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Stephen Hawking: China’s love for the late physicist

As the world mourns Prof Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, there has been a particular outpouring of emotion in China, where the visionary physicist was revered by scientists, students, the state and even boy band stars.

“He will roam across the universe and its galaxies, and in the end will again become its brightest star,” said one commenter on the Chinese microblogging network Weibo.

Another said: “He belongs to the stars, and has returned home now.”

Many people in China grew up reading Prof Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time – the circulation of the Chinese-language edition is reportedly second only to that of the English.

His 2006 visit to China was covered with breathless excitement, with state media comparing his appeal to that of Tom Cruise.

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And when he joined Weibo in 2016 – saying hello to “my friends in China” – he was met with a rapturous response, amassing millions of followers within hours.

Prof Hawking was, of course, beloved around the world, but the adulation and respect he has always commanded in China is perhaps in another universe altogether.

Scholars and academics have traditionally been held in high regard in Chinese culture, which also prizes a hard-striving and disciplined work ethic. Having overcome great odds in his life, he was seen as having these qualities in spades.

“We all admire his creativity and his spirit of research, despite the extreme difficulty of his physical situation,” Tsinghua University professor Shing-tung Yau told the BBC.

Prof Yau, who helped to arrange Prof Hawking’s visits to China, added: “He was very friendly and was willing to explain physics to laymen. His smile attracted the attention of everybody… the Chinese are grateful for his generosity in spending time in China.”

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