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Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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TALES FROM THE YUNNAN WOODS

A Selection of Nashi Manuscripts
A Selection of Nashi Manuscripts. Only priests, or "tombas," wrote and used the Nashi's unique pictographic manuscripts, a selection of which is shown here. The oblong books, usually about 9 by 28 centimeters and bound on the left margin, were used by priests to guide them through ceremonies. The other books are Nashi funeral books, with drawings on one side and pictographic writing on the other. (Nashi Manuscript Collection, Asian Division)

Among those who contributed to the Library's Asian collections, perhaps the most colorful was Joseph Rock. Explorer, adventurer, and scientist, Rock was an Austrian who became a U.S. citizen and spent much of his life in remote areas of western China, sponsored at different times by National Geographic, Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of Hawaii. Despite the harsh local conditions, Rock insisted on living in style. He trained a native cook to prepare Western food and usually dined at an elegantly set table, covered with a linen tablecloth. In photographs taken in some of the most rugged territory of western China, Rock is seldom seen without a coat and tie. The exception was when he posed in elaborate local costumes, apparently for readers back home who followed his adventures in the ten articles he wrote for National Geographic between 1922 and 1935.

For many of the twenty-seven years he was active in China, Rock made his headquarters near the town of Li Kiang in northwestern Yunnan province, a remote territory of rugged mountains bordering the Tibetan highlands to the west and north. It was there that the explorer developed his lifelong interest in the people of the area, the Nashi, called "Moso" by the Chinese.

Speaking a language belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family, the Nashi were affected by both Tibetan and Chinese cultural influences. They practiced a religion that drew heavily on Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. Rock found that the Nashi used three different forms of writing. The contemporary form was essentially a mix of Chinese and Nashi. An older system, found in manuscripts dating as far back as the fourteenth century, was a syllabic or phonetic script called "Ggo-Baw" that was used only for transcribing mantras and dharani (magic formulas). Ggo-Baw consisted of simple characters, resembling those used by the nearby Lolo and Nosu tribes, as well as Chinese characters. But Rock was most fascinated by the third system, a unique form of pictographs dating back to at least the thirteenth century and recorded in manuscripts used in religious ceremonies. Rock devoted much of his time to studying this system of pictographs and the religious ceremonies of the Nashi. He also purchased as many of the manuscripts as possible.

Nashi Priest (Tomba) Performing Naga Cult Ceremony
Nashi Priest (Tomba) Performing Naga Cult Ceremony
. During the Naga cult ceremony, the tomba propitiates the serpent spirits, or Nagas, with various offerings, including medicine. On the table are symbols representing the nine houses of the Naga, while the tomba holds a pictographic book used to aid his memory during the ceremony. (Joseph Rock Collection, Prints and Photographs Division)

The Library holds a unique collection of over three thousand Nashi pictographic manuscripts, about two-thirds of which came from Rock. The remainder came to the Library in 1945 from Quentin Roosevelt, a grandson of Pres.Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin's father, Theodore, Jr., and his uncle, Kermit, met Rock when they passed through Nashi territory on a hunting expedition in 1929. Their stories apparently left a mark on the young Quentin who traveled to Yunnan in 1939 to collect Nashi books that he used for his undergraduate dissertation at Harvard. During World War II, Quentin was back in China to serve as the Office of Strategic Service's liaison with Chiang Kai-shek. After the war, he worked in China for Pan American Airways and the China National Aviation Corporation but died in an air crash on one of Hong Kong's islands in 1948.

Besides the Nashi manuscripts, the Library holds two rare Nashi funeral scrolls, one painted on cloth and the other on paper. The scrolls, both about forty feet long, contain a series of individual paintings depicting devils, humans, and gods that represent the three worlds through which the spirit must travel after death. In a Nashi funeral ceremony, the coffin is placed at the end of the scroll representing the levels of hell where the soul must begin the journey to the realm of the Nashi gods. The scroll is extended from the coffin toward the northeast, with the farthest end containing the images of the gods, the goal of the soul's journey. A Nashi priest, or "tomba," guides the soul along the route. The visions of the underworld and the various tortures the soul must endure are especially vivid in the Library's scrolls.

The Asian Division has opened the Naxi collection to a wider audience through the creation of an online presentation (http://international.loc.gov/intldl/naxihtml/naxihome.html). The website includes digital images of 185 manuscripts and one of the Division’s two funerary scrolls. In addition, an annotated catalog (in Chinese), prepared by Professor Zhu Baotian of the Yunnan Provincial Museum, is available on the website.


HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections


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( November 15, 2010 )
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