Boston, Jan. 13, 2018, — On his 112th birthday, Chinese Linguist Zhou Youguang was honored on Google’s homepage today. Mr. Zhou passed away on Jan. 14, 2017 at age 111. Zhou was a Chinese economist, banker, linguist, sinologist, publisher, and supercentenarian, known as the “father of Pinyin”, a system for the writing of Mandarin Chinese in Roman script, or romanization, which was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in 1982, and the United Nations in 1986.
The invention of Pinyin was key to the drastic reduction of illiteracy rate in China in the 1950s and 1960s. Some called Pinyin the world’s most important linguistic innovation:
Zhou was born Zhou Yaoping in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, on January 13, 1906 to a Qing Dynasty official. At the age of ten, he and his family moved to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. In 1918, he entered Changzhou High School, during which time he first took an interest in linguistics. He graduated in 1923 with honors.
Zhou enrolled that same year in St. John’s University, Shanghai where he majored in economics and took supplementary coursework in linguistics. He was almost unable to attend due to his family’s poverty, but friends and relatives raised 200 yuan for the admission fee, and also helped him pay for tuition. He left during the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925 and transferred to Guanghua University, from which he graduated in 1927.
On April 30, 1933, Zhou married Zhang Yunhe. The couple went to Japan for Zhou’s studies. Zhou started as an exchange student at the University of Tokyo, later transferring to Kyoto University due to his admiration of the Japanese Marxist economist Hajime Kawakami, who was a professor there at the time. Kawakami’s arrest for joining the outlawed Japanese Communist Party in January 1933 meant that Zhou could not be his student. Zhou’s son, Zhou Xiaoping, was born in 1934. The couple also had a daughter, Zhou Xiaohe.
In 1937, due to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Zhou and his family moved to the wartime capital Chongqing, and his daughter died. He worked for Sin Hua Bank before entering public service as a deputy director at the National Government’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, agricultural policy bureau. After the 1945 Japanese defeat in World War II, Zhou went back to work for Sin Hua where he was stationed overseas: first in New York City and then in London. During his time in the United States, he met Albert Einstein twice.
Zhou participated for a time in the China Democratic National Construction Association, but when the People’s Republic was established in 1949 he returned to Shanghai, where he taught economics at Fudan University for several years.