Joseph Charles Francis Rock (1884–1962) was, among many things, an explorer. He traveled in Asia from 1920 until 1949 collecting plants for various institutions including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic Society and The Arnold Arboretum. Charles Sargent hired Rock to explore China and Tibet for the Arboretum with the assignment to collect and photograph rare specimen and search for hardier forms of certain species. On the 1924-27 exploration, Rock traveled throughout much of China including along the Yellow River, Yangtze River, the Amne Machin mountain ranges and the Koki Nor Lake in Tibet.
While traveling into the Kansu Providence in northwestern China, Rock came upon the Tibetan principality of Choni. Choni was a prosperous monastic community with hundreds of monks and families set in a mountainous, fertile land. The principality was ruled by a Chinese-acculturated hereditary prince of Tibetan ancestry, Yang Chi-Ching (or T’u-ssu). While there was some uncertainty to the origins of Choni, Prince Yang was said to represent the twenty-second generation of rulers going back to 1404.
A welcomed guest of Prince Yang, Rock made the lamasery of Choni his headquarters for the next two years staying in the Prince’s compound and taking part in many of the daily activities. Rock wrote extensive journal entries, taking note of the thriving, active monastic community, the many ornate temples, large library and busy residents. Rock even published an article for National Geographic titled, “Life among the Lamas of Choni” in 1928 that describes Choni’s culture, customs and the religious festivals and ceremonies that took place during his stay. He took hundreds of photographs of the landscape and people of Choni, allowing an inside look to a culture that today, nearly 100 years later, has nearly disappeared.
Rock’s adventures in Choni and the photographs he took there is the subject of a small exhibit in our visitor center now on view. The Arnold Arboretum Archive has a collection of items from Rock’s life that examine his life as a botanist, anthropologist, linguist and explorer. We are thrilled to digitize and print a few of these archival materials to showcase this fascinating principality for our visitors.
—Stephanie Turnbull, Library Assistant