Albert Einstein was riding the Peak Tram in Hong Kong on the day he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1922. But he was in Shanghai when he actually received news of the accolade by telegram three days later.
Early accounts of Einstein’s five-month Asia trip – which he took with his wife Elsa – focused on his positive observations. For instance the physicist claimed Hong Kong was “the prettiest landscape I’ve seen up to now on the entire voyage”.
But a newer translation of his travel journal, originally written in German, also shows the scientist dismissing the Chinese as “filthy” and “obtuse”.
Einstein wonders how the local men find the women attractive and describes the population in general as being more like “automatons than people”.
“It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races… For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary,” he wrote.
The book’s editor Ze’ev Rozenkranz has described the comments as racist, saying they show limits to the scientist’s famous humanitarianism, “at least at that stage of his life”.
Einstein was to become a vocal advocate of the civil rights movement in the United States and he served as a poster child for refugees having fled Germany when the Nazis came to power.
Yet while Western publications have labelled his comments as shocking and troubling, many Chinese netizens have jumped to the Jewish scientist’s defence.
“These are not racist or insulting descriptions. It’s just how China was back then,” wrote one.
“Our country was poor, our children were ‘spiritless’, our people were not educated,” said another, referencing one of Einstein comments about how Chinese children seemed “obtuse” and “lethargic”.
Others even compared the scientist’s observations to those of Chinese writer Lu Xun, who was highly critical of his own society in the early part of the twentieth century.
Lu took particular aim at the “Chinese national character”, labelling it as greedy, lazy and cunning.
“Lu Xun’s words were much harsher,” added another netizen.
“Any person of intellect would have made the same observations,” agreed another.
Others said Einstein’s comments shouldn’t be judged by the values of today or pointed out that they had been written in his private diary and were never intended for publication. Yet some were still offended. “It is impossible to argue Einstein’s words were not discriminatory,” claimed one weibo user. “It is a shame his EQ didn’t match his IQ,” quipped another.
In contrast to his unflattering comments about the Chinese, Einstein was a bigger fan of the Japanese. “Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country,” he wrote in 1922. “Japanese, unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing.”
Evidently, the father of relativity theory wasn’t as good at spotting the aggressive militarism that was already starting to fester in Japan at that time.
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