Yesterday I went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (Gōng'ān jú 公安局) to renew my visa. While waiting in the main hall for my number to be called, I had ample time to walk around and familiarize myself with the operations there. One thing in particular piqued my curiosity. Namely, I saw four gray, metal cabinets full of hundreds of passports (three for Chinese, one for foreigners) waiting to be picked up.
I watched a clerk filing passports into the slots on the mechanized, revolving shelves inside the cabinets. Wondering how the passports were arranged so that they could be readily retrieved when called for, I asked the supervisor how the passports were ordered on the shelves. Her reply left me both startled and pleased.
"Of course," she said, "they are ordered by pinyin [VHM: romanization]."
We then had a brief discussion about how, if an attempt were made to order the passports by character shapes or strokes (radicals plus residual strokes, stroke order, etc.), it would take far longer to find them, and they might well get lost forever among the slew of passports inside the cabinets.
This is merely one example of how useful (one might well say "essential") pinyin has become for the efficient functioning of modern society in China. Finding people and things and terms in hotels, office buildings, passenger manifests, telephone operator listings, catalogs, dictionaries, and so forth — especially when names or terms have to be spoken over a telecommunication device — is far easier and more reliable when they are classified by sounds rather than by the shapes of characters used to write them. The obverse is also true when entering words into computers, cell phones (STMs), and so forth; pinyin is easier and faster than trying to analyze and classify them by the shapes and strokes of the characters with which they are written.
After I left the Public Security Bureau, I went over to visit my old friend, 106-year-old (107 sui by Chinese reckoning) Zhou Youguang ("Father of Pinyin") and told him what I had observed about the filing of passports. He smiled beatifically. Although we had much else to discuss that afternoon, there was no need for him to comment on the ordering of passports by pinyin.