The man who made China a literate nation

October 09, 2023 14:16

When young mainland children arrive in primary school, they go to a Chinese class. The professor teaches them not characters but Pinyin, an alphabet using Roman letters with four different tones. Once they have mastered it, then the professor teaches characters; thanks to the Pinyin next to each character, they can read it. Without it, they would not know how to pronounce them. It is this system – full name Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音), meaning Chinese phonetics – which has turned China into a literate nation.

The man most responsible for Pinyin is Zhou Youguang (周有光), director of the department in the Chinese Character Reform Commission (CCRC, 中國文字改革委員會) instructed in 1955 to create a new romanisation system.

Joint Publishing (香港三聯書店出版社) has just issued “The Man Who Made China a Literate Nation”, my English biography of this extraordinary man. He died on January 14, 2017 one day after his 111st birthday. He lived through four dynasties – Qing, Beiyang, Kuomintang and Communists -- and wrote 49 books.

Pinyin was introduced in 1958, when 80 per cent of the mainland population was illiterate. Since then, a billion people have learnt Pinyin and the rate of illiteracy has fallen to below 10 per cent. The invention of Pinyin has also been a godsend for the millions of foreigners who learn Chinese. In numbers of people it has made literate, it is the greatest achievement in linguistics in human history by a scholar of any nation.

Pinyin was only one of Zhou’s several “lives”. Born in January 1906 into a cultivated family in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, he was educated at modern schools in Changzhou and Suzhou and attended St John’s University in Shanghai, with English as its teaching medium.

His specialty was economics. He went on to further studies at universities in Tokyo and Kyoto and learnt Japanese. He could also speak French. During World War Two, he worked for the Agricultural Bureau of the government, based in Chongqing, the wartime capital. After 1945, he worked for Xinhua Bank in Shanghai, New York and London. After 1949, he returned to China and became a professor of economics at Fudan University in Shanghai.

He was always interested in linguistics. He published articles and books on linguistics, as on other subjects that interested him. One of them, “The History of Alphabets” (字母的故事), was published in Shanghai in November 1954. It was read by Chairman Mao and other senior officials eager to reform the language. That is what led to the order to leave Shanghai and join the CCRC in Beijing in 1955. It changed his life.

He lived through the terrible campaigns of Maoist China, including the Cultural Revolution. In December 1969, at the age of 63, he was sent to a labour camp in the western desert region of Ningxia; he stayed there for 24 months. After the Cultural Revolution, he returned to work at the CCRC and retired in 1991, at the age of 85. He was one of three Chinese editors of 10 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, the first published in China. He lived in a small Beijing apartment, where he worked in a study of nine square metres. After his “retirement”, he turned out books and articles on a wide range of topics. His books were critical of the Soviet Union and the Soviet model, Chairman Mao and his political movements and the fake history taught in China and other countries. He retained his extraordinary curiosity and mental clarity and a wide circle of friends and admirers, Chinese and foreign. In total, he wrote 49 books.

In interviews, Zhou said that he was not the “Father of Pinyin”, but the “Son of Pinyin”. “It is not perfect but it has worked,” he said with characteristic modesty.

His other great contribution came with digitalisation and the Internet. How do you write Chinese on a computer? While there are different systems, Pinyin is one of the most popular. Millions of Chinese use it, including this author. About 900 million Chinese use the Internet and the number is rapidly catching up the 1.2 billion users of English. Dr Vinton Gray Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, made a plaque in Zhou’s memory. It reads: “his brilliant and persistent invention of Pinyin helped to bring the Internet and its applications within reach of the Chinese-speaking community. Long may he be remembered!”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.