During the last few months, columnists writing for some leading print media have made their way to Beijing to meet a 106-year-old Chinese economist and linguist in his simple, spartan dwelling. Judging by the contribution he has made to Chinese education, Zhou Youguang should have become a household name in China, but that has not happened. The columnists have conferred on him the sobriquet of Father of Pinyin. Pinyin or Hanyu Pinyin, is a writing system which transliterates Chinese “characters" using the Roman alphabet. The name literally means “spelled-out sounds". It helps learners to pronounce the words.

More than 50 years have passed since Zhou Youguang invented this “alphabet". Though he refrains from claiming any credit for it, there is no doubt that his invention has transformed China. When the project started, 85% of Chinese people were illiterate. “Now, that is just a few per cent" (BBC News, Beijing).

Pinyin is not the first project to Romanize Chinese. In the second half of the 19th century, an alphabet created by two British diplomats and eponymously known as the Wade-Giles alphabet was popular. But people found Pinyin much more easy to learn and convenient to use. Take the Chinese word “ca", which means to clean by wiping. In Chinese, the character that represents this word would require 18 separate strokes. The government was quick to give Pinyin official approval. Today, Chinese school children learn Pinyin before they deal with traditional characters.

After a short period as a student in Japan, Zhou Youguang worked as a banker in New York in the 1940s. In 1949, after the Communist Revolution, he returned to China, like many other intellectuals, hoping to contribute to the building of a new China after the Korean war. He taught economics in Shanghai, while retaining his interest in linguistics.

In 1955, then prime minister Zhou Enlai, invited Zhou Youguang to simplify Chinese characters and devise a new alphabet, so that Mandarin could be made the national language of China. This shift from economics to linguistics was fortunate. If he had continued as an economist, the anti-rightist campaign launched by Mao Zedong as part of the Cultural Revolution would have exiled him along with other economists trained in the West into the countryside to “learn from the masses." But it was only temporary relief. In 1966, he was branded a “reactionary academic" and was expelled to the wilderness to be “re-educated".

Creating Pinyin was not easy. Important choices had to be made. Should they use the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia and neighbouring countries? Or should they follow the Japanese alphabet? Or create a totally new alphabet from scratch? The fourth choice, adoption of Roman writing, finally prevailed. Zhou Youguang was insistent that the Roman alphabet should be used as it would provide China with a link to the rest of the world. The International Standards Organization and the United Nations have recognized Pinyin.

Zhou Youguang entered politics in his eighties. He has been a frank and outspoken critic of Chinese politics. He is a champion of democracy and is convinced that China must renounce communism and single-party rule if it is to find its place in the comity of nations. He deplores the Tiananmen killings and is confident that time will reveal the truth.

He is a prolific writer and has written more than 30 books. Many of them were banned. He collaborated in the translation of Encyclopedia Britannica. A reception was held to mark the release of the Encyclopedia second edition. Zhou Youguang received an invitation, but at the eleventh hour, the party withdrew the invitation and advised him to stay away. It is surmised that some political heavy-weights didn’t want to face a critic like Zhou Youguang.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.

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