National Geographic : 1928 Nov
LIFE AMONG THE LAMAS OF CHONI Describing the Mystery Plays and Butter Festival in the Monastery of an Almost Unknown Tibetan Principality in Kansu Province, China BY JOSEPH F. ROCK Leader of the National Geographic Society Yiinnan Expedition, 1927-1929 AUTHOR OF "THROUGH THE GREAT RIVER TRENCHES OF ASIA," "THE LAND OF THE YELLOW LAMA," "EXPERI ENCES OF A LONE GEOGRAPHER," ETC., IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author WHEN my caravan left Yiin nanfu in the winter of 1924, bound for Kansu Province, in the extreme northwest of China, and eventually for the great Amnyi Machen Mountains,* I - in common with some 300,000,000 Chinese and perhaps as many foreigners-was totally unaware of the existence of Choni. It was in the course of my journey in search of rare plants for the Arnold Arboretum that I learned of this ancient Tibetan principality ruled by a hereditary prince. I was told that from the monastery of Labrang, five days north of Choni, one could easily reach Radja, on the Yellow River, and thence the Amnyi Machen range, which I had planned to explore. Accordingly I set out with my party for Choni. We arrived in the village on April 23, 1925, and received a cordial greeting from the Prince, Yang Chi-ching, who rendered me all possible assistance. Here I made my headquarters for two years (see map, page 576). I resided in the yamen, or official resi dence, in the lamasery, situated on a ter race about 500 feet above the village and to the west of it. It was a delightful spot, with a tiny courtyard filled with choice peonies, lilacs, and other flowers. The Choni Prince was exceedingly hos pitable throughout my stay. He gave or ders to the lamas to aid me in taking * See "Experiences of a Lone Geographer," by Joseph F. Rock, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for September, 1925. In an early number of THE GEOGRAPHIC, Doctor Rock will tell of his experiences in exploring the Amnyi Machen, one of whose peaks soars to within 1,ooo feet of the height of Mount Everest. photographs, and not only admitted me to all religious ceremonies, but gave me the place of honor. Thus I was able to obtain whatever material I desired. THE PRINCE'S FAMILY HAS RULED SINCE 1404 Unlike the Chinese, the Tibetans rarely keep records or dates of events; conse quently, little is known of the early his tory of Choni. The name itself is of Tibetan origin and is, perhaps, derived from the two words cho (pine trees) and nyi (two)-two pine trees. The Choni Prince related to me how his ancestors came into possession of the territory.* He represents the twenty second generation, but is not of direct descent. His ancestors, a Tibetan official family, left their own country and made their way across Szechwan and the Min Shan range, in Kansu, to the Tao River, in 1404, conquering and pacifying the tribes and villages on the way. Upon in forming the Imperial Court in Peking of their conquest of the territory for the Chinese Empire, they were made heredi tary chiefs of Choni and the subjugated tribal lands. At the same time the Em peror, Yung Lo, gave them a seal and the Chinese name Yang. *A letter from Doctor Rock dated March 22, 1928, announces that the Choni Prince has been shorn of his hereditary title and military rank, and that his domain has been confiscated by Fengyu Shiang, the Red General. Thus the present article may be the closing chapter in the history of the ancient principate. The Prince is now merely commissioner of the bar barians and is subject to removal at the will of the Lanchow Government.