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Founder of Pinyin dies at 111
February 28, 2017
We hope you all noticed a well-crafted remembrance of Zhou Youguang in the pages of the Washington Post.
The long-lived Mr. Zhou, who passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 111, revolutionized the instruction of Chinese around the world when he spearheaded the development of the Pin Yin transliteration system in 1955. Zhou's romanized pronunciation system replaced the method of pain-staking, time-killing rote memorization that had defined Chinese-language instruction for centuries.
Zhou YouGuang was born to affluent parents in the city of Changzhou in 1906, beginning his life at the tail-end of the Quing dynasty’s chaotic century of decline. He studied economics and linguistics at St. John’s University and later Guanghua University before embarking on a career in banking. Amid the chaos of the second Sino-Japanese war, Mr. Zhou befriended Zhou Enlai, cementing the relationship that would allow him to reshape language instruction of over a billion Chinese language learners. As an academic, Zhou suffered throughout the Cultural Revolution, but was shielded from more lethal forms of persecution through Zhou Enlai’s influence.
After Zhou Enlai ascended to the highest ranks of Chinese Communist Party, he was tasked with modernizing the Chinese language and immediately thought of his old friend's consuming passion for esperanto. Premier Zhou Enlai directed Zhou Youguang to helm the vast and daunting project of creating a new alphabet for the Chinese people. When Zhou Youguang protested his inexperience, the politician pointed out that no one in the new nation had the experience and expertise required. Innovation and improvisation would, by necessity, be the order of the day.
Leading a group of around twenty, Zhou Youguang’s task force considered more than 2,000 writing systems before landing on system of Roman transliteration that eventually become Pin Yin. The process lasted three years; the name "Pin Yin” comes from the phrase “Hanyu Pinyin” which is most commonly translated as “putting the sounds together.” The system utilizes standard roman letters with the addition of a few diacritical marks—representing each of mandarin’s four tones: steady, rising, dipping and falling. After the succinct simplicity of Zhou’s invention soon made it’s predecessor —the Wade Giles system—instantly seem cumbersome by comparison.
Zhou Youguang once joked to NPR’s Louisa Lim that, following the Pin Yin system’s formal introduction in 1958, people often poked fun at him for spending three years on a mere twenty-six letters. Still, the system produced in that span has been partially credited for China’s remarkable literacy rate. Before the introduction of Pin Yin, 85% of the Chinese population was illiterate. Today, Unicef estimates China’s literacy rate rests at a near-universal 95%. Not bad for three years of work. Practically unparalleled for three years of government work.
Mr. Zhou narrowly chose a romanized alphabet over the Cyrillic alphabet favored by China’s then ally—the Soviet Union— in the hope that the relative prevalence of the Roman alphabet would allow foreigners from a large array of countries and customs to learn Chinese. Banished into the China’s rural northwest in 1969, Zhou eventually managed to return to the capital and continued to make seminal contributions to Chinese intellectual life until the year of his death. Beyond Pin Yin, Zhou will be remembered for his groundbreaking translation of two editions of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the eighties as well as many books and innumerable scholarly articles on Chinese history and linguistics. Never one one to let age cramp his style, Zhou published more than ten books after his centenary.
Toward the end of his life, Zhou’s curiosity remained undiminished and he took particular delight in the new uses new generations developed for his alphabet system in the age of technology. Speaking to NPR, he found it remarkable that Pin Yin is now used in word processors and mobile phones to fling Chinese characters across cyberspace. He once chuckled to an American reporter as he compared his invention to the magic words in the legend of Ali Baba, “Pin Yin is like a kind of Open Sesame, it opens up the world.”