Zhou Youguang: Meet The Man Who Developed Phonetic Chinese Translations

Zhou Youguang, 106, has met with the most famous people of the 20th century

including Albert Einstein and Mao Zedong. Guan Xin / China Daily

A former banker who created the pinyin system celebrated his 106th birthday this month

The man perched over the table is 106 years old and is little known in China. In fact, Zhou Youguang should be a household name for it was he, more than 50 years ago, who created pinyin.

To hear him talk, lucid as ever, catch the magnificent sparkle in his eyes and follow the track of his fascinating life it is clear this is a man who simply loves the business of living. When you pass 100, you don't minimize your age, you inflate it.

Throughout the long interview Zhou displayed an unflagging modesty. Perhaps it is because he was writing about Confucius, for whom humility was such a key trait.

"Yes, I visited Einstein a couple of times," he says matter-of-factly.

"But I didn't understand relativity at all so we just chatted about everyday things."

Did he ever meet Chinese leaders? "Of course - Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, I met them all - but for a long time I was a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) so I was bound to."

Until he was 49, Zhou was a successful banker and economics lecturer and held several high-paying positions, here and overseas, including stints in New York and London.

Linguistics had been no more than a hobby when, in 1955, the government asked him to head a committee charged with overhauling the national language.

"A national conference had been convened," he recalls.

"One month later it listed three tasks that needed immediate attention: to popularize Mandarin as the national language, to simplify the Chinese characters and to devise a new alphabet to represent those characters.

"Even then we knew how important this task was - at that time 80 percent of the country was illiterate and how to raise the cultural understanding of the masses was a very big problem.

"I was one of the few people in China with any knowledge of linguistics and was therefore asked to take charge of devising the new alphabet.

"I had just written a book called The Subject of the Alphabet and I know Mao read it because he asked his secretary to visit me and take him a copy."

However the job was not without its sacrifice.

"At that time I was an economics professor in Shanghai and my three jobs paid me more than 600 yuan a month," he says.

"This new job paid me a monthly salary of just 250 yuan, which was still good money at the time."

Two research bureaus were established by the conference - one to develop the new alphabet and one to simplify the characters. Zhou headed the former.

"I worked full-time on it for three years," he says.

"Throughout that time I had less than 20 people to help me.

"You might ask why it took so long to complete an apparently simple task but it created a multitude of problems. We received more than 4,000 letters from people in China and overseas.

"They were full of questions, requests and suggestions. I had to reply to every one in academic language."

So how does he evaluate his creation, half a century on?

"It is not an absolute solution but it is what it was meant to be," he says.

"It has worked better than the previous phonetic alphabet used here (for instance, Zhuyin) or the previous attempt at romanizing Mandarin (Wade-Giles), which had been in use for 100 years when we developed pinyin.

"As soon as we completed it, it was approved by the National People's Congress and adopted as a method for teaching Mandarin to every primary school child in China - at 50 million a year, that is a billion Chinese who have used it to learn how to read and write.

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Zhou Youguang: Meet The Man Who Developed Phonetic Chinese Translations

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Zhou Youguang: Meet The Man Who Developed Phonetic Chinese Translations