Joseph Charles Francis Rock

Meet the Explorers

Joseph Charles Francis Rock

Our guide to the far reaches of Ancestral China and Tibet

Joseph Charles Francis Rock

The last of the great plant hunters employed by Charles Sprague Sargent, Joseph Charles Francis Rock (1884–1962) was a botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author. From 1907 to 1920, he lived in Hawaii where he became a self-taught specialist on Hawaiian flora. Rock taught botany at the College of Hawaii and published five books and numerous papers on the subject.

From 1920 until 1949, Rock explored, photographed, and collected plants in Asia for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic Society, the Arnold Arboretum, and others. Nine of Rock’s illustrated travelogues were published in the National Geographic Magazine between 1922 and 1935. Today, Rock’s contribution is still utilized by the scholarly community and best summarized by Tibetan and Himalayan Studies scholar Michael Aris in his book Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock’s Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China, 1992:

“Rock’s real competence lay in the identification and collection of plants, the decipherment of the Naxi pictographs, and the compilation of maps — visual skills requiring enormous mental determination and physical stamina. His photographs, too, often taken under very difficult circumstances, provide eloquent testimony to his drive for classifiable visual evidence.”

Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962) papers, 1922-1962 [pdf].

Botanical papers of Joseph Francis Charles Rock, 1925-1927 [HOLLIS].

The Amnye Ma-chhen range and adjacent regions : a monographic study [HOLLIS].

Ancestral realms of the Naxi : Quentin Roosevelt’s China [HOLLIS].

A ¹Na-²khi-English encyclopedic dictionary [HOLLIS].

South Central China and Tibet hotspot of diversity.

Joseph Rock on Horseback

In 1924, Charles Sargent hired Rock to explore China and Tibet for the Arboretum. His assignment was to collect plants and to photograph specimens along the Yellow River, and in the Amne Machin and Richtofen mountain ranges. He also collected along the Yangtze River, the Kansu-Szechuan border, and around Koki Nor Lake in Tibet. Rock collected 20,000 herbarium specimens and many packages of propagative material. Although few new species were found, he achieved Sargent’s principal objective, which was to collect hardier forms of species that had already been collected by others. The Arboretum distributed the seeds Rock collected to botanical and horticultural institutions in North America and in Europe.

From 1945 to 1950, Rock was a fellow at the Harvard Yenching Institute where he published his linguistic research. In 1949, the political situation forced Rock to leave China for good. He returned to Hawaii where he became a professor of Oriental Studies. Shortly before his death in 1962, the University of Hawaii awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree.


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Rock also took numerous photographs and, independently, studied the cultures and languages of the local tribes, including the Naxi. He is still remembered by the older villagers of Nguluko, (Yuhu) near the city of Lijiang, where he made his home base for many years.

Search the VIA image database for Rock’s photography.