23 March 2019
Zhou Youguang will be remembered for his contribution to the Romanization of Chinese characters and for his uncompromising stance against the Cultural Revolution. Photo: AFP
Zhou Youguang will be remembered for his contribution to the Romanization of Chinese characters and for his uncompromising stance against the Cultural Revolution. Photo: AFP

The re-enlightenment movement of Chinese Pinyin founding father

Zhou Youguang (周有光), the renowned Chinese linguistics professor, died on January 14 in Beijing at the age of 111.

In obituaries published by some relatively liberal mainland media outlets such as Beijing News and, Zhou was referred to as the “founding father of the Chinese Pinyin” system (i.e. the Romanization of Chinese) and was praised for his independent and critical thinking as a profound academic.

However, in contrast, some ultra-left propaganda mouthpieces lashed out at him almost immediately after his death because of his uncompromising stance against the Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao Zedong’s personality.

Professor Zhou was the undisputed pioneer in the Romanization of Chinese for educational purposes which began in the 1950s. Through his efforts, hundreds of thousands of average Chinese were lifted out of illiteracy.

In the early 1980s, Zhou also led the efforts to invent a system which allowed Chinese characters to be inputted into computers. And the system he and his team invented, the Hanyu Pinyin, would later emerge as the most widely adopted Chinese input method for computers worldwide.

Even though Zhou rose to national prominence by contributing enormously to the Romanization of Chinese during his lifetime, he is however most remembered for the so-called “re-enlightenment movement” promoted by him over the past decade.

It was during that decade-long “re-enlightenment movement” that Zhou mounted an all-out and continued effort to warn his compatriots of the toxic legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and called on both the academic sector and the party to deeply reflect on the ultra-left mistakes made by Mao and his proxies.

In the meantime, despite his old age, Zhou was highly prolific during the last 10 years of his life, having produced countless academic works on subjects such as democracy and civil rights in an attempt to raise public awareness in the mainland about the importance of upholding these universal values.

Before he died Zhou had written a series of highly polemical articles strongly criticizing Mao for throwing the entire country into complete disarray between 1966 and 1976 in order to serve his own political purposes.

As expected, his utterances had touched a raw nerve among the party leadership amid the so-called “Sub-Cultural Revolution” that is underway in full swing across the mainland.

In one of his articles, Zhou referred to Mao as “a hybrid of Stalin and Qinshihuang” (秦始皇) and concluded that the Mao era (1949 to 1976) was undoubtedly an era of massive social and cultural destruction as well as great human suffering of biblical proportions.

Qinshihuang, the first emperor that unified the entire China in 210 B.C., was notorious for his cruelty and brutality.

Zhou wrote that Mao even outstripped his mentor Joseph Stalin in terms of imposing a reign of terror on his own people and committing mass murder.

He noted that under Mao’s reign an estimated 70 to 83 million Chinese people died of hunger, violence and political persecution, as compared to the 60 million innocent Soviet people who died of unnatural causes throughout the “Red Terror” unleashed by Stalin in the 1920s and 30s.

In the meantime, Zhou also produced a lot of valuable work trying to debunk the notion that Mao had initially launched the Cultural Revolution out of “good intentions”, and it was the Gang of Four that deviated from his original instruction and turned the movement into a disaster.

In an article he said there wasn’t any “Gang of Four” but rather, a “Gang of Five”, which referred to Mao, his wife Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan as well as Wang Hongwen, and stressed that Mao was the true mastermind behind the Cultural Revolution, and the Gang of Four just acted on his orders.

As such, he summed up that Mao himself should bear the single biggest responsibility for unleashing that man-made disaster.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 19

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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