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Joan Hinton

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Sebastian Hinton and Carmelita Hinton
Sister of Jean Hinton Rosner and William H. Hinton

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Joan Hinton

Joan Hinton (Chinese name: 寒春, Pinyin: Hán Chūn; 20 October 1921 – 8 June 2010) was a nuclear physicist and one of the few women who worked for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. She lived in the People's Republic of China after 1949, where she and her husband Erwin Engst participated in China’s efforts at developing a socialist economy, working extensively in agriculture. She lived on a dairy farm north of Beijing before her death on June 8, 2010.

Family background

Her father, Sebastian Hinton, was a lawyer (who also was the inventor of the jungle gym); her mother, Carmelita Hinton, was an educator and the founder of The Putney School, an independent progressive school in Vermont. Her sister, Jean Hinton Rosner (1917–2002), was a civil rights and peace activist. Joan Hinton's great-grandfather was the mathematician George Boole; Ethel Lilian Voynich, a great-aunt, was the author of The Gadfly, a novel later read by millions of Soviet and Chinese readers.

Nuclear scientist

Joan Hinton studied physics at Bennington College and the University of Wisconsin. She observed the Trinity test at Alamogordo and wrote about it:

“It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight so it cleared out the natural clouds. We saw a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight at the top. Then suddenly the sound reached us. It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it. We suddenly started talking out loud and felt exposed to the whole world.” 

Joan Hinton was shocked when the US government, three weeks later, dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She left the Manhattan Project and lobbied the government in Washington to internationalise nuclear power.

Moving to China

Her brother William H. Hinton (1919–2004), a sociologist, had travelled to China for the first time in 1937 and observed the land reform in the communist-occupied areas. (He would thirty years later publish Fanshen about his findings, a book that became very successful in the US.)

In March 1948, Joan Hinton travelled to Shanghai, worked for Soong Qingling, the widow of President Sun Yat-sen, and tried to establish contacts with the Chinese communists. She witnessed the communists gaining control of Beijing in 1949 and moved to Yan'an, where she married Erwin Engst, who had been working in China since 1946. They worked at a farm near Xi'an and moved to Beijing to work as translators and editors at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

During the Cold War, some Americans considered her to have betrayed the United States, as a nuclear physicist who went to China and took part in its revolution. However, what most Americans did not realize, according to Hinton, is that she and her husband were working in agriculture on a tiny commune in a remote part of China, without electricity or even radios.

On August 29 (or in June, according to another source), 1966, Joan Hinton, Erwin Engst and two other Americans living in China—Bertha Sneck (Shǐ Kè 史克, who had previously been married to Joan’s brother William) and Ann Tomkins (Tāngpǔjīnsēn 汤普金森)—signed a poster put up at the Foreign Experts Bureau in Beijing with the following text:

Which monsters and freaks are pulling the strings so foreigners get this kind of treatment? Foreigners working in China, no matter what class background they have, no matter what their attitude is toward the revolution, they all get the “five nots and two haves”: the five nots—first: no physical labour, second: no thought reform, third: no chances of contacts with workers and peasants, fourth: no participation in class struggle, fifth: no participation in production struggle; the two haves—first: they have an exceptionally high living standard, second: they have all kinds of specialisation. What kind of concept is that? This is Khrushchevism, this is revisionist thinking, this is class exploitation! [...] We demand: [...] Seventh: the same living standard and the same level of Chinese staff; eighth: no specialisation any more. Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution! 

A copy of the poster was shown to Mao Zedong, who issued a directive that “revolutionary foreign experts and their children should be treated the same as the Chinese.”

In 1972, Joan Hinton and Erwin Engst started working in agriculture again at the Beijing Red Star Commune.

In June 1987, William Hinton went to the town of Dazhai in Shanxi province to observe the changes brought about by the reform policies, and in August 1987, Joan Hinton stayed at Dazhai as well.

In a 1996 interview with CNN, after nearly 50 years in China, she stated “[we] never intended to stay in China so long, but were too caught up to leave.” Hinton described the changes she and her husband had witnessed in China since the beginning of the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. They stated they “have watched their socialist dream fall apart” as much of China embraced capitalism. A 2004 MSNBC interviews noted her critical assessment of economic change as “betrayals of the socialist cause.” She noted what she describes as a rise of exploitation in Chinese society.

Hinton lived alone following the death of her husband in 2003. Her three children moved to the United States, with Hinton noting that “They probably would have stayed if China were still socialist.” Hinton retained her American citizenship, which she considered “convenient for travel.” Her son, Yang Heping (Fred Ernst) moved back to Beijing in 2007 as a professor at the University of International Business and Economics.

In her 2005 essay “The Second Superpower”, Hinton stated, “There are two opposing superpowers in the world today: the U.S. on one side, and world public opinion on the other. The first thrives on war. The second demands peace and social justice.”

She remained active in the small community of expats in Beijing, protesting against the war in Iraq.

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Joan Hinton's Timeline

Age 89