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China’s surprisingly calm reaction to racist remarks found in Einstein’s travel diary

The world was shocked last week to learn Einstein’s travel diaries included a series of racist remarks made in reference to Chinese people.

Curiously, though, many Chinese social media users have come forward to defend the lauded scientist, saying he just gave a description of the people of the era.

Translated and edited by Ze’ev Rosenkranz, a book titled The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein published the contents of the scientist’s travel diaries in English for the very first time.

Previously, the diaries were only available in German as part of the 15-volume Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.

“This is the first time Einstein’s travel diary will be made available to anyone who isn’t a serious Einstein scholar,” a spokesperson for the Princeton University Press said.

Written between October 1922 and March 1923, the diaries detail Einstein’s tour across The Far East, Palestine and Spain throughout a series of reflections on philosophy, science, art and the local culture.

Everybody was surprised to find that the man who once described racism as “a disease of white people” went on in his diaries to chronicle the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse”.

Among his observations, he also wrote how the Chinese “don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods”.

He continued, “All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.”

And Einstein didn’t stop there. One of the most influential personalities of the last 100 years also mused, “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

Rosenkranz, senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, spoke to The Guardian about the scientist’s remarks.

“They’re kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon,” he said. “I think it’s quite a shock to read those and contrast them with his more public statements. They’re more off guard, he didn’t intend them for publication.”

Understandably, many took to social media on an anti-Einstein rampage, calling for a “boycott of Einstein” on social media – as if you could somehow boycott relativity.

However, an equally strong contingent – including many from China – were quite understanding of the remarks.

“This is called insulting China? That’s ridiculous. Did the Chinese in that era look dirty? When I see the photos from then, they look dirty, Einstein depicted the true state of that era,” one user said.

“Einstein went to China at the wrong time,” claimed another one, while another pointed out, “We praise Lu Xun because he pointed out our disadvantages. Why should we blame Einstein for this?”

Last Friday, The South China Morning Post published an editorial titled “Albert Einstein’s racism is all relative” in which it excuses the “offensive” remarks as being private thoughts very far from Einstein’s public and effective position on the matter.

“There is a big difference between words and deeds. Published words are closer to deeds, if they incite actions in others. But private thoughts, which those diary entries clearly were, are subjects of self-conversation. They are preliminary and ever changing.”

Via The Guardian

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Comment (3)

    Regimon Cyriac

    Thursday 21 June 2018

    It is unfortunate to say that Einstein was racist because of what he wrote about some people in China. It seems to be only an observation about some people whom he met for the first time in a new place. Usually anybody who visits a new place and people makes such comments, because the usual natural comparison is with what one is familiar with. But such comments may not be the ideal, but does not make one racist. So it is the media mind-set or the tendency to make things sensitive that causes damage. Better not to judge people and persons without knowing fully. Had Einstein written a thesis on the Chinese people, we could have judged him based on that. These are only travel diaries and the content of that does not make him racist.


    Eric Wallter

    Thursday 21 June 2018

    Actually shows a commendable maturity on the part of the newspaper. Also, this trend of populist activism obscures the REAL issues that need to be highlighted and acted upon. BTW, is having a “low” opinion of a person (or a group of persons) equivalent to racism??
    – – – Eric Wallter



    Thursday 21 June 2018

    Einstein’s thoughts may not be palatable today to many. But he is known for his exceptional intellect and ability to unravel mysteries of universe. It is trivial to dig out some other aspects which are not related to Science, when we talk about Einstein. If public or some great intellects feel this to be important, then let us think seriously. After all his ideas about science were also criticized or ridiculed by many intellect of his time.