John Simpson interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 29th April 2004


O:09:07 Went to China in about 1940 [1944-46]; the only way of dating is was that the Burma Road had been broken by the Japanese at that time; I was a conscientious objector and joined the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit, an exciting unit to be involved in because it went all over the world; I had always been interested in China and it seemed a wonderful chance to get somewhere that wasn't directly involved in our war; the Chinese war was not something that was discussed much in England; before the War I did collect quite a lot of books on China and Tibet; I learned by heart the staging posts on the route to Lhasa, for instance; before going to China I had only been to France; before leaving for China I had already been teaching mathematics for five years at Clayesmoor School; the China ambulance group was rather select and a difficult one to get into which made me all the more keen to do it; when it was decided that I was going to China there was a great deal of training to be done, including learning the language; training covered about six months; I learned Chinese in language schools in London, practised on the boat on the way there, but like any other language studies, it didn't really start until I got there; I was learning to speak Chinese but I was quite keen on the written language as well; I used to say that it was so I could write down the names of Chinese food that I liked; there was not much Chinese food to be found in England, but there was one Chinese restaurant in Cambridge before the War; I seem to remember it was somewhere near the Round Church


5:31:07 We went by boat to Bombay then went by train to Calcutta; then we flew from Calcutta across the Hump, as it was called, the Himalayas, in a DC3; it was a Chinese National Aviation plane which was actually ; we landed at Kunming in Yunnan; I remember flying out of the clouds and seeing people with blue clothes working in the fields; Kunming was then a small town; there was a railway line from the south and then east; I don't remember any cars at all though it had electricity; the people that I stayed with to start with were European - "Stamp" Smith ran the Post Office; my main impression was of poverty - a feeling of going back to the Middle Ages; it was not very clean but crowded - Chinese towns always seemed to be crowded; they were curious and if you stopped a stood somewhere a crowd would gather round you; they were quite friendly but always there, partly because it was unusual to see a foreigner around in those days; one didn't see very much of the women at all; I can't remember them having bound feet at the time; we were conscious of the ethnic peoples - the Miao and the Lolo - who wore different clothes from the rest; the tribal women wore colourful skirts (unlike the non-tribals) and they came in for the markets


10:01:19 Was in Kunming for two or three weeks in transit, then moved on the Chuching [Qujing] which was about 50-60km to the east on the extension of the Burma Road; this was the headquarters of the Friends; by that time they had given up trying to do military hospital work; they found that what they could best do was help build up the transport system; at Chuching we had about twenty trucks which we serviced and worked on; the Chinese were very clever at working on trucks and were doing impossible things all the time with hammers and screwdrivers and not much else at all; there was a base hospital in Chuching for the military; I suspect the corpses we saw were of sick people from the countryside as there was no actual fighting within 20-30 miles; the lorries were used to carry medical supplies which were flown in from England to Kunming; these were then transported by lorry to Chungking [Chongqing] and to little hospitals run by missionaries; remember taking supplies to some German missionaries west of Chungking; the liberation by Mao's army was only just beginning to take shape while I was there; I was in China for about three or four years; I had been to Chungking three or four times by truck - it took about a month; you could only travel during the day and you tended to stop on the way when the roads were disrupted by landslides; early summer was probably the best time to travel


15:37:23 I can't say that I enjoyed the work, though I found it stimulating and exciting and felt it was worth doing; you wanted to get the truck through because it was carrying something valuable; we had a $1,000,000 worth of materials on one trip; that was the time I was attacked by bandits; I was driving up a mountain pass and the bandits ran across the skyline firing guns at me; eventually they hit the truck and I stopped; I wondered what I could do, and decided there was nothing; I took my wristwatch off and hid it under the seat and waited for them to come; one of the others on the truck had a large red beard; he poked his head out of the window and shouted and the bandits ran away; we were rescued then my someone who towed our truck in; the bandits were generally local people who had managed to get hold of guns, so probably desperate themselves; I did make one or two Chinese friends who were working with the unit; all the workers in my depot were Chinese - there were about fifty people; I had a rather formal attitude with them as I was the boss; don't think there were any Chinese there with whom I could really make friends; we did get to know a few educated Chinese; I remember going to a dinner held by Chinese officials in Chuching and there were quite a lot of intelligent, educated, Chinese there; I never went into a Chinese house socially, nor did I wear Chinese clothes; we did occasionally go into houses on the road when there were accidents, but that was to help them, even doing operations on them sometimes


21:06:10 I never got to know any women except those who were westernized; there were a number of Western women but others were of Chinese origin who had come from the West; I never spoke to any ordinary Chinese women; at that time I was writing to my future wife and were able to exchange photographs; I was aware of opium use as one or two of the staff that worked in my garage were addicts; I certainly did not see any opium dens; did not see much violence; the Chinese  used to shout a lot and wave their arms around but they didn't actually hit each other very much; the only violence that I got involved in was with those that had guns; I was not conscious of a problem of prostitution


24:48:15 China must have changed my life though I can't really answer how; the Chinese became real people in my mind; I did go back years afterwards, but I would have liked to have gone back to Chuching which I couldn't manage to do; it was very difficult to go to China in the 1980s; in our department, the professors went there first and then ordinary people like me went later on; the Royal Society paid for my visit with my wife; we went to a lot of cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, but never got back to Yunnan as it was not convenient or possible; it would be nice to land in Chengdu tomorrow; my overall feeling about my China experience is that I would not have missed it for anything