Albert Einstein in Shanghai: Can a Genius Also be Racist?

While Einstein’s arrival in China generated a great deal of excitement among both the foreign and Chinese intellectual community, Albert’s impressions of the country were decidedly mixed. In Shanghai, he observed, “In the air, there is a stench of never-ending manifold variety.”

His impressions of China’s people were equally disparaging, describing them as an “industrious, filthy, obtuse people.”

“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… It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us, the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

Whether it’s fair to cherry-pick the most obviously racist bits from a person’s diary — Einstein would later be involved with numerous civil rights causes and organizations in the United States and around the world — Einstein’s comments are sadly reflective of attitudes toward other races held by Europeans and Americans in the early 20th century.

Yet these same attitudes were all too prevalent in China as well, suggesting an internalization of pseudo-scientific racist and racialist attitudes coded in the language of civilization and modernity.