111-year-old Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, his pinyin system and the legacy he left behind

111-year-old Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, his pinyin system and the legacy he left behind

All you need to know about the development of the Pinyin writing system, and the man behind it

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Zhou Youguang, China's oldest intellectual, was 111 years old when he died.
Photo: China Foto Press

Most people have probably never heard of 111-year-old linguist Zhou Youguang. But if you’re learning Chinese, you’ve seen his work. He helped develop the pinyin writing system – the romanised version of the Chinese language. You might recognise pinyin from your textbooks; they are the annotations above each Chinese character.

The Hanyu Pinyin system has helped billions of people learn to read, write and speak Chinese.

Although he has been called the “Father of Pinyin”, Zhou, who died on January 14, just one day after his 111th birthday, referred to himself as the “Son of Pinyin”. He said no single person should take all the credit for the development of pinyin. But Zhou made important contributions to the Hanyu Pinyin writing system, so Young Post spoke to Poon Hon-kwong, Associate Professor at University of Hong Kong’s School of Chinese, to find out how pinyin has developed into what it is today, as well as the impact of the system on Chinese language learners.

Romanisation of the Chinese Language

It’s not news that Chinese characters are difficult to learn. It can take years for someone, even a native speaker, to master just a small number of all the strokes and radicals (the building blocks of Chinese characters). So, throughout history, there have been lots of attempts to standardise and simplify the Chinese characters and their pronunciations.

In fact, the first example of Pinyin can be traced back to the Tang-Song dynasty. As early as 1,000 years ago, people created a phonetic system with 36 initials and more 200 finals(in Putonghua, a syllable has three parts: an initial, a final and a tone). Each was represented by a Chinese character. But it was so hard and impractical that it was never picked up the masses.


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The real breakthrough came at the end of the 16th century. Two Italian priests named Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri co-wrote the Portuguese-Chinese dictionary during their Jesuit China mission. The system they’ve invented, which uses the Roman alphabet to represent the Chinese characters, laid the foundations for current Pinyin systems.

Poon says there are a few reasons why it makes sense to have a romanised version of the Chinese language.

To begin with, a romanised phonetic system is much easier to remember than having to memorise another set of symbols.

“In my day, [Putonghua] was taught using Taiwanese pinyin, but learning a whole new set of symbols was a very [boring and long] process,” says Poon. “Since Hanyu Pinyin uses the same 26 letters as the English alphabet, it is much easier to memorise them.”

For most non-native speakers and bilingual Hongkongers, the benefits are obvious – they already know the alphabet. But the subtle differences in the two phonetic systems can be tricky. For example, q is pronounced similarily to 'qi' or 'ch' in Hanyu Pinyin.


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“It’s also quite misleading, because [Hanyu Pinyin] doesn’t have the same pronunciation rules as English,” says Poon. “Though, they are pronounceable for the most part.”

On top of this, there aren’t a lot of different syllables in Chinese, so different characters might share the same pinyin.

“Many of the characters share the same sound, and sometimes you have to read the whole sentence in order to figure out which character it is,” says Poon.

The Roman alphabet is also the most commonly used alphabet in the world.

More importantly, the letters of the alphabet are simple and straightforward, making them easy to both recognise and write.

Last but not least, the phonetics of these letters are very precise, which is crucial when it comes to standardising the pronunciation of a language that has more than 130 dialects.


The Hanyu Pinyin system

While lots of pinyin systems have been suggested throughout history, Hanyu Pinyin is the end product of it all. It has been widely used around the world since 1958, the year in which the “first edition” of Hanyu Pinyin was approved by the 1st National People’s Congress.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, more than 85 per cent of adults couldn’t read or write, estimates Xinhua. One of the first things leaders wanted to do was change that.

The New York Times reports that Zhou was appointed by the then-premier Zhou Enlai to lead this project. It took more than three years for Zhou and his team to create this new system called Hanyu Pinyin, which was again based on the Roman alphabet.

Zhou, who at the time was an economics professor at Shanghai’s Fudan university, reportedly told the premier: “I can’t; I’m just an amateur.” As he later explained to Beijing-based weekly, Sanlian Life Weekly, linguistics was just a hobby of his. But Hu Yuzhi, then vice-minister of culture, told Zhou: this is a new field, everyone is an amateur.


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Zhou’s Hanyu Pinyin consists of 21 initials (think of these as the first syllable of a word), 37 finals (similar to vowels in English), as well as four main tones. Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules. But nearly every Chinese character can be represented in Hanyu Pinyin using a combination of initials, finals and tones.

When writing the first draft of his Hanyu Pinyin proposal, Zhou remembers that he and his team both agreed to use only existing letters in the alphabet, as well as trying not to create any digraphs (a combination of two letters) or adding additional symbols unless necessary.

Compared to the Wade-Giles system, developed by British scholar Thomas Wade, and many other pinyin systems that were used before Hanyu Pinyin, Zhou and his team made some changes to the individual syllables, as well as personal and place names in particular. For instance, Mao Tse-tung was replaced by Mao Zedong, and Peking was replaced by Beijing.

Zhou’s legacy for Chinese learners

Data collected by the Unesco Institute for Statistics in 2015 suggests more than 96 per cent of adults in China can now read, a huge increase in just half a century.

Despite his achievements, Zhou remains relatively unknown.

Zhou will be remembered not only by the billions of Chinese who can now read and write, but also future generations of students and Chinese learners around the world who continue to benefit from the Hanyu Pinyin writing system.

Edited by Lucy Christie

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Anything but plain English

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