Legendary British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76 today.
How China is mourning Stephen Hawking
His fans in China are devastated.
“I’m shocked. It’s a loss for the whole human race,” one Chinese social media user wrote. “I just watched the episode of The Big Bang Theory with him in it again and I wanted to cry,” said another.
Hawking has always been a god-like figure in China's scientific community, but when he sent out his first greeting on Chinese social media in 2016, he also became an instant internet celebrity.
He gained more than 300,000 followers on China’s Twitter-like platform – Weibo – within an hour of opening his account. Some came to praise his scientific achievements, while others asked lighthearted questions about aliens.
“My last trip was in 1985 when I traveled across your remarkable country by train,” Hawking wrote in his first post addressing Chinese fans. “I hope to tell you more about my life and work through this page and also to learn from you in reply.”
Hawking visited China three times.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang expressed official condolences today. "Mr Hawking is an outstanding scientist who has made great contributions to mankind," Lu said. "His contributions will always be remembered."
He recalled Hawking's 1985 visit, during which Lu said he insisted on visiting the Great Wall.
When Hawking visited in 2002, he was treated almost like a visiting head of state.
Professor Xing Zhizhong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences remembers how curious people were about Hawking when he met him in 2002.
“Everyone gathered around him curiously after the speech he made using his special device,” said Professor Xing, referring the speech synthesizer Hawking used thanks to his degenerative ALS. “You could hardly move in the crowd.”
Professor Xing recalled with amusement that the other famous scientists at the event, such as Nobel-prize-winner David Gross, looked frustrated as the crowds were drawn to Hawking.
“When I first studied physics, he was already a big star,” Professor Xing said. “His book A Brief History of Time has always been placed prominently in Beijing’s biggest bookshop.”
Even though many people deify Hawking, Professor Xing said he admired him for his extraordinary spirit and tenacity.
“He never lived like a patient,” said Professor Xing. “He took his wife and kids to the park, just like any other parent.”
In Hong Kong, Hawking was best remembered for his only visit to the city in 2006, when he gave a lecture and passed on a message of hope to a quadriplegic who had been pleading to be allowed to die.
“While there is life, there is hope,” the message read, saying it would be a “great mistake” if the man, Tang Siu-pun, ended his life.
Tang said that Hawking’s story made him realize he was not “completely useless.” He died in 2012.
Hawking’s most recent interaction with Chinese internet users was in November 2017, when he answered a question in a video about exploring outer space by Wang Junkai, a Chinese teen pop star. It has been viewed 21 million times.
“He hasn’t left us. He has gone to where he belongs – the universe,” said the most liked comment under a post about his death on Weibo today.
Tony Cheung, a Hong Kong-based political reporter for the South China Morning Post, contributed reporting.