Farewell, Zhou Youguang: Linguist dies at 112


Zhou Youguang, the father of Pinyin, a system that transcribes Chinese characters into a phonetically-grounded romanized alphabet, died at the age of 112 on the morning of Jan.14 in Beijing.

The wedding photo of Zhou and his's wife.

The inventor of the Pinyin system that revolutionized the teaching of Chinese was an alumnus of ECNU, having studied in St. John’s University and Guanghua University, two predecessors of ECNU, in Shanghai in the 1920s. 

Zhou, born on Jan. 13, 1906, had been very concerned about the development of ECNU and in a most lately meeting, he received an interview by the ECNU Information Office for compilation of the university history book at his home in Beijing on January 12 last year.

Zhou receives the gifts from ECNU and writes "Daxia Guanghua" to the university.

The visitors wished Zhou a happy birthday. The jubilant old man, who called himself  “the man God forgot”, talked with the his juniors by writing and inscribed “Daxia Guanghua”, referring to the Great China University and Guanghua University, predecessors of ECNU.

“Please forgive me for my backsliding handwriting, ” he joked.

Born in Changzhou City in Jiangsu Province, Zhou studied in Changzhou Senior High School, where he and Lyu Shuxiang, another famous Chinese linguist, became schoolmates.

In 1923, Zhou enrolled in China’s first Western-style university, St. John’s University in Shanghai, where he majored in economics and minored in linguistics. He participated in the Latinized New Writing Campaign.

Zhou writes some words to his ECNU juniors.

Two years later, he left the university during the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925 and transferred to Guanghua University, from which he graduated in 1927. His wife, Zhang Yunhe, a well-known Kun Opera researcher, had also studied at Guanghua.

In 1954, the government placed Zhou at the head of a committee to reform the Chinese language in order to increase literacy. Zhou's committee was charged with developing a romanization to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters. 

In 1955, Zhou proposed that Putonghua be used in all Chinese schools of Han nationality and public activities as the official language, and Chinese Pinyin should be Latinized, phonemic and colloquial. 

Pinyin was made the official romanization in 1958, becoming the officially recognized way of translating Chinese characters into a phonetically-grounded romanized alphabet. Pinyin works to attach the Chinese sound and intonations of a character to the character itself through a system of letters denoting the pronunciation.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted Pinyin as an international standard in 1982.

Zhou is also the main architect of the Basic Rules for Hanyu Pinyin Orthography, which was published in 1988. Since the 1950s, he had begun to compile the Hanyu Pinyin vocabulary, based on which the nowadays computer vocabulary of Chinese characters is developed.


East China Normal University