The Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang (1906–2017) led the team that in the 1950s devised the Pinyin system of writing Chinese in the Latin alphabet. Extremely long lived, he remains known as the “father of Pinyin.”
Zhou Youguang was trained as an economist and had no background in linguistics before he was assigned to work on Pinyin in the 1950s. A method for transcribing Chinese characters into Western lettering, Pinyin is used when teaching Chinese to foreigners as well as in Chinese grammar schools, and it has facilitated dialogue among those speaking local variations of the Chinese language. Pinyin is also invaluable and essential for computer input of any kind; Chinese cell-phone users input parts of words in Pinyin to generate a list of possible Chinese characters. In fact, the process of transcribing the Chinese language in a form comprehensible to Westerners began “from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today,” Zhou once told London Guardian interviewer Tania Branigan. “But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect.”“I'm not the father of Pinyin,” he quipped. “I'm the son of Pinyin.”
Zhou was born on January 13, 1906, in Chongzhou, in eastern China. In the Chinese system, the family name is conventionally written first; Zhou's birth name was Zhou Yaoping and as an adult he adopted the pen name Zhou Youguang, which translated means “to illuminate.” His father was an official in China's feudal Qing Dynasty, and he remained employed when the Republic of China was founded in 1912. The family was well off, and Zhou enjoyed both Western and Chinese elements in his education, studying at the American-founded and highly competitive St. John's University in Shanghai before graduating from Guanghua University with an economics degree in 1927.
Zhou married Zhang Yunhe in 1933, and the couple moved to Japan so that he could pursue postgraduate studies. There they had two children, a daughter and a son. The first of many upheavals that would mark Zhou's long life came with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, a key prelude to World War II that began in 1937. His family was forced to return to China and, as conditions there worsened, to the interior city of Chongqing, where the Chinese government relocated after its larger eastern cities fell to the Japanese. There, his daughter died after suffering an appendicitis attack.
In Chongqing, Zhou landed a job at the Sin Hua Trust & Savings Bank. There he met the young Communist Party official Zhou Enlai, who would become China's premier in 1949. After the war ended, Zhou was sent by the bank to New York City, where he worked at the office of its U.S. agent. For much of his time in China, Zhou had maintained a frugal lifestyle, but as a Wall Street banker he lived luxuriously: he traveled first class on trains and ocean liners, entertained job offers from Western banks. Inspired by his intellectual curiosity, he visited Princeton, New Jersey, to meet exiled German physicist Albert Einstein. In 1949, Zhou wrote the first of his 40-plus books, China's Financial Problems.
That year, after China's Nationalist government was defeated by Communist forces and exiled to the island of Taiwan, Zhou joined many other well-educated Chinese in welcoming the chance to help build a better future for their country. Returning home, he taught economics in Shanghai and began to study linguistics as a hobby.
Since the late 16th century, attempts had been made to render Chinese writing in Western characters, and by Zhou's time, the most common system was Wade-Giles Romanization, devised by British diplomats Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Allen Giles during the mid-19th century. Wade-Giles had many defects, however: it did not render Chinese pronunciation accurately and it used awkward superscript numbers to indicate the Chinese system of tones: In Chinese, a word may have different meanings depending on whether it is spoken with a rising tone, a falling tone, or in other intonation. Zhou and a team of 20 researchers were given the job of finding a simpler and more accurate system. What they devised was Pinyin, which means “spelled sounds.”
The first decision facing Zhou concerned which alphabet to use. China was closely allied to the Soviet Union at the time and the Russian Cyrillic alphabet was considered, but Zhou argued that the Latin alphabet would have greater international usefulness. He and his team labored for three years, producing a streamlined system in which tones were indicated by simple diacritical marks and clear associations were made between Western letters and Chinese sounds. Pinyin was officially adopted by the Chinese government in 1958, and, although it is not used consistently in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities, it was accepted for use by the United Nations in 1986.
The usefulness of Pinyin—after its adoption, China's literacy rate gradually increased from 20 percent to about 90 percent—did not save Zhou from difficulties during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Intellectuals were now routinely sent to the countryside for what was euphemistically called “re-education.” Viewed as benefiting from such reeducation, Zhou spent more than two years at a labor camp in China's Ningxia region, working in the rice fields.
As he entered old age, Zhou took advantage of the traditional Chinese veneration of the elderly to become more vocal in his criticism of the regime that had imprisoned him. China's new prosperity also held little appeal, prompting him to remark in an Agence France-Presse interview (quoted by Margalit Fox in the New York Times) that “Chinese people's becoming rich isn't important. Human progress is ultimately progress toward democracy.” Zhou contended that the vast majority of Chinese intellectuals favored the establishment of a democratic system and that even ordinary Chinese held the ruling Communist Party in low esteem.
As China transitioned into the computer age, Pinyin greatly eased the process. Although the centenarian Zhou disliked looking at computer screens, he viewed some aspects of the new technology enthusiastically. He maintained a blog on which he issued critiques of the Chinese government and also delved into such subjects as Confucianism, the new Chinese middle class, and the Silk Road. He continued to write books, issuing several, including a memoir, after reaching the age of 100. Zhou outlived his wife and his son, an astrophysicist, and continued to live in a simple apartment with unpainted concrete walls, writing at a small desk. According to Sharon Lafraniere in a New York Times profile, one visitor described him as the embodiment of “a true scholar. He just always seems at peace with the world.” Another dubbed him a “trendy old guy.”
Despite the international prominence of Pinyin, Zhou's criticism of the government impeded recognition of his stature within China. Although he was featured in a documentary about Pinyin on China's CCTV television network, he was disinvited from a ceremony marking the issuing of a new Chinese encyclopedia, likely because he had offended a government official who was also scheduled to attend. Zhou's name remains little known among ordinary Chinese, and his death on January 14, 2017, at the age of 111, was reported by the Chinese news agency Xinhua in a brief dispatch that referred to him only as a renowned Chinese linguist.
Guardian (London, England), February 21, 2008, Tania Branigan, “Sound Principles.”
New York Times, March 3, 2012, Sharon Lafraniere, “A Chinese Voice of Dissent That Took Its Time,” p. A5; January 15, 2017, Margalit Fox, “Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111,” p. A23.
Xinhua News Agency (China), January 15, 2017, “Chinese Linguist Zhou Yougang Dies at 111.”
Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-zhou-youguang-obit-20170114-story.html (November 28, 2017), Wang Zhao, “Zhou Youguang, Linguist Who Developed Modern China's Pinyin Romanized Writing System, Dies at 111.”□