It’s easy to take pinyin for granted. Its presence on storefronts and signs in China is almost as prevalent as Chinese characters, and its Latin alphabet is highly familiar to the Chinese language learner. The world gave thanks to its “father,” Zhou Youguang, on his 106th birthday, but the development of pinyin deserves more than just the cursory explanation and acknowledgement it is usually afforded. It’s easy to forget that for years during its development in the late 1950s, an unwieldy mix of nationalism, personal divisions and a fondness for traditional calligraphy nearly stopped pinyin in its tracks.
When Zhou Youguang first began working on pinyin with a small team of linguists, many scholars still insisted on abandoning Romanization, and sent the bureau hundreds of alternatives. All of these were rejected (surprisingly enough by the ultimate force in the anti-Romanization movement, Mao Zedong himself) in favor of a system that was better suited to economic and technological progress. They also debated other issues, such as whether pinyin’s pronunciation should be based on Beijing dialect (think the erhua (儿化) phenomenon that has Beijingers saying yidian’r instead of yidian), whether it should differ from its predecessor Sin Wenz in indicating tones, and whether it should be adaptable to dialects other than Mandarin.
By 1958, Zhou Youguang’s team had completed pinyin and began to disseminate it as a learning tool for Mandarin and even promoted its use on street signs, shops and through other commercial means. Despite this big step forward, the Chinese government, according to some scholars, still showed their hesitation in promoting pinyin as the complement to characters in a shuangwenzhi (双文制) or “two script system.” Many signs with pinyin also included English words, such as “street” instead of lu (路) or jie (街), which was thought to subtly indicate that pinyin’s primary role was to help foreigners, rather than become an integral part of Chinese language. Still, it was progress, and the advocates of language reform could count it as a success.
Until, that is, the Cultural Revolution.
The progress of pinyin came to a halt in 1966, and some might even say its promulgation digressed during the following 10 years.
There were no further linguistic conferences on the issue. No one published any official papers on the subject of language reform. Pinyin disappeared from the masthead of the People’s Daily newspaper and the “Red Flag” Journal. The tool that was once supported by leaders of the Communist Party as the means of educating and uniting the nation was in grave danger of disappearing without a trace.
Those who still backed pinyin didn’t dare speak of it for fear that they would be denounced for being unpatriotic. The xenophobia that permeated through the Cultural Revolution prompted street signs with pinyin to be torn down and materials displaying Roman characters to be burned.
When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, so did acts of protest against language reform, and almost immediately, pinyin returned to the spotlight. Up until then, Western newspapers had used their own versions of Romanization, including Wade-Giles, to translate Mandarin, but a change in diplomatic relations with the US prompted China’s International Standards Organization to adopt pinyin in the early 1980s, and Western publications soon began to make the switch over to using it.
The United Nations shortly followed suit, adopting pinyin as a standard in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2001, after the simplification of Chinese characters, that the PRC issued an official law describing how to use pinyin. Until then, its usefulness was still being observed and documented. The ZT experiment carried out in a number of schools across China in the 80s and 90s, required primary school students and semi-to-illiterate adults to spend more time reading and writing pinyin in lieu the Mandarin study that was normally required in classrooms. Twenty years later, pinyin was shown in studies to be more effective than traditional methods of teaching Mandarin.
Even despite its apparent usefulness, it’s clear that with changing technology, there were and are still problems with the promoting pinyin as a standard-bearer of Mandarin education. Linguists have come up up with a number of ways to efficiently input characters into mobile devices and computers, and pinyin wasn’t even the obvious answer. One of the first well-known methods, called Renzhima ‘Cognitive Coding’, required users to memorize the radicals of each character along with their assigned letter codes and type these into the computer. This was, obviously, extremely tedious, and was quickly shot down and replaced by another pretender called the Wubi Method, which assigned keys to the five primary character strokes. Finally, the pinyin input method users are familiar with today became the standard and accepted as an efficient means of allowing the ancient Chinese language to swiftly adapt to changing technologies.
Yet, questions remain as to where pinyin will go from here. Most Chinese who learn pinyin in schools still rarely use it in everyday life, at least not enough to call themselves biliterate in the shuangwenzhi, even though many appear permanently glued to their mobile devices. Many can type pinyin, but may not be able to read it. Others have a limited understanding due to their ability to cut corners using predicative text systems that allow the computer to “guess” which character is about to be typed. There still aren’t many reading materials in pinyin in China today, and the future of pinyin’s rise in a society whose language is one of the hardest to learn, is uncertain.
Currently wrangling with pinyin? Have a look at our Chinese Picture Dictionary.