve years prior to the outbreak of World War II, I had been engaged upon the special project of studying and translating the religious texts of the Na-khi [or Naxi] tribe of northwest Yünnan. When it became impossible for me to stay in Likiang for economic reasons, I gathered my material and shipped it from Calcutta on the S.S. Richard Hovey to the United States. This ship was sunk in 1944 by the Japanese and all my work was lost. I then determined to return to China to do the work over again.”

These words are taken from an autobiographical note, signed by Joseph Rock as can be found on the website of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. It feels futile to not be able to push your bike a few more kilometers further uphill, to where Rock had his "cabin" in the long years that he spent in the region of Lijiang, investigating the local flora, culture, language and geography. We were headed for a meeting with history and the remnants of one of it's lesser known "monstres sacrées", and all I can say is ... we just ran out of breath. What a defeat !

My attention was first drawn by the numerous black & white photographs that adorn the walls of the Dongba Palace on Dongdajie (东大街) in Lijiang, just opposite of the better known concert hall where Xuan Ke and his troupe perform nightly chinese traditional Han music. They're hung up in the normal Chinese ramshackle sort-of-way, but they display an obvious quality with respect to their subject. In each subsequent visit to a museum or a temple in Lijiang's surroundings, we would keep running into more of those pictures, very much focusing on the people and their rites as performed by the local shamans known as Dongba's. It struck me that Rock had documented the entire area more than half a century before tourism ever became aware of a place called Lijiang.

Joseph Francis Rock, born in Vienna in 1884 and deceased in Honolulu 1962, in my view is as close to the idea of the "homo universalis", by which we tend to denominate the likes of Da Vinci, as it gets in modern times . Science and technology has become so specified, one is bound to narrow it's focus to a very specific area of research if one wants to be noticed. This Austrian, who migrated to the United States (Hawaii) in 1907, has left us with valuable contributions and a compendium of work encompassing the fields of botanics, ethnology, geography, linguistics and photography.

On a sidenote one could ask: has it got to do with Austria, or is it the presence of the mountains that has brought about such men, since somewhat later than Rock, there was also Heinrich Harrer, caught up in the same part of the world, on the roof of the world finding himself teaching the then still young Dalai Lama during his seven year stay in Tibet. Harrer, though with a less unbespoken background than Rock (he joined the Waffen SS in the late 30's), displayed the same breadth of interest.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of Rock's work, it seems to me. Apart from the photographs which he took and of which a good deal can be found via this site, Rock also set out, in cooperation with the Dongba Shamans on the translation of a large body of works in the Naxi manuscript, now being held by the Library of Congress:

The Naxi language is the only pictographic writing system still in use today. The Dongbas created two scripts for ceremonies--pictographic and syllabic (phonetic). Many of the individual symbols, totaling 276 sound complexes, are compounds and are read as a phrase in which verbs and other parts of speech are supplied from memory. In addition, the Naxi language has four tones; each sound complex has many different meanings based on its tone. The Dongba language is influenced by the Tibetan-Burman language family and the tonal and symbolic aspects of Chinese.

During his more than 20 year stay in the region, Joseph Rock produced two histories of the Naxi's as well as a dictionary of over 1000 pages.

One could wonder what would be our knowledge of Naxi culture and language had there been no Joseph Rock. I have no idea how Lijiang fared under the hysteria of the Cultural Revolution, how it's unique script was perceived by the revolutionary zealots, but I can imagine it would have very likely been branded superstitious or bourgeois and I believe a lot of valuable works must have ended their life on one of those bonfires that stood symbol for the erratic ways of the human mind. The omnipresence of Rock's photo's in today's Lijiang proves to me that what this tuberculosis sufferer has brought about in his lifetime, still resounds with vigour and value for today.

Therefore, it is with big respect that I put the nickname as he liked to use it among friends at the top of this article. "Pohaku" is the Hawaiian word for "rock".


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"The Last Post" for Nanjing

Eight o'clock in the evening on an average Saturday. Two bataljons of soldiers march onto the street of either side of the Menin Gate, blocking in effect any traffic that would like to pass underneath the gate. Though the weather is cold, the sidewalks lining the street that passes under the gate are crowded with people, mostly British students, three rows thick, standing still, legs apart and hands on their back, like soldiers in rest. At eight sharp, there comes an eerie silence over the place, effectively squeezing out the background noise of the city, as four men in long blue coats and with blue hats march onto the street, bugle in their hand, and position themselves in the middle under the arch of the gate.

Seconds later, resounding from the walls that are covered with thousands and thousands of names, the music of the "Last Post" fills up the space under the gate, like it has, each and every day*, for the last 79 years. Not a sound is heard except the music and young girls at my side of the street are seen crying and hugging. When the music stops, five groups of soldiers, students and commoners, in military drill step forward and depose a wreath of red poppies at the monument. At the end of the fifteen minute ceremony, the sound of the four bugles send their last farewell to the deceased again and the crowd disperses, only knowing that there will be others taking their place the next day and the same solemn ceremony will be performed again ... as if into eternity.

I was in that corner of the world last weekend, trapped between the river Yser and the North Sea, that inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 3, 1915 to write the following poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It can hardly be captured in words the devastation that area has seen in 3 major battles during World War I, so I'll let this picture do the talking.

Almost half a million men have died there in the mud, trapped like sitting ducks in rainsoaked trenches, at worst separated not more than fifty meters from the enemy. The racial mix in the Ypres Salient (or Wipers, as the British used to call it) was phenomenal: Belgians, Brits, Scotsmen, New Zealanders, Canadians, French, Pakistani, Indians, an occasional Chinese worker, and of course the attacking German troops. It was a kaleidoscope of the world, bitterly entangled in a fierce struggle over dominance. When the war was over and all bodies had been counted, someone uttered the hope that such a disaster would never have to happen again. How cruelly mistaken he has proven to be.

Yet, as from 1928 onwards, under that memorial erected in remembrance of the soldiers of the British Commonwealth that had fallen before 1917 and had no known grave, a group of people took it upon themselves to keep the memory of those that had fallen alive and still do so till this day. At the Menin Gate, though the symbol at certain times may has been abused and misrepresented, there is no place for hatred. Go there yourself when you pass by and have the chance: you will know what I mean.

So when I read Richards' article on Saturday's TPD on the documentary video on the Rape of Nanjing, all I could was wonder when the Chinese will be able to let go of their hatred and mold it into remembrance, for those that should never have died under the circumstances they did, into a beacon for generations to come that history's lessons should be learnt and not forgotten ? When will Nanjing be allowed to have it's own "Last Post" ?

* The ceremony was forbidden by the Germans and thus effectively interruped during the years of World War II, but was taken up again on the evening of Liberation itself and has been continued ever since.