When was Peking renamed Beijing, Chungking replaced by Chongqing, and Mao Tse-Tung became Mao Zedong?
The simple answer is 1958 when a man called Zhou Youguang created the system by which everyone now learns Chinese – Pinyin, or “putting sounds together,” as the term is often literally translated.
Last Saturday Zhou died at home, a day after his 111th birthday. His life was an extraordinary one. Born Zhou Yaoping in Changzhou in 1906, he was the first son of a prominent Qing Dynasty official – China’s Communist Party hadn’t even been founded. He was a good student and went on to be educated at St John’s University in Shanghai before transferring to Kwanghua University to graduate with a degree in economics in 1927. He then embarked on a career as a banker and moved to Japan with his wife. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 he returned home to live in the wartime capital of Chongqing. It was here he first met Zhou Enlai, a Communist Party official who would become Mao’s prime minister.
In 1946 Zhou moved to New York to work for the Sin Hua Trust and Savings Bank on Wall Street. At this point he met Albert Einstein on trips to Princeton University, although he later told the China Daily he didn’t understand the theory of relativity and only chatted to Einstein about “everyday things”.
In 1949 at the age of 43, Zhou returned home once again, this time as the Communists were taking power. He initially welcomed the change in government and believed the country had been “liberated”. His misgivings grew as he watched friends purged or driven to suicide during Mao’s anti-rightist movement in the mid-1950s. Nevertheless, when his friend Zhou Enlai asked him to come to Beijing and help devise a new alphabet for teaching Chinese, he agreed.
Mao mulled the idea of scrapping Chinese characters altogether but settled for a means of simplifying them and creating a standardised method of cataloguing their sounds.
Zhou worked on the second task, studying existing systems like Wade-Giles and Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) and making them easier to use.
For a while he toyed with the idea of using Cyrillic letters as the basis for his new system – something the Soviet Union would have applauded – but he settled on the 26 Latin letters because he wanted the system to have wider international appeal.
Pinyin is now the stepping stone by which Chinese is learned and, since 1982, is also the official method of transcribing Chinese words internationally.
Zhou’s work is credited with helping China achieve near 100% literacy – up from a quarter of the population prior to the Communists coming to power. Today it is Pinyin which the Chinese type into their computers and smartphones, and Pinyin which forms the basis of the Braille for the visually impaired.
Like many intellectuals Zhou suffered during the Cultural Revolution but his move into the world of linguistics made things easier for him. “Mao disliked greatly economists — especially economic professors from America,” Zhou once told The Guardian.
“By that time I had shifted to the line of language and writing. I was not considered a rightist. Very lucky. If I had remained in Shanghai teaching economics I think I certainly could have been imprisoned for 20 years.”
Nonetheless Zhou advocated greater academic freedoms and a gradual shift towards a more democratic system. His choice of penname Youguang – which is derived from the biblical phrase “let there be light” – was said to reflect those instincts and he wasn’t afraid to voice his dissenting views.
“What are they going to do,” he asked a BBC interviewer in 2012. “Come and take me away?”
Not surprisingly the People’s Daily and Xinhua were a little circumspect in their coverage of his death. Other news outlets were more fulsome. “God has taken a light away,” wrote China News Network. “The passing of an era,” said the Guangming Daily.
Another article in the Beijing News was titled “The scholar who had courage to tell the truth” and it was full of praise for Zhou’s achievements. “What makes him special is that he had his principles and he stuck to them… He was critical at times because he wanted things to be better. We pay tribute to him not only because of his knowledge and wisdom but also because of his sense of justice,” it acknowledged.
At a time when some academics have been losing their jobs for their criticisms of the Mao era, the praise seems doubly resonant.
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