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Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection: Joseph Rock

Joseph Rock was born in Vienna and emigrated to the United States in 1905, becoming an American citizen in 1913. A self-taught botanist, among his other occupations Rock was also a correspondent for National Geographic Magazine.

Rock’s proclivity for exploration resulted in his spending the bulk of his time away from the United States. His travels always had a strong academic bent. During one trip, Rock collected tens of thousands of native plant and bird specimens for a variety of U.S. government and academic institutions including the Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution, and Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum.

Rock’s main academic focus, however, was the study of the Naxi people, their language, and their culture. He spent twenty-four years among the Naxi in Yunnan Province in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and collected thousands of Naxi manuscripts. Rock worked diligently to become fluent in the unique Naxi pictographic language. The Library purchased its Naxi manuscript collection from Rock between 1923 and 1948.

With help from the Naxi shamanistic priests, or dongbas, Rock translated many of the manuscripts that he collected. His work was invaluable and includes a 1,094-page Naxi dictionary and two Naxi histories.

Caption Below

[Nashi priest during naga cult ceremony, Yunan province, China], [1925?]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Joseph Rock Collection. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-120237.


Sample Manuscript Page

NZA079: [Sacrifices to the Highest Deity]

Sample Transliteration and Translation Page

[Joseph Rock Translation of Manuscript NZA079]

Two of Rock’s translations of Naxi manuscripts were digitized for this collection. The first item is a partial translation (nine out of twenty-five pages) of manuscript number NZA079. Manuscripts in the NZA category contain myths detailing sacrifice to heaven. The pages of this manuscript are divided into three rows. Horizontal lines divide each row into a varying number of panels. NZA079 has between two and four panels for each row. To make his translation easier to follow, Rock simulates the position and size of the panels in the manuscript in his translation. Each translation page is divided into six rows. The top three rows contain the transliteration of the Naxi writings; the bottom three rows have the English translation. Like the manuscript, the transliteration and translation rows are divided into panels that correspond in size to the panels of the original manuscript.


The second digitized translation is the manuscript designated NZC262. Manuscripts in the NZC category contain tales about sacrifices to the Serpent King of Naxi mythology. The notes accompanying this manuscript are a synopsis rather than a word-for-word translation. The synopsis gives the title of this book as “Ndsher-ndzi mi man-chung.” No English translation of the title of the manuscript is provided.

Sample Manuscript Page

NZC262: [Sacrifices to the Serpent King]

Sample Manuscript Page

[Joseph Rock Synopsis of NZC262]


Naxi Funeral Scroll (The Ha zhi p’i)

Sample Manuscript Page

[Naxi Funeral Scroll - Ha zhi p'i]

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Full Image, medium (1.73 MG)

Full Image, larger (7.23 MG)

A 39½-foot long by approximately 1-foot wide Naxi funeral scroll, the Ha zhi p’i, made of homespun hemp cloth in gouache painting, was also digitized for this collection. Collected by Joseph Rock, this scroll is divided into 103 sections. These sections depict the stages and realms through which the soul of the deceased has to travel and traverse. They pass through the nine black spurs in hell guarded by the demons, on to the human domain, and eventually to the realm of gods, their journey usually ending when they reach the domain of the supreme deities of the Naxi pantheon. The scroll is attached to the head of the coffin. The first part of the scroll begins with the demon realms closest to the head of the coffin; the end of the scroll depicts the realms of the gods that must extend in a horizontal position in a northeasterly direction. The scroll serves as a bridge for the soul to reach the realm of the gods. The officiating dongbas perform an exorcism to propitiate and banish demons and evil spirits in the funeral ceremonies.

A close examination of this scroll reveals the cosmological concept of the sacred places of heaven and hell in an indigenous Naxi religion, with elements of Tibetan Bon-Shamanism, Indian Tantrism, and Lamaism. For further study, see Joseph F. Rock, “Studies in Na-khi Literature: Part II, The Na-khi Ha zhi p’i.” Offprint of Studies in Na-khi Literature (Hanoi) (1937), and Joseph F. Rock, “The Zhi ma Funeral Ceremony of the Na-khi of Southwest China,” Studia Instituti Anthropos 9. St. Gabriel’s Mission Press (Vienna-Modling) (1955): 40-119.

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