My Take

Zhou Youguang’s extraordinary role in making the Chinese language as easy as ABC

Zhou, who has died at the age of 111, gave us pinyin, and in the process helped boost the literacy rate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 12:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 12:14am

Zhou Youguang, who died at the weekend at the extraordinary age of 111, is often called the father of pinyin. That was a moniker he had always disliked. He was probably right. For it ignores the full history of one of China’s most successful modernisations – that of its language.

An obituary whimsically calls Zhou the man who made learning Chinese as easy as ABC. He and his team helped create, in the 1950s, the system of romanised Chinese writing that has become standard for teaching the language not only to foreigners but school children across the country in the last half century.

The father of pinyin, translator of encyclopedias and outspoken economist who denounced Marx

In old age, he didn’t have a nice thing to say about Mao Zedong, but he was doing the Great Helmsman’s bidding. Mao was the hand, Zhou was his instrument, and pinyin was the product.

Long before he came to power, Mao wanted to replace traditional Chinese characters with those that could be standardised using the alphabet.

This was not a peculiar belief. In fact, it was quite typical of many intellectuals and revolutionaries from the 1910s onwards who regarded modernising the language as necessary for spreading literacy, and undermining Confucianism.

Mao also wanted a new Chinese writing system but in the end, settled for simplified characters.

“If we are to go on living, Chinese characters must go,” wrote the great Lu Xun, ironically in Chinese characters.

“I know the characters are a precious legacy handed down by our ancestors. Either sacrifice our inheritance or ourselves – we must choose one or the other.”

Not everyone agreed. Chen Mengjia, the poet, archaeologist and great authority on oracle bones writings, literally died for the classical Chinese he loved so much. He opposed Mao’s twin efforts to simplify and romanise the characters and paid with his life.

How romanising Chinese became politically correct

But there is no doubt that the communist language reform helped boost the overall literacy rate from 20 per cent in 1950 to 90 per cent today. The greatest gains against illiteracy were made in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mao inflicted many horrors on the Chinese people, but his modern language reform was largely positive. Today we can use simplified Chinese with Western alphabetisation and modern computing while retaining our ability to write in characters.

That is thanks to the happy but unlikely compromise that resulted from the great struggles of Mao, Zhou, Chen, Lu and many others.