Einstein's 'Man in Beijing' Passes Away

29 January 2013 5:15 pm

Xu Liangying, Chinese historian of science, dissident, and translator of Albert Einstein's collected works, died of apparent organ failure on 28 January in Beijing. He was 92.

Xu's improbable journey from diehard Communist to rebel scientist began in 1942, after he earned a B.S. in physics from Zhejiang University. That year, the young idealist declined an assistant lectureship at Zhejiang University to pursue a passion for civic activism: He led student movements in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, and joined the Chinese Communist Party's underground movement in 1946. After the Communists came to power in 1949, the newly founded Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) recruited Xu to work as a censor for its publication at its Beijing headquarters.

Even though Xu wholeheartedly supported Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, Xu told an interviewer in 1999 that he couldn't understand why the party turned on its critics after inviting them to speak up during the so-called anti-rightist movement of 1957 to 58. Answering Mao's call of "letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend," Chinese intellectuals criticized and made suggestions to improve the party bureaucracy, only to have their "snake heads" cut off when Mao retaliated. Xu told the party that such action broke the faith of the people; he was branded a rightist, dismissed from his job, and banished to his ancestral village in Zhejiang to be reformed through labor. Xu worked as a peasant for more than 2 decades. In his spare time, he translated the collected works of Einstein into Chinese.

Deng Xiaoping's reforms offered Xu the chance to come in from the cold. In 1979, he joined the CAS Institute for the History of Natural Science in Beijing, where he solidified his reputation as China's foremost Einstein scholar. Just as he appreciated the universality of Einstein's laws of physics, Xu believed in universal human rights -- and he began speaking out. During the government's antibourgeois liberalization campaign of 1986, Xu was forced into retirement in Beijing because of his advocacy for personal freedoms. After the Chinese government's bloody crackdown of student protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Xu once again lost his party membership. In 2008, the American Physical Society awarded Xu the Andrei Sakharov Prize for what the citation notes as Xu's "lifetime's advocacy of truth, democracy and human rights—despite surveillance and house arrest, harassment and threats, even banishment—through his writings, and publicly speaking his mind." He continued to write essays expounding on the need for democracy and human rights in China, and started a blog in 2011.

Dubbed "Einstein's Man in Beijing" by The New York Times in 2006, Xu and his compilation of Einstein's works inspired a generation of Chinese youth who came of age in the 1980s. As Chen Xuelei, an astrophysicist at the National Astronomical Observatories of CAS in Beijing, penned in a blog tribute, "Xu's three-volume of translation of Einstein's works greatly influenced me. My love for physics began with reading the translations in high school and has since led me on a journey of physics research."

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