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Needham’s Enforced Stay in Dunhuang

By Susan Whitfield 15 January 2015

In August 1943 Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the Cambridge scientist, set off from Chongqing in China for a tour of the northwest of China. He travelled with a New Zealand colleague and long-term resident of China, Rewi Alley, and with several Chinese colleagues. Their final destination was Dunhuang, although their primary objective was not a cultural tour, but rather economic: to gather information on the state of Chinese industry and agriculture. At this time Needham was director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing and, on his return, he compiled a detailed report for the Foreign Office. However, perhaps of more interest is his personal diary — now available online on IDP — written en route and with its own particular style and shorthand (eg. ‘nbg’ for no bloody good) and constant expressions of despair at the delays caused their ailing truck.

Truck in desert with three men posed on and around it, black and white historic photograph.
The troublesome truck en route to Dunhuang, NRI2/10/1/1/3/1/16.

During his month-long stay at the Mogao cave temples near Dunhuang, Needham took many photographs which remain of great interest today. However, perhaps less well known is the fact that he only ever intended to spend one day there. His party arrived late on 31 September 1943 and on 1 October he records visiting the caves between 9.30am and 2pm with James and Lucy Lo — who were then resident. In the afternoon he works on his accounts and packs, ready for departure. The entry for Saturday 2 October reads:

‘Dep. Chienfotung. Homeward bound at last’.

Page from a handwritten diary entry.
Entry for 2 October 1943, NRI2/5/12/1

But this was not to be. Only a couple of kilometres from the caves the truck, forever temperamental, broke down:

‘Soon it transpired that the MAIN BEARINGS GONE from 1, 2, 3 & 4 cyls!!! (At the furthest point of the whole journey!)’.

Against his will, and to his daily frustration, Needham was forced to spend almost four weeks at Dunhuang until a replacement truck finally arrived and he was able to depart on Thursday 28 October.


Needham’s photographs and documents of this and his 1958 return visit to Dunhuang can be viewed on IDP by adding ‘NRI2’ to the search box. These include the notebook from his 1943 visit, NRI2/5/12/4 (also available as a downloadable PDF 14.9MB) and his diary of his 1958 visit, NRI2/5/1/5 (PDF 52.9MB).

Thanks to John Moffett and the Needham Research Institute, whose collaboration allowed us to digitise this material; to the Dunhuang Foundation (US) for their support; to Luo Huaqing of the Dunhuang Academy for his captioning of the photographs; and to Michael Rank and Vic Swift for their work on transcribing and checking the diaries.


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