Albert Einstein called Chinese people 'filthy and obtuse' and held racist views, newly-published travel diaries reveal
Theoretical physicist and humanitarian icon Albert Einstein comes across as a racist in a publication of his private diaries detailing his tour of Asia back in the 1920s, especially towards Chinese nationals he met during his travels, reports The Guardian.
The diaries, written by the scientist between October 1922 and March 1923, show his thoughts and musings on science, philosophy, art and his travels. He describes the Chinese as “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” in the book, a far cry from one of his most famous lines when he called racism “a disease of white people."
In his diaries, Einstein notes how the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.”
Astonishingly, he says, “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary” after previously writing of the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese.
Senior editor and assistant director of the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, said: “I think a lot of comments strike us as pretty unpleasant – what he says about the Chinese in particular.
“They’re kind of in contrast to the public image of the great humanitarian icon. 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.”
He translated and edited The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein, a publication that has been compiled into a standalone volume by the Princeton University Press which has photocopies of the original diary pages. Previously, the diaries were only published in German with small supplementary translations into English as part of the 15-volume Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.
A spokesperson for Princeton University Press said: “This is the first time Einstein’s travel diary will be made available to anyone who isn’t a serious Einstein scholar.”
While traveling with his wife in Spain, Palestine, and Asia, Einstein wrote for his stepdaughters in Berlin, according to further passages in the diaries, as an 'aide memoire'. About the Chinese, the renowned physicist wrote that “even those reduced to working like horses never give the impression of conscious suffering. A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.”
He later adds, according to Rosenkranz, “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny” to his "xenophobia" with the acute observation: “I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthrals the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring”.
While in Colombo in Ceylon, he speaks about how the natives “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level” also stating that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”
That being said, Einstein's opinions of the Japanese folks he comes across are rather flattering: “Japanese are unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing,” he writes.
“Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country.” But according to Rosenkranz, he also concludes that the “intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones – natural disposition?”
“Einstein’s diary entries on the biological origin of the alleged intellectual inferiority of the Japanese, Chinese, and Indians are definitely not understated and can be viewed as racist – in these instances, other peoples are portrayed as being biologically inferior, a clear hallmark of racism. The disquieting comment that the Chinese may ‘supplant all other races’ is also most revealing in this regard,” writes Rosenkranz.
“Here, Einstein perceives a foreign ‘race’ as a threat, which … is one of the characteristics of a racist ideology. Yet the remark that must strike the modern reader as most offensive is his feigning not to understand how Chinese men can find their women sufficiently attractive to have offspring with them. In light of these instances, we must conclude that Einstein did make quite a few racist and dehumanizing comments in the diary, some of which were extremely unpleasant.”
In a conversation with The Guardian, Rosenkranz says that although perceptions held by Einstein were common at the time, they were not ubiquitous.
“That’s usually the reaction I get – ‘we have to understand, he was of the zeitgeist, part of the time’ – but I think I tried here and there to give a broader context. There were other views out there, more tolerant views,” he said.
Having said that, Rosenkranz insists in his introduction how important it is to explore the quirks of a humanist icon such as Einstein, and how he could have written xenophobic accounts of the people he came across during his travels. Especially, when you consider that the physicist's photograph was once used for a UNHCR campaign with the slogan “A bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country. Einstein was a refugee”
“The answer to this question seems very relevant in today’s world, in which the hatred of the other is so rampant in so many places around the world,” he writes. “It seems that even Einstein sometimes had a very hard time recognizing himself in the face of the other.”