Monday, February 25, 2008

Pinyin Turns the big 5-0

This month the romanization of Chinese characters called pinyin turns 50.

The Chinese media claim it has helped over a billion Chinese learn how to read and write. However, not all Chinese know the romanized alphabet so the actual numbers are sketchy.

Nevertheless, it has definitely helped foreigners like myself relate Chinese characters with the romanized alphabet and get my pronunciation are accurate as possible.

That's all thanks to Zhou Youguang, a 102-year-old balding man who lives in Beijing.

The jovial Zhou still speaks great English and still works hard everyday, reading and writing, albeit with a handy magnifying glass.

"People call me the father of pinyin, but that's not true," he says with a laugh. "I'm not the father of pinyin, I'm the son of pinyin."

He developed pinyin by chance. When the Communists took over in 1949, he was working in a New York bank and decided to come home and help rebuild his country.

At first he thought he would be helping with the economy, but with his interest in languages, he was instead was entrusted with creating a way of teaching illiterate people.

And apparently literacy levels are down to 10 per cent from 80 per cent in half a century.

When Chairman Mao began his purges in the late 1950s, Zhou says he was lucky he wasn't teaching economics otherwise he would surely be in prison for 20 years.

However, during the Cultural Revolution he was sent to the countryside and as soon as he was rehabilitated he picked up where he left off -- reading and writing.

Even though he officially retired when he was 85, Zhou still publishes a paper every month and doesn't plan to put down his pen anytime soon.

Duo xie ni, Zhou Youguang xiansheng! (Thank you so much, Mr Zhou Youguan!)

1 comment:

ks said...

i have always thought this pinyin system was invented by a commitee in the language institue . as with everything communist chinese always have a group of people to do things. never have i thought one individual like zhou single handedly create such a great way to romanize chinese. this system has help chinese and foreigners alike to read and pronouce the language known to be one of the most difficult langauges to learn. zhou should be nominated for a nobel prize. with the help of my friends my little ibook computer understands pinyin then spell out a bunch of chinese characters for me to choose.