Zhou Youguang 1906-2017

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Zhou xiansheng,

You were my dear friend for decades.  I wish that you had gone on living forever.  You will be sorely missed, but yours was a life well lived.

As the "Father of Pinyin", you have had an enormous impact on education and culture in China.  After you passed the century mark, you spoke out courageously in favor of democracy and reform.

Now, one day after your 111th birthday, you have departed, but you will always be in our hearts, brimming with light, as your name suggests.



"Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111" (Margalit Fox, NYT, 1/14/17)

"Zhou Youguang, father of Chinese Romanization, dies at 111" (Associated Press, WP, 1/14/17)

"China's Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin writing system, dies aged 111" (BBC, 1/14/17)

"Zhou Youguang, Architect Of A Bridge Between Languages, Dies At 111" (Colin Dwyer, NPR, 1/14/17)

2017-01-14 12:29

Google search

"Zhou Youguang, Father of Pinyin" (1/14/14)

"Zhou Youguang, 109 and going strong" (1/13/15)


  1. Cervantes said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:17 am

    My condolences, Victor.

  2. Brendan said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 11:45 am

    The NYT obituary is good, but still doesn't emphasize enough how utterly central Hanyu Pinyin is to the way most native speakers of Chinese interact with the written language. Imagine, Frank Capra-style, a world without Hanyu Pinyin.
    You're texting a friend on WeChat and complaining about your head cold. "Sneezing all over the place," you try to say, except you've forgotten how to write "penti" for the millionth goddamned time and your handwriting recognition is no help at all and your shape-based input method gives you nothing to go on. You try looking it up in a dictionary, but the lack of alphabetical ordering requires you to know already how the characters are written.
    "TMD," you type in frustration, except you can't do that either.

    Pinyin is one of the great invisible inventions. Chinese as it's used today would be starkly different without it.

  3. Richard Sproat said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    Too bad the NYT piece regurgitated the standard tidbits of misinformation about the nature of traditional Chinese writing, but otherwise an interesting article.

  4. Gene said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    His life's work lives on in you Victor. Have you a torch bearer readied for the next link into the future?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:08 pm


    Brendan is one. I was just about to thank him for his cogent remarks, and was also going to invite a critique of the linguistic aspects of the NYT article (which is otherwise quite good), so I'm happy to see that Richard Sproat has already raised that issue, though it may not be entirely fair to say that the NYT is merely regurgitating misinformation about the characters.

  6. markonsea said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

    The Beeb encapsulates it with enigmatic panache:

    "Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, who created the writing system that turns Chinese characters into words using letters from the Roman alphabet, has died aged 111."


  7. TK Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

    An amazing, smiling, patient, and luminous personage.

    One of the saints.

  8. John Rohsenow said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

    Yes. when the BBC said "created the writing system that turns Chinese characters into WORDS using letters from the Roman alphabet", [my italics] they probably wrote wiser than they knew, but I hope they knew. I join all his friends and colleagues in mourning his passing. JSR

  9. Todd Finlay said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 6:09 pm

    His words give courage to people around the world. What a great guy.

  10. JK said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

    Xie xie Zhou xiansheng

  11. Thorin said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

    @markonsea that is truly touching. I only hope my own obituary is written with such oomph and gusto.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 8:39 am

    From a colleague in China:

    ZYG censored

    I'm seeing a lot of Zhou Youguang articles and interviews being passed around my WeChat feed, but when I try to access the links, many of these (not all) have already been blocked by the WeChat monitors. At first this made me furious, but then I thought "Zhou Youguang, days after his death at 111, is still being censored by the Chinese government. Born in the Qing Dynasty, now passed on in Xi's China, yet still relevant, annoying, and even dangerous to the powers that be. What better tribute to the spirit of the man and his ideas?"

    I know you feel the same way.

  13. J. M. Unger said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    I thought the NYT obit was excellent and liked that fact that it avoided the usual claptrap about characters (e.g. they are ideograms).

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 11:49 am

    "What you should know about Zhou Youguang, inventor of pinyin" (Mengqi Sun, CSM, 1/15/17), quoting Jerome Packard (University of Illinois)

  15. Kaleberg said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 12:31 am

    Pinyin was a massive success. Ever since the typewriter was invented people have been trying to come up with a version for typewriting Chinese. Pinyin worked, and it was in time for the computer age. I was with a group funding student projects at MIT in the early 1970s when some guy came in with a huge box of punch cards he wanted to experiment with. It was a pinyin database that had a card for each glyph with its romanized representation and a coding for the various strokes used in writing it. Of course we funded him. He was interested in graphical output, so I got him at the info packet for using the plotter. He only asked for a modest sum, so he didn't have to report back to us, but I now wonder how his project worked out.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

    Pinyin: what a legacy to leave behind.

    Victor, I'm sorry for your loss.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    "Zhou Youguang, whose Pinyin writing system helped modernize China, dies at 111" (Harrison Smith, WP, 1/16/17)

    "Zhou Youguang obituary: Chinese scholar whose western alphabet system advanced literacy and comprehension between speakers of different languages" (Tania Branigan, The Guardian, 2/1/17)

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