RIP Zhou Youguang: Father of Pinyin

I found this article in the BBC News recently.  Zhou Youguang (周有光 1906 – 2017) is the man who invented the Pinyin writing system for Chinese language.

Prior to using pinyin to express Chinese language, you basically had two options:

  • Chinese characters, which are the native writing system, but expensive and time-consuming to learn. Plus, someone not familiar with Chinese characters cannot intuit what the pronunciation is.  Or what if there’s a character you just don’t know?  Now you have to look it up.
  • Any number of Romanization attempts, including Wade-Giles.  Some of these systems were archaic, others didn’t have intonation, etc.  They were all imperfect attempts at expressing Chinese sounds with Roman letters.  Wade-Giles is still used in academic papers, but outside of that, it’s confusing

Pinyin by comparison is a much more successful system.  It doesn’t use awkward letter combinations and is fairly intuitive to the point where you can learn it in about 10 minutes or so.  Plus it can properly express intonation which is crucial to Chinese language.

In Zhou Youguang’s own words:

 “I’m not the father of pinyin,” Zhou said years later; “I’m the son of pinyin. It’s [the result of] a long tradition from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today. But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect.”

Speaking as someone who studied Mandarin in high-school, we used Pinyin and it was a great system, so I am grateful to Zhou Youguang for his efforts making Chinese more accessible.  Chinese is a fun language to learn, and I would love to learn it again, and Mr. Zhou helped make that possible.

Rest In Peace, Zhou Youguang.  🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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