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Pinyin: The Story of Zhou Youguang

By Shlomo Maital


Zhou Youguang


Pinyin Alphabet

     This is the story of how an “amateur” with courage and passion can change a huge nation and enhance the lives of many millions of ordinary people.

     Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin, died last Saturday in Beijing. He was 111 (one hundred and eleven)!  

       Here is his story.   We can learn a lot from it.

       But first – what is pinyin? Pinyin in Chinese means “spelled sounds” – i.e. phonetics. Pinyin is simplified Chinese, or “Romanized” Chinese. What is Romanized? It is “the conversion of writing from a different writing system to the Roman (Latin) script”. Mandarin Chinese has thousands of characters; it is a pictorial language, with a great many symbols or pictures. Learning those characters was well beyond the schooling abilities of ordinary Chinese. And using those characters, it was very hard to spell Western names, or Chinese names, or to use the computer.

       There have been many “Romanized” Chinese systems. But Zhou Youguang’s system was by far the best and simplest. How did it come about?   The New York Times obituary (Jan. 17) reveals a lot.

           He was the son of a prominent family – his father was an official of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, 17th c. to 1912. Zhou was born in Changzhou. He studied economics at St. John’s University and Guanghua Univ. During the war with Japan he moved to the then-capital Chongqing. There he worked for a bank, and met Zhou Enlai, a star who would become China’s long-time premier, 1949-1976.   In 1946 Zhou went to New York to work with China’s Wall St. agent Irving Trust, and returned to China after the Communist take-over in 1949. He taught economics, until Zhou Enlai asked him to head a committee that would alphabetize Mandarin and boost literacy.

       “I’m just an amateur,” Zhou said to Zhou Enlai. “Everyone is an amateur”, came the wise response. Pinyin, developed by Zhou, was adopted by the Chinese government in Feb. 1958. It met rapid acclaim, and brought literacy to millions. It also saved Zhou’s life. Chairman Mao was very suspicious of economists, jailed many of them, and with Zhou’s U.S. Wall St. background, would likely have been jailed for many years (a friend of his was jailed for 20 years and committed suicide), had it not been for his Pinyin fame.  Zhou himself spent years in a labor camp, like many Chinese intellectuals.

     Today Chinese schoolchildren first learn to read by the pinyin system before graduating to studying characters. China’s illiteracy rate is only 5 per cent!   Around the world, foreigners study Chinese through the pinyin system.

   What do we learn? First, Zhou was passionate about language, and curious about it. He leveraged this into an outstanding innovation, perhaps because he was not a professional linguist, and hence able to simplify.   He was willing to try, despite lacking academic credentials. He pursued his passion.    Second, optimism. “When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic”, he told an interviewer. “Pessimists tend to die.”

     This echoes the famous story about the two wolves within us: Fear and Hope. Which wolf wins?   The one you feed….    


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
January 2017
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