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  • Zhou Youguang周有光(January 13,1906 -- January 14, 2017)
  • Victor H. Mair (bio)

Zhou Youguang was the main architect and early advocate of Hanyu Pinyin (the official romanized orthography for Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]). Although he had nurtured an interest in language studies already from the time he was in high school, Zhou did not become a professional language specialist until the mid-1950s, when he himself was already in his fifties. Before that time, he was an economist and financier, with a career that included working for a Chinese bank (Irving Trust, which represented Sin Hua [see below]) on Wall Street from 1946 and teaching as a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai three years later after the Communists took control of China. Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly interested in and outspoken on social and political issues. These aspects of his life have been well covered in many media accounts (see “Works Consulted” below). This obituary will focus mainly on the half-century when he was fully occupied as a linguist.

Zhou was born Zhou Yaoping 周耀平 in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, while the Manchus still ruled over the Qing Dynasty. He studied at St John’s University and then Guanghua University, both in Shanghai, graduating from the latter in 1927 with a degree in economics and a minor in linguistics. After the start of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1927, Zhou moved inland to Chongqing (Chungking), where he [End Page 500] took a job at the Sin Hua Trust and Savings Bank. He also studied in Japan for a while during the early thirties, first as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo, and later at Kyoto University.

Although Zhou Youguang considered the study of languages and linguistics an avocation up through the first half of the 1950s, his life changed dramatically in 1955 when Premier Zhou Enlai, who had met Zhou Youguang earlier in Chongqing and knew of his fascination with languages and scripts, invited him to head a committee charged with the reform of written Chinese. It was lucky for Zhou Youguang that this opportunity arose, since many of his economist friends – especially those who had connections with the West – were severely persecuted and some of them committed suicide.

Zhou and his committee of about 20 researchers worked for three years to design the new Romanization. The result was a scheme based on several earlier systems: the phonemes were adapted from National Romanization (Gwoyeu Romatzyh) (1928) and Latinxua Sin Wenz (1931), and the tone marks were inspired by Zhuyin Fuhao (Bopomofo).

The efforts of Zhou Youguang and his colleagues on the Script Reform Committee bore fruit. On Feb. 11, 1958, Hanyu Pinyin was adopted by the First National People’s Congress and it soon had an enormous impact on Chinese society, economy, education, and culture. It was adopted as the official Romanization for Chinese, both by the International Organization for Standardization / ISO (1982) and the United Nations / UN (1986). Pinyin is the avenue by means of which all Chinese schoolchildren begin to learn how to read and write; and now – among countless other applications – Pinyin is the overwhelming means for inputting characters in electronic devices of all sorts (computers, cell phones, and so forth). It also has applications in many other areas of human endeavor: sign language, braille, semaphore, indexing and ordering (alphabetization), advertising, signage of all sorts, labeling, etc. Zhou Youguang helped to devise and perfect the use of Pinyin in all of these fields.

Although Pinyin was a huge success, that did not save Zhou Youguang from being sent to a labor reform camp in the Ningxia countryside from 1969–1972 during the Cultural Revolution. He used to [End Page 501] tell stories about how his job was to act as a living scarecrow to keep birds away from the crops – a ludicrous assignment for a linguist of his stature.

Zhou Youguang’s chief accomplishments were in language reform and applied linguistics, but he also had a deep interest in the history of writing worldwide. Several of his books and many of his articles detail various aspects of the development of writing throughout the world, including “The Family of Chinese Character...


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