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

Curator Cindy Ho has been planning this exhibition for 16 years. She traveled to Lijiang, the Naxi capital, four times and worked extensively with the Roosevelt family. In a catalogue accompanying the exhibition she writes of her struggle: even among scholars of East Asian Studies, few had heard of the Naxi. The Rubin Museum, which had exhibited the art of the closely related and equally obscure Bon people, was the natural venue for the show.

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.

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.

After returning with his findings, Mr. Roosevelt led an eventful, if brief, life. After graduation, he enlisted. He was wounded on the Tunisian front, stormed Normandy, won the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Croix de Guerre, and served in the Office of Strategic Services. He married an American Red Cross worker in England, had three daughters, the oldest of whom was 4 when he died in a plane crash outside of Hong Kong, at just 29 years of age. By then he had taken over the helpful Mr. Bond’s job and was himself the vice-president of the Chinese National Airline.

After 1949, the Chinese communists began more rigorously enforcing the ban on religious activity in remote regions of China. Eventually, the People’s Liberation Army brought stringent reform to mountainous Lijian. Naxi openly practicing the Dongba religion were killed. Tankas and sutras not hidden were destroyed. The area was closed to foreign nationals.

While it’s entertaining to speculate about whether Roosevelt, in seeking out the Naxi, was indeed no more than a youthful scholar, or whether he was sent to the region as a spy, this exhibition proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the lasting effect of his studies. In recent years, elderly Dongba priests, who practiced for 40 or 50 years in secret, have started to emerge, but it is mainly due to the efforts of a 19-year-old kid from Long Island that we know about Naxi art today: because he sought out and preserved their extraordinary art, you can see it at the Rubin Museum.

editorial@observer.com

 

Comments

  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