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Zhou Youguang: The Father of Pinyin

Catching up with the centenarian scholar behind the creation of pinyin

03·04·2012

Zhou Youguang: The Father of Pinyin

Catching up with the centenarian scholar behind the creation of pinyin

03·04·2012

Zhou Youguang (周有光).

The name may not register with the majority of expats in China, but it should. Pinyin (拼音), the method by which every foreigner learns Chinese, was designed in the late 1950’s by Zhou and his team of 20 in under three years.

Upon its creation, the system was immediately institutionalized and became the officially recognized way of translating Chinese characters into a phonetically-grounded romanized alphabet. Pinyin works to attach the Chinese sound and intonations of a character to the character itself through a system of letters denoting the pronunciation.

The Chinese romanization system has revolutionized all facets of communication in China, beginning in 1958 when it was integrated into the curriculum of compulsory education across China as a method for teaching Mandarin. After a revised version of pinyin was adopted as the international standard in 1982, pinyin became crucial to a solution for evolving communication technology: users would be able to fluently type characters into their phones and computers using a keypad or keyboard.

By revolutionizing communication in China, pinyin has also had a major impact on China’s modern day emergence as a global power, or the “open sesame” effect, as Zhou puts it.

“Language is a key to learning and understanding, and pinyin gave more Chinese the ability to turn this key,” he said. “In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of ‘open sesame,’ opening up the doors. The system is a bridge between China and the rest of the world.”

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Zhou was born in 1906, and spent the greater part of his life as a writer. Throughout his life, he published 30 books, 10 of them being available since the turn of the 20th century. In 1923, Zhou enrolled in China’s first Western-style university, St. John’s in Shanghai, where he majored in economics and minored in linguistics. During the May 30th Movement in the middle of the Republican period, he transferred to Guanghua University and then graduated in 1927. By this time, he was renowned as one of China’s brightest young scholars. Zhou spent time in Japan as a foreign exchange student before moving to London, and then New York to work as a Wall Street banker. During his time in New York he built a friendship with Albert Einstein, although he says those discussions have been lost in time.

“Yes, I visited Einstein a couple of times,” Zhou has said matter-of-factly, but with the genuine humility of a Confucian scholar . “But I didn’t understand relativity at all so we just chatted about everyday things.”

He also brushed shoulders with several Chinese leaders while being a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Some notable names include Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping.

Zhou returned to China during the establishment of the PRC in 1949 to help his country build a modern economy after the Korean War. In Shanghai, he began teaching economics until Mao’s campaigns began in the late fifties. By then, Zhou had begun to shift his focus to linguistics, but because he had a background as an economist, the ‘father of pinyin’ was officially labeled a ‘reactionary academic’ and was sent to the countryside for two years for re-education. Had he not changed professions, he would have spent more than a decade in the countryside.

Today, Zhou continues to use his newest degree to write and strive to understand China. His latest book in progress, to be titled Zhao Wen Dao Ji (朝闻道集), is based on one of Confucius’s sayings: “He who fully realizes the truth in the morning may die without regrets in the evening.”

The centenarian scholar’s passion over the course of his life has been learning and helping others to learn, and for foreigners living in China, Zhou has a simple piece of wisdom:

“Do something to help bridge understanding between China’s ancient civilization and the modern world.”

Thought you were finished? The history of pinyin doesn’t end here. Check  the lesser-known form of proto pinyin used to translate Benjamin Franklin’s biography.

And if you’re currently learning Chinese, or looking to, have a look at our Chinese Picture Dictionary. It’s a great help when applying pinyin to real world situations. 

Content courtesy of that’s China (Zhejiang)