Members of the expedition, from left to right:
A. de C. Sowerby, R. S. Clark, Nathaniel H. Cobb, G. A. Grant, H. E. M. Douglas.
Yulin Fu, November, 1908.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image #2008-3140
Born on June 25, 1877 in New York, Robert Sterling Clark was heir to
the Singer sewing machine fortune of his grandfather, Edward. In 1899 he
graduated from Yale University with a degree in engineering. Joining the 9th
Infantry of the U.S. Army, he served in the Philippines, and in 1900, at the
Battle of Tianjin; he was stationed with the U.S. Legation Guard in Beijing
through 1905. Later that year he retired from military service and returned
to the United States.
Clark must have become fascinated with the history and culture of the
ancient empire after this first glimpse of China. Perhaps noticing the lack of
detailed knowledge about the terrain and natural life inhabiting the Loess
Plateau of northwest China, he decided to organize and conduct a detailed
scientific expedition to the region.
Clark spent several years meticulously planning the expedition. The
route traversed the areas of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia and there
were plans to return to the coast via Sichuan Province and the Yangtze River.
He engaged a talented, international cadre of officers for the expedition:
Nathaniel Cobb, an American artist①; Hazrat Ali, a cartographer of the
Survey of India; Captain H. E. M. Douglas from The Royal Army Medical
Corps as the surgeon and meteorologist; and Arthur de Carle Sowerby, a
British naturalist who was born in China, to study the botany, biology, and
geology of the region.
In 1908, Clark’s team embarked from Taiyuan on their eighteen-month
journey. In 1912, Through Shên-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition
in North China 1908-9, written by Clark and Sowerby, was published
in London. Clark was personally involved in the scientific exploration,
measurement, and recording of detailed data during the journey, authorship
of the final reports, and the publication itself. He kept the expedition’s gear
and most of the field notes for the rest his life, ultimately donating these
artifacts and records to the museum he founded with his wife, Francine,
in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Among these records are the notebooks
registering the latitude and longitude data — measurements which have
proven remarkably accurate against today’s state-of-the-art technology.
It is worth noting that the Clark expedition was conducted during a
time when some western explorers carried off China’s cultural relics as a
matter of course. The Clark expedition was an exception to this rule: it
was, in contrast, concerned solely with observing the region, its people,
and its heritage. High-minded in its intentions, the expedition balanced its
interests in scientific inquiry with a genuine curiosity for the social, political,
and cultural history of the regions it traversed, recording these humanistic
findings in photographs and diary entries.
The Clark expedition was distinctive for its lack of adherence to the
general trends of Western explorations of the time. Since the Second Opium
War, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth
century, western China, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet and other border areas
became attractive to foreign adventurers. It was the period when the great
world powers, using their spheres of influence, infringed upon China’s
sovereignty. The many “study tours” conducted by Western explorers,
regardless of the parties concerned, were consciously or unconsciously to a
certain extent all tinted with strong imperialist and colonial instincts. For
example, the Russians were keen to examine Xinjiang and Mongolia; the
French focused on Guangxi and Yunnan; the British showed a special interest
in Tibet and the Japanese sent a number of geologists to the northeast of
China to search for mineral deposits. Foreign collectors of cultural artifacts,
aware of treasures such as the Dunhuang Grotto Murals, waited for their
Standing aloof of these national interests was the Clark expedition. I
find the following characteristics of the Clark expedition to be significantly
different from most others of its day:
1. Unlike other expeditions with their ulterior motives, the motivation
of the Clark expedition was very simple: scientific exploration of the
hinterland of the Loess Plateau. The region was relatively untouched —
there were no predecessor expeditions which had set foot there. The topics
of the expedition’s research — geography, geology, meteorology, biology,
and ethnography — distinguish it from others focused solely on obtaining
resources or artifacts.
2. It was financed by Clark personally, as a private sponsor not
representing any sovereign power.
3. Clark’s was an international team, not representing any commercial or
political interest. He was an American; Sowerby a Chinese-born Englishman;
the remainder of the team included Britons, Americans, and Indians.
4. The expedition was approved by the Qing government. Customs
declarations were made on equipment such as weaponry, local officials were
informed before entering different areas, and fees were paid for the leased
telegraph line used for mapping communication.
5. The expedition treated and gave medical attention to local inhabitants
freely and as a matter of course. According to the book Through Shên-Kan:
The locals often came to the camp to seek help, usually they were treated with
conventional drugs, if someone was injured, he could obtain care … the news of
a doctor in our expedition spread like wildfire, people came to our camp to ask
for treatment and medicine. They all received help to the best of our abilities.
Villagers were so grateful for every single pill we gave to them.
After the expedition ended in 1909, Clark continued to concern himself
with the situation in China while living in Paris and New York. Letters from
the 1910s and 1920s reflect how he wished to revisit with Francine, whom
he met shortly after settling in Paris in 1910. However, the political turmoil
of the times — in China and in Europe — prevented his return. Nevertheless
he supported Sowerby’s continued scientific study throughout China and
also funded Sowerby’s magazine, The China Journal (published in Shanghai),
which helped introduce Chinese culture, arts, science, and history to the
West. Clark also collected and read many books on China, including Pearl
Buck’s novels about the country.
Apart from the enthusiasm he displayed for the expedition, Clark had
two major life pursuits: collecting art and horse racing, achieving great
success in both these areas.
On May 17, 1955, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened
in Williamstown, Massachusetts, offering the first public display of the
Clarks’ art collections in a setting they personally planned and built. On
December 29, 1956, Sterling Clark died at the age of 79. His remains and
those of Francine were buried among the flower beds between the steps at the
original entrance of the Clark.
In 2010, with great emotion, I paid tribute to the memory of the Clarks
when I visited their resting place. Respecting and admiring a noble character
and his spirit of exploration, one hundred years after he left China, I felt
proud to be a Chinese successor to his interest. I, too, feel as though I have
followed in his footsteps and explored a land which is unknown to many.