Man who made writing Chinese as simple as ABC dies at 111

Mr Zhou Youguang was an economist who worked in New York for three years. After returning to China, he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system.
Mr Zhou Youguang was an economist who worked in New York for three years. After returning to China, he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system.PHOTO: SINA WEIBO

Hanyu pinyin creator helped ease learning of the language, both in China and abroad

BEIJING • Mr Zhou Youguang, known as the father of hanyu pinyin for creating the system of Romanised Chinese writing that has become the international standard since its introduction about 60 years ago, died yesterday in Beijing, Chinese state media reported. He was 111.

Adopted by China in 1958, hanyu pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.

Since then, hanyu pinyin has vastly increased literacy throughout the country, eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese, afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille, and, in a development Mr Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese into computer keyboards and cellphones.

It is to hanyu pinyin that we owe now-ubiquitous spellings such as Beijing, which supplanted the earlier Peking; Chongqing, which replaced Chungking; Mao Zedong instead of Mao Tse-tung; and thousands of others.

The system was adopted by the International Organisation for Standardisation in 1982 and by the United Nations in 1986.

It took Mr Zhou and his colleagues three years to develop hanyu pinyin, but the most striking thing about his involvement was that he was neither a linguist nor a lexicographer but an economist, who had then recently returned to China from Wall Street.

It was due to a fortuitous meeting and a lifetime love of language that he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system.

Mr Zhou was born in Changzhou, in eastern China, on Jan 13, 1906. He graduated from Guanghua University in 1927 with a degree in economics. He worked for the Sin Hua Trust and Savings Bank before moving to New York in 1946 as a representative. He remained there for three years.

In 1969, the Chinese government labelled him a"reactionary academic authority" and exiled him to a labour camp, where he worked the rice fields. He spent more than two years there.

Mr Zhou died at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing. His wife died in 2002. Their son Zhou Xiaoping, an astrophysicist, died in 2015.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Man who made writing Chinese as simple as ABC dies at 111'. Print Edition | Subscribe