British theoretical physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking arrives in Hong Kong in 2006 / © AFP/File
Millions of Chinese mourned Stephen Hawking on Wednesday, bidding farewell to a "giant star" admired in China for stoically rising above physical disability and posting heartfelt messages to his Chinese fans on social media.
Already well-known in China, the British cosmologist two years ago further endeared himself to fans in the country when he opened an account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, posting in both Chinese and English.
The account garnered one million fans within its first few hours and now has nearly five million, with his infrequent posts typically generating tens of thousands of admiring comments and earning him the affectionate nickname "Hawking Dada", or "Uncle Hawking."
News of Hawking's death at 76 quickly became the top-trending Weibo topic, with the hashtag #Hawking passed# generating more than 300 million reads and nearly 200,000 comments within a few hours after his death was announced.
Many said his passing was "the falling of a giant star."
"The deterioration of his body did not trap him. Today this superhuman brain has left this world, and his next journey, death, remains a mystery," one user said.
"I hope he has the strength to send us information from the next world."
Another user wrote: "Even though I can't understand Hawking Dada's books... he is the one who knows the secret of this world."
Most of Hawking's life was spent in a wheelchair, crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neuron disease. He died at his home in England on Wednesday, his family announced.
Hawking, who had travelled to China previously, even visiting the Great Wall in 2002, posted on Weibo about black holes and other phenomena, and wrote in one message that being on China's leading social media platform was "a source of great inspiration".
One of his more popular postings was a June 2016 message of encouragement to tens of millions of Chinese students preparing for annual national college-entrance exams, a stressful, make-or-break ordeal that can determine one's future.
"Whether you aim to be a doctor, teacher, scientist, musician, engineer, or a writer, be fearless in the pursuit of your aspirations. You are the next generation of big thinkers and thought leaders that will shape the future for generations to come - SH," he wrote.