Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Joseph Rock's residence

I suppose anyone studying Naxi or Dongba script in Lijiang has to make the pilgrimage to Joseph Rock's 'former residence'; so that's just what I did yesterday. The Chinese like their 'former residences', but there wasn't too much to see at this one (which, thinking back to some of the former residences I've been to in my time, may actually have been a blessing in disguise).

Joseph Rock is a bit of a legend in these parts - he's widely praised for promoting Naxi studies and producing the first dictionary of the Dongba script, which is still the most complete (his dictionary has over 3,000 entries, compared to the 1,300 odd in Fang Guoyu's - note, Fang's is a record 字谱, not a dictionary 字典), but he was something of an eccentric, and plenty of his theories regarding the script have since been discredited (he believed the Geba phonetic script to be older than the logographic Dongba script). He never really produced any publishable translations, either, which irks me personally, because basically zero full English translations of Dongba literature exist today, and he had a wonderful opportunity to do some really accurate translations, with the help of Dongba priests.

That kind of opportunity will probably never come again - Li laoshi tells me that there are no true 'Dongba' left, and as an aside, Rock was a self-appointed 'doctor', never having studied for a doctorate. That said however, without Rock I wouldn't have been drawn to studying the Dongba script myself, and some say his articles inspired James Hilton's Lost Horizon, which is a fantastic novel.

Rock was allegedly a real eccentric, never travelling anywhere without a full set of silverware and a rubber bathtub (thanks wikipedia); but from what's left of his former residence in Yuhu village 玉湖村, none of the luxuries seem to have survived. There's a table, a chair, an old carpet and a dusty bed. Be forewarned: the picture below is what it will cost you 15 RMB to see in person (apologies for blurriness - a pox upon you, camera phone!).

Yep, that one room. That's all there was to the former residence. Luckily, I didn't actually pay for a ticket, because the ever so helpful village tourism director took me round for free.

The local villagers of Yuhu have been empowered by tourism, but only to a limited extent - tourism here amounts to a glimpse of rural Naxi life, which is of course free unless they erect a toll booth at the village entrance (this is by no means beyond the local authorities), and horse riding. Practically every household has a horse, and consequently every villager will ask you if you want to ride one.

Despite all this, Yuhu is actually far more pleasant than Lijiang's theme park of an old town ( 大研古城), the horrifically expensive Shuhe ancient town (束河古镇), and the foreign tourist honeypot of Baisha (白沙). Give it ten years, though, and you'll have to dig even deeper to find that elusive pocket of traditional Naxi life.

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