Father of hanyu pinyin turns 109: 5 things about the system he invented

The father of hanyu pinyin, Mr Zhou Youguang, turned 109 on Tuesday. The linguist and dissident came up with the system of transliterating Chinese characters into roman letters in the 1950s.

The system has since helped billions of people around the world, including Singaporeans, learn Chinese. Here are five things to know about the phonetic system.

1. Why was hanyu pinyin created?

The first edition of pinyin was adopted by the Chinese government on Feb 11, 1958. It was promoted along with simplified Chinese characters to improve the literacy rate of Chinese, and to encourage the use of Mandarin as the national language.

Before pinyin came about, there were many different systems for the romanisation of Chinese. There were systems dating back to the late 1500s, like that devised by Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Many English speakers used the British Wade-Giles system, under which the capital of Beijing was known as Peking. Taiwan used another system called zhuyin for many years before introducing a rival romanisation called tongyong pinyin.

2. Why the roman alphabet?

It was not a foregone conclusion to use roman letters. Alternatives considered include cyrillic, Japanese alphabet, or a new Chinese alphabet based on shapes of characters. Mr Zhou argued for the roman alphabet, to better connect China with the outside world.

3. Where is it used?

In 1979, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanisation for the Chinese language.

Singapore introduced the system in schools in the early 1980s, around the same time that the Speak Mandarin Campaign was started in 1979. Taiwan adopted it in 2008, replacing a made-in-Taiwan system called tongyong pinyin.

It is also accepted by the the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, and many other international institutions. It is now a useful tool for entering Chinese-language text on computers.

4. Will it ever replace Chinese characters?

Communist leader Mao Zedong once said that China would have to abandon characters altogether for the masses to fully participate in society.

During the movement to simplify Chinese in the 1950s, some proposed that Chinese characters be dropped, but it was never implemented.

Now, as more people use pinyin and other phonetic systems to write Chinese on electronic devices, some are questioning if the ancient system of writing will die a natural death.

5. Hanyu pinyin is taught first at Singapore schools

Primary 1 pupils here spend their first term (about three months) learning the mechanics of hanyu pinyin before learning how to write Chinese characters.

This change was made in 1999 to accommodate the larger number of pupils who had little or no exposure to the language before starting school.

Sources: Straits Times, New York Times, Agence France-Presse, China Daily

chuimin@sph.com.sg