Zhou Youguang

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Zhou Youguang
Zhou in the 1920s
Born(1906-01-13)13 January 1906
Died14 January 2017(2017-01-14) (aged 111)
Known forDevelopment of pinyin; supercentenarian
Political partyChina Democratic National Construction Association
(m. 1933; died 2002)
Academic background
Alma mater
Academic work
Notable worksThe Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts
Chinese name
Birth name

Zhou Youguang (Chinese: 周有光; pinyin: Zhōu Yǒuguāng; 13 January 1906 – 14 January 2017), also known as Chou Yu-kuang or Chou Yao-ping, was a Chinese economist, banker, linguist, sinologist, Esperantist,[1][2] publisher, and supercentenarian. He has been credited as the father of pinyin,[3][4][5] the most popular romanization system for Chinese, which was adopted by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1958, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1982, and the United Nations (UN) in 1986.[5][6]

Early life and career[edit]

Zhou Youguang with his wife Zhang Yunhe in 1938

Zhou was born Zhou Yaoping in Changzhou, Jiangsu on 13 January 1906 to a Qing government official.[3][7] At the age of ten, he and his family moved to Suzhou. In 1918, he entered Changzhou Senior High School, during which time he first took an interest in linguistics. He graduated in 1923 with honors.[8]

Zhou enrolled that same year in St. John's University, Shanghai where he majored in economics and took supplementary coursework in linguistics.[7] He was almost unable to attend due to his family's poverty, but friends and relatives raised 200 yuan for the admission fee, and also helped him pay for tuition.[8] He left in 1925 during the May Thirtieth Movement and transferred to Guanghua University, from which he graduated in 1927.[7]

On 30 April 1933, Zhou married Zhang Yunhe. The couple moved to Japan for Zhou's studies,[7] with Zhou enrolling as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo. He later transferred to Kyoto University due to his admiration of Hajime Kawakami, a Marxist economist who was a professor there at the time. Kawakami's arrest for joining the outlawed Japanese Communist Party in January 1933 meant that Zhou could not be his student.[when?] Zhou's son, Zhou Xiaoping [zh], was born in 1934. The couple also had a daughter named Xiaohe (周小禾).[8]

In 1937, due to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Zhou and his family moved to the wartime capital of Chongqing, where his daughter died.[5] He worked for Sin Hua Bank before entering public service as a deputy director at the Ministry of Economic Affairs's agricultural policy bureau. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Zhou went back to work for Sin Hua; from there, he was stationed overseas: first in New York City, and then in London. While in New York, he met Albert Einstein twice while visiting friends at Princeton University.[9]

For a time, Zhou participated in the China Democratic National Construction Association.[citation needed] He returned to Shanghai following the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949,[7][3][4] where he taught economics for several years at Fudan University.[5]

Design of pinyin[edit]

In 1955, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who had a preexisting friendship with Zhou, summoned him to Beijing in 1955 and tasked his team with developing an alphabet for China.[10] Although he had only worked as an economist up to this point, Zhou Enlai had recalled his fascination with linguistics and Esperanto. The Chinese government placed Zhou at the head of a committee tasked with reforming the Chinese writing system, with the goal being to increase literacy among the population.

While other committees worked to promulgate Standard Chinese as the national language, and simplify the forms of Chinese characters, Zhou's committee was charged with the development of an alphabet intended to eventually replace characters altogether.[3] Zhou later recalled that the assignment was a full-time job, and ultimately required around three years of work.[3] Zhou's team based aspects of pinyin on preexisting systems: its phonemes were inspired by Gwoyeu Romatzyh and Latinxua Sin Wenz, while its system of diacritics for representing tones was inspired by bopomofo.[11] In 1958, the Chinese government adopted pinyin (formally "Hanyu Pinyin") as its official romanization system, though by this point its intended purpose was to accompany Chinese characters, rather than replace them.[12]

In April 1979, on behalf of the Chinese government Zhou attended an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) conference in Warsaw, where he proposed that be adopted as an international standard. Following a vote in 1982, the scheme became ISO 7098. Since its initial promulgation, pinyin has largely replaced older systems like Gwoyeu Romatzyh and Wade–Giles.[5]

Later activities[edit]

Zhou Youguang in 2012

As happened with many other intellectuals,[3] Zhou was sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, where he spent two years in a labor camp.[13][4]

After 1980, Zhou worked with Liu Zunqi and Chien Wei-zang to translate the Encyclopædia Britannica into Chinese, which earned him the nickname "Encyclopedia Zhou".[7] Zhou continued writing and publishing after the creation of pinyin; for example, his book The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts (中国语文的时代演进; zhōngguó yǔwén de shídài yǎnjìn), translated into English by Zhang Liqing, was published in 2003.[14] Beyond the age of 100, he published ten books, some of which have been banned in China.[13][why?]

During a 2011 interview with NPR, Zhou said that he hoped to see the day China changed its position on the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, an event he said had ruined Deng Xiaoping's reputation as a reformer.[13] He became an advocate of political reform and democracy in China, and was critical of the Communist Party of China's attacks on traditional Chinese culture when it came into power.[13]

In early 2013, Zhou and his son were interviewed by Adeline Yen Mah at their home in Beijing. Mah documented the visit on video, during which she presented Zhou with a pinyin game for the iPad that she had created.[15] Zhou became a supercentenarian on 13 January 2016 when he reached the age of 110.[16]

Zhou died on 14 January 2017 at his home in Beijing, one day after his 111th birthday. The cause of death was not made public.[5] His wife had died in 2002, and his son had died in 2015.[5] The following year, a Google Doodle featuring an animated logo in Chinese honored what would have been Zhou's 112th birthday.[17]


Zhou was the author of more than 40 books, some of them banned in China and over 10 of them published after he turned 100 in 2006.[5]

Title Pinyin English title Publication year
新中国的金融问题 Xīn zhōngguó de jīnróng wèntí New China's financial problems 1949
汉语拼音词汇 Hànyǔ pīnyīn cíhuì Chinese phonetic alphabet glossary 1950
中国拼音文字研究 Zhōngguó pīnyīn wénzì yánjiū A study of Chinese phonetic alphabets 1953
资本的原始积累 Zīběn de yuánshǐ jīlěi Primitive accumulation of capital 1954
字母的故事 Zìmǔ de gùshi The alphabet's story 1954
汉字改革概论 Hànzì gǎigé gài lùn On the reform of Chinese characters 1961
电报拼音化 Diànbào pīnyīn huà Telegraph romanization 1965
汉语手指字母论集 Hànyǔ shǒuzhǐ zìmǔ lùn jí Essays on Chinese Sign Language 1965
汉字声旁读音便查 Hànzì Shēngpáng dúyīn Biànchá A handy guide to the pronunciation of phonetics in Chinese characters[18] 1980
拼音化问题 Pīnyīn huà wèntí Problems with Pinyin 1980
语文风云 Yǔwén fēngyún The tempest of language 1981
中国语文的现代化 Zhōngguó yǔwén de xiàndàihuà Modernization of the Chinese language 1986
世界字母简史 Shìjiè zìmǔ jiǎn shǐ A brief history of the world's alphabets 1990
新语文的建设 Xīn yǔwén de jiànshè Constructing new languages 1992
中国语文纵横谈 Zhōngguó yǔwén zònghéng tán Features of the Chinese language 1992
汉语拼音方案基础知识 Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Fāng'àn jīchǔ zhīshì Fundamentals of Pinyin 1993
语文闲谈 Yǔwén xiántán Language Chat 1995
文化畅想曲 Wénhuà chàngxiǎng qǔ Capriccio on culture or Cultural fantasia 1997
世界文字发展史 Shìjiè wénzì fāzhǎn shǐ History of the worldwide development of writing 1997
中国语文的时代演进 Zhōngguó yǔwén de shídài yǎnjìn The historical evolution of Chinese languages and scripts 1997
比较文字学初探 Bǐjiào wénzì xué chūtàn A tentative study of comparative philology 1998
多情人不老 Duō qíngrén bùlǎo Passionate people don't age 1998
汉字和文化问题 Hànzì hé wénhuà wèntí Chinese characters and the question of culture 1999
新时代的新语文 Xīn shídài de xīn yǔwén The new language of the new era 1999
人类文字浅说 Rénlèi wénzì qiǎnshuō An introduction to human (written) language 2000
现代文化的冲击波 Xiàndài wénhuà de chōngjíbō The shock wave of modern culture 2000
21世纪的华语和华文 21 Shìjì de huáyǔ hé huáwén Written and spoken Chinese of 21st century 2002
周有光语文论集 Zhōu Yǒuguāng yǔwén lùn jí Collection of essays by Zhou Youguang on the Chinese language 2002
百岁新稿 Bǎi suì xīn gǎo Centenarian's essay 2005
朝闻道集 Zhāo wén dào jí Essay collection 2010
拾贝集 Shi bèi jí Selected essays 2011
今日花开又一年 Jīnrì huā kāi yòu yī nián Today a new year blooms 2011
我的人生故事 Wǒ de rénshēng gùshi My life story 2013
逝年如水 - 周有光百年口述 Shì nián rúshuǐ - Zhōu Yǒuguāng bǎinián kǒushù "The years passed like water" - Zhou Youguang's oral recounting of his life 2015


See also[edit]


  1. ^ (fr) Le soutien ambigu de la République Populaire de Chine à l'esperanto, Médiapart, 17/06/2019
  2. ^ Harrison Smith, Zhou Youguang, whose Pinyin writing system helped modernize China, dies at 111, The Washington Post, 16/01/2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Father of pinyin". China Daily. 26 March 2009. Archived from the original on 21 July 2012. Retrieved 12 July 2009. Reprinted in part as Simon, Alan (21–27 January 2011). "Father of Pinyin". China Daily Asia Weekly. Hong Kong. Xinhua News Agency. p. 20.
  4. ^ a b c Branigan, Tania (21 February 2008). "Sound Principles". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 21 November 2016. Retrieved 12 July 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Margalit Fox (14 January 2017). "Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 20 January 2017.
  6. ^ Bristow, Michael (22 March 2012). "The man who helped 'simplify' Chinese". BBC News. Archived from the original on 22 January 2015. Retrieved 20 January 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f 李怀宇 (8 December 2005). 周有光:与时俱进文章里 百年风云笑谈中·南方社区·南方网 [Zhou Youguang: A lifetime of unstable situations and being laughed at]. 南方网 (in Chinese). Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  8. ^ a b c 金玉良 (2003). 苏州杂志2003第2期-周有光忆学生时代 [Zhou Youguang's Time as a Student]. Journal of Suzhou University (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  9. ^ "China's Zhou Youguang, linguist turned dissident, dies at 111". Hong Kong Free Press. AFP. 16 January 2017.
  10. ^ Harrison Smith, Zhou Youguang, whose Pinyin writing system helped modernize China, dies at 111, The Washington Post, 1. January 2017.
  11. ^ Rohsenow, John S. 1989. Fifty years of script and written language reform in the PRC: the genesis of the language law of 2001. In Zhou Minglang and Sun Hongkai, eds. Language Policy In The People's Republic Of China: Theory And Practice Since 1949, p. 23
  12. ^ Ramsey, S. Robert (1989). The Languages of China. Princeton University Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0-691-01468-5.
  13. ^ a b c d Lim, Louisa (19 October 2011). "At 105, Chinese Linguist Now A Government Critic". NPR. Retrieved 19 October 2011.
  14. ^ Zhou Youguang (周有光) (2003). The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts 中国语文的时代演进 (in English and Chinese). Translated by Zhang Liqing (张立青). Columbus: National East Asian Languages Resource Center, Ohio State University. ISBN 978-0-87415-349-1.
  15. ^ "Dr. Adeline Yen Mah meets the founder of Pin Yin Youguang Zhou". chinesecharacteraday.com. 14 March 2013.
  16. ^ Lai, Kitty (15 January 2016). "Zhu ni shengri kuaile! Father of Pinyin turns 110 years old, celebrates with a strawberry-topped cake". Shanghaiist. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  17. ^ "Zhou Youguang: Why Google honors him today". Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network. Retrieved 13 January 2018.
  18. ^ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1984. p. 315. ISBN 0-8248-0866-5. ———. 1980f. Hanzi Shengpang duyin Biancha [A handy guide to the pronunciation of phonetics in Chinese characters]. Kirin.

Further reading[edit]

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