Albert Einstein, whose name has become synonymous with “genius,” is universally revered not only for his intellectual achievements but also for his humanitarian advocacies.
However, the humanist side of the German-born theoretical physicist’s reputation has sparked debate after his private journals detailing his tour of Asia in the 1920s were published.
The controversial travel diaries, translated and published for the first time as a standalone volume by Princeton University Press, reportedly revealed his prejudiced views towards the different races he met in Asia.
His xenophobic and racist judgments were found among his musings on his travels, science, philosophy, and art between October 1922 and March 1923.
According to the Guardian, Einstein described the Chinese to be “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” in one of his notes.
“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,” he wrote.
He also noted the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, before stating that, “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”
Einstein Papers Project senior editor and assistant director Ze’ev Rosenkranz at the California Institute of Technology, who edited and translated “The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein,” had this to say about the scientist’s private musings:
“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.”
The diaries have been published before in German as part of the 15-volume Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, which included just small supplementary translations into English.
“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 Princeton University Press was quoted as saying.
In one of the passages also referring to the Chinese, Einstein noted 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.”
Rosenkranz also noticed “a healthy dose of extreme misogyny” to his xenophobia:
“I noticed how little difference there is between men and women; I don’t understand what kind of fatal attraction Chinese women possess which enthralls the corresponding men to such an extent that they are incapable of defending themselves against the formidable blessing of offspring.”
Einstein described how the locals in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level,” noting that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.”
“Japanese unostentatious, decent, altogether very appealing. Pure souls as nowhere else among people. One has to love and admire this country,” Einstein praised.
However, he then concluded that the “intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones – natural disposition?”
In his book, Rosenkranz pointed out that Einstein’s views on the alleged intellectual inferiority of the Asian people show a “clear hallmark of racism.”
“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.
“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.”
Einstein, who has long been recognized as a humanist icon, has publicly denounced racism, calling it as America’s “worst disease,” which he noted to be “handed down from one generation to the next.”
As a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Princeton, Einstein actively campaigned for the civil rights of African Americans.