Zhou Youguang (1906–2017)

Zhou Youguang at home in Beijing in 2012. Photo by Charlie Fong, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceZhou Youguang, who died today, the day after his 111th birthday, was known as the “Father of Hanyu Pinyin” due to his role in designing the Romanization system widely used for representing Mandarin Chinese. Today, Pinyin is the official Romanization system for Mandarin in China and many other countries, is used in millions of people’s passports, determines the spelling of names of well known Chinese people and places in foreign media and publications, and is an ISO standard. However, it was initially designed as a tool to help increase literacy levels in China.

Zhou Youguang started out not as a linguist, but as an economist. As a young man, he worked in New York as a banker. During his time in the United States, he apparently counted Albert Einstein among his acquaintances. However, after the Communist revolution in China in 1949, Zhou decided to return to his homeland. Quickly realising that the services of an economist might not be appreciated, he reinvented himself by turning to his hobby of linguistics, and was appointed head of a committee tasked with designing a phonetic system to represent Mandarin Chinese.

Chinese characters as written contain a wealth of information about ideas and words, but no indication of the pronunciation. This made teaching the reading and writing of Chinese difficult, with the result that the majority of people in China were illiterate. The Communist government wanted a new system to represent the sounds of the characters, with the ultimate goal of improving literacy rates. The committee was tasked with looking at the options for such a system, but the type of system was not specified. Any sort of alphabet or symbols could have been devised. Zhou, however, having lived and worked in America, was convinced that the Roman alphabet was the best solution, and was eventually successful in persuading the authorities to go along with it. The details of the Pinyin system then took three years to devise.

While Romanization systems such as Wade-Giles had been developed before, they tended to be foreign in origin and required marks such as apostrophes and hyphens in order to work. Pinyin makes particularly efficient use of the alphabet, and also gives words and names in Mandarin the dignity of not having their syl-la-bles divided up, or random CaPiTal letters inserted. While some people may complain that the use of letters such as q and x in Pinyin seems illogical, that misses the point that it is a system of Romanisation, not Anglicization. Spanish or French speakers, for example, use these letters in a quite different way from English speakers, and the same is true of Pinyin. Once someone is familiar with Pinyin, it is a consistent, phonetic system of spelling, so they are then able to pronounce any Mandarin word. This is real boon for anyone learning Mandarin as a foreign language. It has also changed the way that the language is taught in schools in China, where children learn the alphabet before they learn to write Chinese characters, although precisely how much of the improvement in literacy can be attributed to Pinyin is hard to gauge.

Despite being behind the Romanization system for Chinese, Zhou Youguang had no wish for it to replace Chinese characters. He has said he was glad to be on the committee for producing a phonetic system, and not the parallel committee tasked with simplifying the Chinese characters themselves (another aspect of the reforms under Mao Zedong). He also said it was “impossible” for Pinyin to replace Chinese characters, even if one wished to do such a thing.

For a while, Zhou Youguang’s involvement with Pinyin earned him a relatively comfortable life in Communist China. Although not a member of the Communist Party, his position entitled him to eat at government canteens at a time when there were food shortages. He would recall how he and his wife would eat their meals sitting next to Puyi, the man who had been the last Emperor of China. In the ’60s, though, like many academics, he was sent to the countryside for “re-education”. He attributed his survival during that difficult period to his positive thinking. (Puyi wasn’t so lucky: born a month after Zhou, his treatment during that period saw him die aged just 61.)

Zhou went on to work on the Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In his later years, he lived in an apartment in Beijing with unpainted walls, to save him from the disruption of having them decorated. Although he didn’t use computers, he wrote daily using an electric typewriter, which naturally used his own Pinyin system to input characters. His son, Zhou Xiaoping, an atmospheric physicist, died in 2015.

It was only on becoming a centenarian that Zhou became a fierce critic of the Communist regime. He joked, “What are they going to do, come and take me away?” Books he wrote were banned, and internet posts praising him censored. He had wished to live long enough to see China admit the violent clampdown on protestors in Tian’anmen Square had been a mistake – a mistake he said ruined the reputation of Deng Xiaoping, who up until that point Zhou had considered an outstanding politician, with his policies of opening up China. Zhou said people in China no longer believed in the Communist system, and that most intellectuals believed in democracy.

Zhou Youguang was probably the world’s oldest democracy and human rights campaigner. While he may not have had his wish to see such significant change in China granted during his lifetime, surely one of the important principles behind democracy is that people are well informed, and literacy is the tool through which that is achieved. Zhou’s Pinyin system has given the Chinese people literacy, and given the rest of the world an easier way to learn Chinese, with which comes a better understanding of Chinese people and culture. Zhou’s legacy will include a contribution to democracy and peace in China.


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