Travel Thoughts in Joseph Rock’s Footsteps in Yuhu, Yunnan

When we look back at the history of travelers, we soon get to explorers – and oddballs.

We feel that we are living in strange times, seek adventure – and see others who came before mainly for their unenlightened eccentricities.

When you hear about Joseph Rock, you most likely hear about his eccentricity. The first I ever heard about him sure was how he traveled the mountains of Yunnan with dining table and silverware…

Travel Adventure?

As so often, distance distorts and exaggerates. Getting closer to the footsteps of an earlier traveler-explorer brings a different perspective.

Having traveled in Yunnan in times that felt very normal, on a private botanical mission that felt a bit exploratory, and looking back at it during the lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, it all becomes very different.

Photo of Yuhu, Yunnan, from drone
We can even get aerial views – like this one of Yuhu village – so easily nowadays…

Modern travel has felt like such a normal thing – at least for those of us for whom it is normal – that we forget just how new that is.

When there are hassles, when things don’t turn out quite as planned, there’s quickly talk of the adventure that all was.

When the journey is meant to be something more than just recovery from a job or a little rest and relaxation, we often have to go looking for adventure.

Or nowadays, wanting everything to still go off without a hitch, people may even go and book an adventure.

Yuhu, Yunnan

Between Lijiang and its guardian mountain Yulongxueshan lies the “Jade Lake” village, Yuhu.

Austrian-American botanical explorer Joseph Rock had made his home here.

For me, as an Austrian and looking for some botanical-cultural-culinary insight, it felt necessary to pay the place a visit.

In a place like Yuhu, with a tale like that of Joseph Rock, we barely look back 100 years. And yet, to a very different time. And to adventurous life journeys that are hard to believe.

Joseph F. Rock in Tibetan Dress on Horseback. [Title from Negative Envelope.]. (1924).
Joseph F. Rock in Tibetan Dress on Horseback. [Title from Negative Envelope.]. (1924).

The Life of Joseph Rock

Joseph Rock was, as Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum puts it, “The last of the great plant hunters employed by Charles Sprague Sargent, … a botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author.”

Joseph Charles Francis Rock was born in Vienna in 1884 to a family which served a Count Potocki.

A Highly Gifted Child?

He showed all the signs – and had the early life – of many a highly gifted child: One of his parents, his mother, died when he was only six, shortly followed by his grandmother. His father, meanwhile, was overly strict, religious, and temperamental.

Joseph learned only too quickly, finding school too easy and following his interests elsewhere, including in learning Chinese when he was 13.

[I really wish something, anything, more were known about that. When I tried to start studying Chinese in Vienna in 1996, it was still not easy – and that couldn’t have been any better in 1897.)

School diploma in hand, in 1902 (18 years old), Joseph basically ran away from his overbearing father, who wanted his son to go into the priesthood.


Instead, he traveled Europe, working odd jobs – until, in 1905, he missed a train and instead hired to work on a ship going to New York. There, once again, he worked whatever he could, traveled, and studied, finally ending up in Honolulu, Hawaii.

On Hawaii, Joseph Rock worked as Latin teacher (having learned the language in school) and natural history teacher (which he is said to have studied just fast enough to stay ahead of his students), while becoming a naturalist.


He became a US citizen in 1913 and found employment as a plant collector and naturalist for the US Department of Agriculture, with National Geographic, and later for the Arnold Aboretum of Harvard University.

Rock's "office" and "bedroom" in Yuhu
Rock’s “office” and “bedroom” in Yuhu

Work in China

Rock worked in China, by and large, from 1920 to 1949.

First, his work there was focused on the botany, especially in the southwestern biodiversity hotspot of the country, at the edge of the Himalayas.

Later on, the focus lay on the ethnography of the Naxi peoples here around Lijiang, with his “headquarters” there in Yuhu. (Many of the insights into the Naxi “culture of suicide,” for example, come out of Rock’s writings.)

Traveling like a (Joseph) Rock

One of the crazy-sounding stories often told – originally reported by Edgar Snow (American journalist and chronicler of the rise of the Communist Party of China) – is how

“During the march, his tribal retainers divided into a vanguard and a rearguard. The advance party, led by a cook, an assistant cook, and a butler would spot a sheltered place with a good view, unfold table and chairs on a leopard-skin rug and lay out clean linen cloth, silver and napkins. By the time we arrived our meal would be almost ready. At night, it was several courses ending with tea and liqueurs.”

Edgar Snow. Journey to the Beginning. 1958: 56.

Edgar Snow’s opinion of Rock was, it seems, shaped by his own peculiar background, though.

Snow traveled with Rock in, if I found that right, 1931 when he was just finding out from these travels that the Kuomintang he had hitherto been supporting were plundering the country… and there came an irascible (other) Westerner with “imperial trappings”… and, apparently, caution that he didn’t approve of.

Snow wanted “to use potassium cyanide to disinfect the plants he would eat on the trip. Snow, Rock wrote in his diary, would ‘kill himself in the bargain. Sancta simplicitas… [H]e carries the general air of the provincial American ignorant of his own ignorance.’” (John Maxwell Hamilton. Edgar Snow: A Biography. 2003: 32.)

Given Rock’s own irascible and eccentric character, charming and able to deal with people from lama kings and warlords to local bandits, but also often arguing with his employers (and almost never traveling with any of his Western acquaintances – certainly not after Snow), he often appears as more of an oddball who needed his silverware (and folding bathtub) than anything else.

Basically, the living room of Joseph Rock's residence in Yuhu, Yunnan
Basically, the living room. Truly luxurious imperial trappings, huh?

Putting Stories in Perspective

Learning about the times during which Joseph Rock was working there in China, when the country was first in the turmoil of its civil war, then suffering the Japanese invasion, all not so long after it had been strongly anti-foreigner after the Opium Wars… it was a wonder he managed to explore at all.

Traveling with a guard and in ways that made him stand out as a person of high rank it would be dangerous to go up against was a prudent precaution – and all the luxuries that sound so odd and seem so strange when they are emphasized, well… they are strange, but they should not hide how tough the living conditions under which he did fascinating work in several fields were.

Visiting Rock’s former house in Yuhu, one gets a little taste of how exhausting and dangerous the expeditions, and how hard even just daily life, must have been – and one may still miss a lot about the time and the people if not looking deeper into the life and the times.

A little tourist trip, perhaps with a horse-ride as “adventure”, won’t tell you much of anything. You’ll have to look deeper to really learn more.

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