‘Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi’ at the Rubin Museum of Art

naxi1 Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi at the Rubin Museum of Art

Ritual Card; Northwestern Yunnan Province, China; 18th-20th century; Ink and paint on paper; 6 x 8 5/8 in. (15 x 22 cm); Collection of Dr. John M. Lundquist

Just as you might own a favorite piece of furniture from your parents’ house, Quentin Roosevelt II (1919-1948), Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, first encountered the art of the “strange people known as Naxi,” as he later described them, around his family home in Oyster Bay; his father, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and uncle, Theodore’s brother Kermit, had bought objects as souvenirs during a trip to the Himalayas. The younger Mr. Roosevelt, an art history major at Harvard, liked the stuff, so his family gave him a Naxi scroll for Christmas.

At age 19 Mr. Roosevelt wrote what remains the sole academic dissertation on Naxi art in Western scholarship. He went on to amass the most significant group of Naxi artifacts outside of China. His holdings, mainly those acquired on a 1939 trip through China’s Northwest Yunnan Province, make up this first-ever exhibition of the material.

Chances are you haven’t heard of the Naxi (pronounced NAH-shee), a group of 300,000 people living on the east end of the Himalayas at the boarder of Sichuan, Tibet and Burma. Their religion is a hybrid resulting from this crossroads: Dongba blends Buddhism, Tibetan Bon, Taoism, Confucianism, Mongolian shamanism and local cults.

Part of the reason for Mr. Roosevelt’s success in gathering their art was happenstance. Chinese communists destroyed much of Naxi culture after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, making his loot a time capsule of a thousand-year old culture 10 years before it was nearly extinguished.

Mr. Roosevelt recorded his expedition with a fervor that was part ethnographic, part road trip. Traveling 30 miles a day, sometimes at an altitude of 12,000 feet, with “10 horses, 5 mules, 2 donkeys, 1 goat, 65 soldiers, 10 bodyguards, 3 officials, 12 coolies, 1 interpreter, 1 puppy, myself and three geese,” he ate locusts, grew a beard and slept among rats and lice. He “haggled with local living Buddhas and traded sunglasses, raincoats, compasses and a kitchen stove for ancient sculptures, paintings, scrolls.” Lively drawings of the bandits and soldiers he encountered accompany his notes. He also took lots of photographs.

His journey caused a stir at home: Life magazine covered the trip (“Another Roosevelt to Tibet”), as did various society columns. The five-month expedition was funded by Harvard, with Harvard-Yenching Library and the Library of Congress keeping most of the artifacts he collected.

At the Rubin Museum, 40-foot painted funeral scrolls reveal who the Naxi are and what they care about. Placed at the head of a dead body and unrolled during chanting to guide the deceased to the world of the gods, these “roads of the gods” roll out like film strips of the Naxi spiritual world, taking us through the nine black hills of hell (ruled by yellow and blue frolicking gods and chicken-headed demons) to the 33 gods of heaven.

Naxi art looks like a mash-up of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, Tarot cards and Dante. In one realm of hell, hungry ghosts with seven heads boil people and trample their entrails. (Naxi sins include adultery and, perhaps less predictably Leebu, pretending to be a shaman.) In heaven, things are happier but no less lively: people emerge from eggs, tigers frolic among the seven sacred mountains, and an elephant has sprouted 33 heads.

The Dongba realms are organized according to numerology: valleys and rivers come in the feminine number seven; mountains and trees in the masculine number nine. In this cosmology, every compass point is associated not just with a color but also with a common item: trees, flowers, wombs and eggs.

Naxi tankas, paintings made from ground mineral pigments on cloth that are placed behind an altar, are composed like much Buddhist art: symmetrical and with a large central deity. A god is flanked by its entourage. Its teachers are shown above it, its protectors and offerings below. Most of these gods—often painted in blue, green or gold—are seated cross-legged like Buddhas on a lotus throne.

The Naxi propose a complex world full of smiling animals and monsters: trees adorned with red demons emerge from lotus flowers vomited up by leopard-spotted frogs; tigers and oxen scare ax-wielding monkeys and birds of prey. Animals are sorted into those with hooves, those with claws and those that fly. Along the intricate borders of the paintings, cuckoo birds, dragons, porcupines and elephants abound.

In a pictographic script that looks like a cross between Chinese and hieroglyphics, long manuscripts spell out formulas for things like exorcizing demons. This writing, found nowhere else in the world, may have been modeled on cave paintings; it is mixed with syllabic script in which you can make out the occasional Chinese character.

To the casual viewer, this language flickers on the edge of legibility, yet it contains metaphysical moments: the character representing time shows a growing flower. The manuscripts suggest why and when religion is needed: one ceremony resolves conflicts between two fighting men (this notebook shows two stick people in headdresses, swords crossed); another is for burying young people who commit suicide for love (apparently a widespread Naxi problem). Like the manuscripts, the ceremonial objects in this show attest to religious art’s functional, as well as decorative purposes: a brass bell adorned with a dried eagle claw (a zeba) and a conch shell trumpet (a fvsseimokua) have the patina not just of age but of heavy use. A set of divination cards is worn from years of handling by priests.


  1. Cindy Ho says:

    First, I would like to thank you for your attention to our exhibition. However, as a co-curator, I need to point out a few factual errors in your otherwise fine review.

    One statement you make — “Leaving China with 20 trunks full of scrolls, manuscripts and skins of exotic animals like golden monkeys, pandas and snow leopards was tricky for Mr. Roosevelt due to the war then being waged between China and Japan; his exit was made possible through a family connection to a certain W. Langhorne Bond, then vice president of the Chinese National Airline; Mr. Roosevelt flew disguised as a steward.”— is untrue.

    In fact, Roosevelt’s departure from China in 1939 was not “tricky:” no airplane was involved, Roosevelt did not leave China posing as a steward, and W. Langhorne Bond played no part whatsoever. Roosevelt and his 20 suitcases departed Lijiang after 10 days of collecting Naxi artifacts, and traveled to Kunming in a motor coach provided by the head of the Southwest Transportation Company, Mr. T.L. Soong, who was the brother of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the “first lady” of China. From Kunming, Roosevelt continued south to Haiphong on the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway in a private railroad car provided by a Mr. Patou, who was the head of railway. From Haiphong, Roosevelt continued on by steamer to Hong Kong, where he and his 20 suitcases boarded a ship called the Empress of China and sailed to San Francisco. See Martin Brauen, “A Memorable Journey to the Naxi: Quentin Roosevelt’s Legacy,” in Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi, 2011, page 36, and Quentin Roosevelt, “In the Land of the Devil Priests,” in Natural History, April 1940,  pages 208-209.  

    Another reference in your review characterizes the Naxi artifacts that Quentin Roosevelt collected as “loot”, which is synonymous with stolen goods, plunder or pillage. In fact, Quentin Roosevelt paid for everything he acquired during his 1939 trip to China, and he kept meticulous records. Some objects were purchased from local priests in Lijiang while many others were purchased from a local missionary, Rev. James H. Andrews, who had assembled a collection of artifacts over many years.

    Finally, your statement —“And a good thing, too: shortly after he did so, eccentric botanist-explorer Joseph Rock’s collection of Naxi art and objects was destroyed by Japanese torpedoes as he tried to leave China, leaving Mr. Roosevelt’s collection the largest in the Western world.” —is also untrue.

    Although Roosevelt’s collection of Naxi Dongba religious art (now dispersed in five different locations) is one of the most complete collections outside of China (in the sense that it includes all types of artwork, manuscripts and ritual objects), it is not “the largest in the Western world” by any means. For instance, Rock’s collection of Naxi manuscripts at the Library of Congress is much larger than Roosevelt’s manuscript collection at the LOC. No reference in the exhibition or in the exhibition catalogue implies that Roosevelt’s collection is the largest.

    Cindy Ho,
    New York, NY