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 The Asian Reporter's

Janet with a Mongol bride and her relatives, Wang Yeh Fu, 1923.

(Photograph courtesy of the Frederick R. Wulsin Photographic Collection, The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Image is copyright of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.)

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #6 (February 3, 2004), page 15.

Book evokes Vanishing Kingdoms

Vanished Kingdoms: A Woman Explorer in Tibet, China & Mongolia 1921-1925

By Mabel H. Cabot

Aperture Foundation, in conjunction with the Peabody Museum,
Harvard University, 2003
Hardcover, 192 pages, $35.00

By Douglas Spangle

Mabel Cabot cuts a classic New England figure: sedate, straight, and tailored, she supervises two men frantically trying to make a slide projector behave. Attendees begin to fill Artemisia Fine Arts & Floral Gallery in Multnomah Village. As the lights lower, the carousel finally moves on its track. Cabot has been signing books at Annie Bloom’s across the way. She also talked with audiences at 23rd Avenue Books and Powell’s City of Books before heading to Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books.

Unlike her late mother, she doesn’t have to pack everything on donkeys, horses, and Bactrian camels.

Cabot’s mother, Janet January Elliott, came from a wealthy and privileged New England family, but displayed a maverick spirit. As a girl she had traveled with her father, a railroad executive, to the Pacific Northwest. When the U.S. entered the First World War, she sailed for France as a Red Cross nurse. She had a fiancé at the front, an engineering graduate from Harvard, and they were married in Paris in 1919. Frederick Wulsin, despite his academic major, had always wanted to be an explorer and adventurer. After the war, back in America, bored and frustrated with his job, he attended a lecture by Roy Chapman Andrews (the prototype for Indiana Jones), and resolved to travel to China in pursuit of his dream.

Janet had followed him to Europe, and was resolute in following him to the East as well. After furiously purchasing supplies — camping equipment, tents, guns — Frederick and Janet traveled in her father’s private compartment via rail to Seattle, and thence sailed to Shanghai.

China must have particularly been a shock to the well-heeled Janet. In 1921, the Manchu Dynasty had fallen, but Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s republican government never really took hold. That year the Chinese Communist Party was founded amid wild disparities of livelihood and ethnicity. Foreign shippers and bankers swanked about Shanghai while poor Chinese fought off starvation. The countryside — and many of the cities — were falling under the sway of dozens of rapacious warlords. The Wulsins waited for money and paperwork.

At the gallery reception, Mabel Cabot’s slides are falling smoothly from the carousel.

The Wulsins mounted two expeditions in the back country of western China. The first, in 1921, circled through Shansi Province as far as the Great Wall. They traveled by rail and mule train, sleeping in tents, roadside inns, and temples. Frederick and his assistants gathered animal specimens, including a magnificent mountain ram; Janet organized the collections. On the trail for five months, she discovered for herself the perils and pleasures of life in the field — a big change for an upper-crust young lady.

After Frederick obtained a grant from the National Geographic Society’s tight-fisted Gilbert Grosvenor, a further expedition in 1923 set forth with mountains of cameras, guns, and supplies on the backs of woolly Bactrian camels into the Ordos Desert along the fringes of Mongolia, from Paotow to the Mongol kingdom of Alashan. Janet again employed her organizational talents as quartermistress, riding in a chiao tzu, a sort of double compartment slung on camelback.

The expedition braved thirst, bandits, and nine months of hard traveling to collect and record amongst Tanguts, Tibetans, Mongols, and Muslims — as well as the likes of the aboriginal To Run, who had not been previously studied. They visited and photographed the great lamaseries of Kumbum, Labrang, and Choni, dances, ceremonies, and festivals teeming with crowds and monks reeking of rancid yak butter. They visited the great lake of Koko Nor, forded rivers by ferries and rope bridges, finally returning to Peking with the entire assemblage on board a raft constructed on seventy-two inflated yak skins.

All the hard traveling exacted a toll, however: Mr. Wu, the expedition’s manager, fell prey to a nasty opium habit; Frederick was subjects to fits of despondency, and strains in the Wulsins’ relationship thread through their journal extracts. In 1926, National Geographic published one account of the expedition, but Janet’s contributions went uncredited. Stray newspaper articles back in the States were often misleading or wildly inaccurate.

The Wulsins came back to America, never to return to China, which continued to fall into warlordism. The couple were later divorced.

Mabel Cabot is Janet’s daughter by a second marriage. A professional curator, Ms. Cabot began collecting her mother’s effects after her death in 1963. A collection of travel journals and photographs turned up in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, and, after many years, constitutes Vanished Kingdoms. Mabel Cabot provides a crisply-edited collage of journal entries and narrative to stand beside the Wulsins’ photographs.

Aperture is one of the best photo art publishers, and this is a glorious example of their work. The paper is so thick you could use it for sheetrock; the photo reproduction is of the highest quality. The photos are of places and peoples that vanished long ago. Best of all are those images that were printed on glass plates and sent to Peking to be hand-tinted: these glow with the luminosity of Vermeer interiors — suitable for framing.

Mabel Cabot has put together a tribute to her mother that places her in line with other remarkable women who wrote of their travels in China, the likes of Alexandra David-Neel, Mildred Cable, and Eleanor Lattimore. Vanished Kingdoms is a labor of love — in the very best sense.

Before Mabel Cabot breaks down her slide projector, she announces that the photos from the book will be on exhibit nationally, including in Portland, in 2005. Take note.


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