BEIJING — The first time he was purged, Xu Liangying was 37, an up-and-coming physicist, philosopher and historian and a veteran of the Communist underground. He had to divorce his wife, leave his sons and go live on his mother’s farm in the country.
Three decades later, only a heart attack saved him from imprisonment or worse during the massacre that ended the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards stole the Einstein translations that Dr. Xu had labored over during his farm exile. Armed guards once surrounded his apartment to keep him away from Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
For seven decades, Xu Liangying has been Albert Einstein’s man in China, intertwining revolution and physics to speak up for political freedom and the value of scientific curiosity in a land where the rulers have often had a different agenda. His Einstein translations, retrieved and published, helped inspire a rebirth of interest in Einstein and in science in China.
Chinese leaders say today that science is the key to the country’s modernization and growth, but Dr. Xu finds no pleasure in that.
“They are just using it to serve themselves,” he said recently.
His phone, he says, is still bugged.
Today, at 86, his hair is white, and history, in the form of scholars, human rights activists and journalists, comes to him, in his book-lined apartment overlooking the university district in Beijing.
If he is not the oldest living Chinese dissident, he is easily one of the most intellectually distinguished, the author of some 200 papers and editor of a half-dozen books. The historian H. Lyman Miller called him an “archetypal figure” in his book “Science and Dissent in Post-Mao China.” The adjective “venerable” seems to attach itself to him the way snow is attracted to the mountains, but he does not seem to have lost an ounce of rebelliousness.
A dozen years ago in this newspaper he referred to would-be Communist reformers as “boot lickers.”
On a recent morning, Dr. Xu held forth from an armchair on his adventures as an Einsteinian democrat, jabbing the air, waving his arms and laughing often. Albert Einstein stared down sternly from above a file cabinet.
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds,” the inscription read.
Clad in a blue shirt, slippers and thick glasses, Dr. Xu got up from his easy chair to stand beneath the poster. “Those are some of his best words,” he said.
The love affair between Dr. Xu, who was born in Linhai, Zhejiang, in 1920, and Einstein began when Dr. Xu was in secondary school and read a collection of Einstein’s essays called “The World as I See It.” The book had as much politics as science.
In one passage that the young Xu underlined, Einstein wrote: “The state is made for man, not man for the state. I regard the chief duty of the state to protect the individual and give him the opportunity to develop into a creative personality.”
Dr. Xu said, “I wanted to be such a person.”
In 1939, he entered Zhejiang University, intending, as he wrote on his entrance form, to become “the authority of modern physics.” But politics intruded.
To evade the Japanese Army, which had invaded China in 1937, the university repeatedly had to move and sometimes during bombings students had to take shelter in caves. This provided Dr. Xu a revealing and disturbing tour of the Chinese countryside. Some people were living in caves with ragged clothes, while their landlords lived well.
“This difference was unreasonable,” he recalled thinking. Concluding that China needed “total revolution,” he resolved to join the Communists underground.
In the meantime, he was excelling at his studies, and when he graduated, his mentor Wang Ganchang, the architect of China’s first atomic bomb, wanted him as a research assistant to study the mysterious subatomic particles known as neutrinos.
Instead, the young Xu went off in search of the revolution, teaching in five schools over the next two years. When the Japanese Army overran the province where he was teaching, his old mentor put an advertisement in the local newspaper pleading with him to return to research. Dr. Xu did return to the university, but he took his politics with him and the physics department became the center of Communist activity at the university, with Dr. Xu as the party secretary.
When the Communists finally prevailed in 1949, Dr. Xu and Dr. Wang moved to Beijing and joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where in what he refers to now as “a bad deed,” Dr. Xu became for a while the chief censor, inspecting scientific writings for antirevolutionary sentiment or threats to national security. But it turned out that he could not serve both Einstein and Mao.
In 1957, Mao announced the “100 flowers” campaign, encouraging people to speak up and criticize, only to decide later that things had gone too far and to instigate a new campaign to weed out “rightists.”
Dr. Xu spoke out against the new campaign and was himself denounced in The Chinese People’s Daily, not just as a rightist, but an “extreme rightist.” The academy ordered him to go work on a farm in northeastern China, but Dr. Xu argued that he had arthritis and that it was too cold there.
Told then that he was on his own, Dr. Xu went back to his apartment in Beijing.
His wife, Wang Laili, a historian and mother of their 7- and 14-year-old children, was pregnant.
She cried so hard for three days, he said, that she lost the baby. For sheltering her husband, Dr. Wang was kicked out of the party, and under “ big pressure,” Dr. Xu said, she asked him for a divorce. Dr. Xu was banished to his family farm in Linhai.
Eventually, the rightist label was lifted, and in 1962, the academy asked him to do the translation for a new collection of Einstein’s philosophical essays and speeches.
The decision to publish Einstein was not made wholly out of admiration. “Mao Zedong wanted to be the revolutionary leader of the whole world,” Dr. Xu explained. As part of that plan, he said, “Mao planned to identify and criticize all the world’s scientists whose political or philosophical positions were anti-Marxist.”
Einstein was on the list courtesy of Andrei Zhdanov, an assistant to Stalin, who argued in 1947 that Einstein’s cosmological theories were reactionary and bourgeois. Marxist philosophy postulated an endless and unlimited universe, but according to general relativity, space-time could be curved around on itself like a sphere, and thus be finite even if it lacked boundaries. Moreover, it promoted theology by implying that the universe had a beginning.
Mr. Zhdanov’s argument resonated with Mao’s view that the universe should be in a state of eternal revolution. And for a brief while it resonated with Dr. Xu, who referred to the Soviet criticism as “a vibration on my mind.”
Scientifically, he said, “I affirmed Einstein’s theory because in science there are no classes.” But, he said, “Influenced by Marxism, I thought that the philosophy part of Einstein’s theory is some capitalism theory.’’
It took him two years, working mostly by himself, to translate 197 of Einstein’s articles. But publication was suspended because the workers at his printer had been dispersed to the countryside in another of Mao’s campaigns.
Then came the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards confiscated Dr. Xu’s translations, as well as a manuscript he had written on Einstein’s philosophy.
In 1969, Dr. Xu learned that the papers were in the hands of a group of Shanghai radicals known as the Shanghai Science Criticism Group, a collective that had been set up to attack Einstein and relativity.
Dr. Xu demanded his papers back and appealed to the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee to prevent the group from publishing the translations themselves. Then he wrote to Premier Zhou Enlai. His courage unnerved the Shanghai group, according to Danian Hu, a historian at the City College of New York, who tells the story in a new book, “China and Albert Einstein.” (Harvard University Press, 2005).
In the end Dr. Xu got back his translations and the publications rights, but the other manuscript was lost.
The Einstein volumes were published, beginning in 1975, just as the Cultural Revolution was winding down. Mao died and the members of the infamous “Gang of Four” were arrested in 1976. On March 14, 1978, the 99th anniversary of Einstein’s birth, the foreword to Dr. Xu’s book, calling Einstein “a giant bright star in human history,” was reprinted in The People’s Daily. A year later a thousand Chinese scientists gathered in Beijing to celebrate the old sage.
New leaders like Deng Xiaoping began emphasizing science as the key to uplifting China, and urging the people to “seek the truth through facts.”
Dr. Xu rejoined the academy in Beijing, remarried Wang Laili and became the editor of a new journal, The Bulletin of Natural Dialectics.
But Einstein proved a truer beacon than the party. In a paper in 1981, Dr. Xu cited Einstein on the necessity of freedom, particularly of speech, as a prerequisite for scientific progress.
Many scientists, including Dr. Xu, soon became disillusioned as the government put resources into technological development, starving basic research institutions.
This, Dr. Xu said, was a symptom of closed societies. “In this respect we have much to learn from the experience of the developed Western countries,” he wrote in 1986, “where academic freedom is recognized as a necessary condition for human progress.” By the end of the decade, he said, “I gave up Marxism totally and returned to Einstein.”
In January 1989, Dr. Xu’s friend Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist, wrote an open letter calling for the release of political prisoners. That was too limited, Dr. Xu concluded. He and an old friend, Shi Yafeng, a geographer at the academy, then in February drafted their own letter calling for democracy. “We agreed that actually China needs political reform,” Dr. Xu said.
“They need political democracy and need to protect the rights of citizens, and there should be freedom of thinking, speaking and publishing,” he said, “and they need to end the long history of punishing people because of their words. China has such a history, which has lasted for thousands of years.”
Asked if he had worried when he wrote the letter, Dr. Xu laughed, explaining that he had risked his life long before when he first joined the Communist underground. “There was nothing to dare,” he said.
His letter was signed by 42 people, including many scientists.
It and Dr. Fang’s letter helped provide inspiration for students and others who swarmed Tiananmen Square in April 1989 to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a purged political activist, and then stayed to protest corruption and the lack of human rights. Many of them were wearing T-shirts that said “Science and Democracy,” watchwords of Chinese politics and aspirations since the early 20th century.
On June 4, Chinese troops invaded the square with tanks and killed hundreds of people.
The massacre, Dr. Xu said, will live as Deng Xiaoping’s one historical event. “Mr. Deng used tanks and plane to kill people; he killed them with bullets without blinking his eyes,” he said. “Even the Japanese never did that.”
In the aftermath, Dr. Xu was not arrested, perhaps, he says, because he had had a heart attack a couple of months earlier and had thus never gone down to the demonstrations. (Dr. Fang had to take refuge in the United States Embassy and later left the country.)
When it was suggested to him that he leave the city, Dr. Xu refused. He was 69 and weakened. “If I get arrested, then I’m ready to be dead in prison,” he said.
In 1994, Dr. Xu and six others, including the parents of one of the slain Tiananmen protesters, published a new appeal for human rights in China. “To talk about modernization without mentioning human rights is like climbing a tree to catch a fish,” it said. The letter coincided with a planned visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Christopher, and occasioned a temporary house arrest to prevent a meeting.
In 1995, Dr. Xu was given the Heinz R. Pagels award by the New York Academy of Sciences for his work for freedom, but after another letter and another house arrest, the president of the American Physical Society wrote to the Chinese government asking about his safety.
Dr. Xu is now retired. In 2001 his book “My Views: Xu Liangying’s Collection of Essays on Science, Democracy and Reason” was published by Mirror Books in Hong Kong. He and his wife, who works at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, are working together on a book about the history and theory of democracy.
“Science and democracy are separate concepts,” he said. “They are mutually supportive, but democracy is more fundamental.”
Despite their showy embrace of science, China’s present leaders have not won over Dr. Xu.
Jiang Zemin, who inherited power from Mr. Deng, earned Dr. Xu’s scorn in 1997 when he invoked Einsteinian relativity to justify China’s human rights record, saying democracy was a relative concept. “It’s just nonsense because, first, Einstein’s relativity principle is actually essentially emphasizing the absolute,” Dr. Xu said, referring to the notion that the laws of physics and speed of light are the same for all observers.
“And the other part is democracy and freedom are also absolute because human nature is universal and needs to pursue freedom and equality.”
Dr. Xu said he was optimistic that China’s future would embrace those qualities. He pointed out that when the student leader Wang Dan first tried to start a democracy salon in 1989, only 20 people showed up. But only half a year later, more than 3,000 people joined a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.
“So I never doubt the power of the youth,” Dr. Xu said.