Zhou Youguang, Father of Pinyin

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Zhou Youguang, the main architect and early advocate of Hanyu Pinyin (the official romanized orthography for Modern Standard Mandarin), had his 108th birthday yesterday.  Although I've been a close friend and admirer of Professor Zhou since 1981, I've never dedicated a Language Log post exclusively to him, so it's about time that I do so.

Mostly, this post will consist of pertinent links, but first just a few notes:

1. Zhou xiansheng (xs) still writes every day — sharp as ever.

2. He types (Pinyin inputting, of course) on a tiny Sharp typewriter that he helped design (uses floppy disks for storage).

3. He tells me that one of his secrets of longevity is to sleep whenever he feels like it and get up and work whenever he feels like doing so.

4. He still lives in the same apartment where I first visited him in 1981 and which is described by Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones.

5. Zhou xs was responsible for ensuring that the entries in the Chinese edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Zhōngguó dà bǎikē quánshū 中国大百科全书 (Great Encyclopedia of China) are in alphabetical order.  This, I believe, is a major achievement that eventually will have a monumental impact on the way Chinese view their own language.

6. One of the most dogeared books in his library is a volume published about 30+ (?) years ago listing (with short biographies) the most eminent linguists of China.  Every time I go to visit him, he pulls it out and shows me — year after year — that all the others have passed away.  Then he smiles and chuckles in his inimitable way, and says, "I wonder how long I'll last".  Whereupon I say, "There's no limit, Zhou xiansheng.  Just keep studying and writing and sleeping and studying and writing."

Here, here, here, and here are some earlier Language Log posts in which Zhou Youguang is mentioned.

Wikpedia article on Zhou xs.

New York Times profile.

Several posts about Zhou Youguang on Pinyin.info.

Characteristic article by Zhou himself dating to 1980:

"The Chinese Finger Alphabet and the Chinese Finger Syllabary"

Essay on Zhou xs in The World of Chinese.

Message from Zhou xs on the occasion of his 108th birthday.

Recent article by Zhou xs:

“To Inherit the Ancient Teachings of Confucius and Mencius and Establish Modern Confucianism.”

This work, the two-hundred-and-twenty-sixth issue of Sino-Platonic Papers, can be downloaded for free from the journal's Web site at http://www.sino-platonic.org/

Direct link to this issue (it's a pdf).

Happy Birthday, Zhou xiansheng!  May you have many, many more!


  1. blahedo said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 5:14 pm

    TIL that "xiansheng" is cognate to Japanese "sensei" (both written "先生") and apparently has a similar range of meaning.

  2. Rubrick said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    Truly inspiring. I wish we were all afforded the luxury of sleeping when we feel like it and working when we feel like it. :-)

  3. Piyush said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    As Rubrick said, this is really inspiring account.

    @blahedo: TIL exactly the same thing! Long ago, while watching a dubbed version of the Journey to the West, I noticed that many of the sentences addressed to the Monkey king ended in a similar sound; now I know what it meant.

    @Rubrick: It seems that one gets that luxury only after one has come up with a new and useful orthography for a widely spoken language. Now I just need to find the department of "widely spoken languages looking for a new and useful orthography".

  4. Piyush said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    "dubbed" of course should have been "subtitled" in my last post.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

    I followed your link for the Message from Zhou xs on the occasion of his 108th birthday. Of necessity I asked my browser for an English translation. The English translation keeps saying he is 109 years old, even though it correctly gives his date of birth as 1906. Is that a mistake in the original article or a mistranslation by Google's translation service? (It occurs to me that it is possible that the Chinese, of which I don't understand a word, might be referring to his 109th year.)

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 9:09 pm

    @Eric P Smith

    Chinese count a person as one year old at birth.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 3:20 am

    @blahedo, Piyush:

    I had always heard that Japanese and Chinese were unrelated languages. How could there be cognates between them? Is it that the Japanese word 先生 "sensei" is cognate to Chinese 先生 "xiansheng" in the sense that the english word "mores" is "cognate" to the french "moeurs", having been lifted directly from Latin?

  8. Anubhav Chattoraj said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 4:44 am

    @Michael Watts: Yes. Japanese is chock-full of Chinese calques, 先生 being one of them.

  9. Marcos said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 5:20 am

    @Michael Watts

    They are unrelated languages. It is a loanword, from Chinese to Japanese. Of course, the loan occurred long enough ago that the original form is not preserved in modern Chinese languages.

  10. Mark Dunan said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 10:55 am

    While I may not be the biggest fan of Pinyin, particularly for foreign learners, my hat is off to this scholar and his lifetime of devotion to his language.

    Now what's the story with that "typewriter" of his? In Japan, where I live, some people still use "word processors" — basically electronic typewriters with a small, single-line screen where romanized input is converted into characters — is this what Professor Zhou is using? It couldn't possible store only Pinyin, with no conversion, could it?

    @Michael — Japanese has borrowed and nativized a huge amount of Chinese vocabulary over the centuries, has created new words based on Chinese roots (some of which have been borrowed back into Chinese!), and has even created a few new "Chinese-like" characters, complete with Chinese-like readings based on analogies with other characters. Trying to communicate in Japanese without using any Chinese-derived words is roughly as difficult as communicating in English without using any Latin- or Greek-derived words.

    In fact, the parallel between Chinese contribution to Japanese vocabulary and that of Latin/Greek to English is striking. Japanese has multiple classes of Chinese-based pronunciation: one big early one from Wu and another from Han; most characters have one reading from each of these, and then there is a very small collection of T'ang readings which are rare. Two-character words that mix these readings together are occasionally criticized by th 1% of the population who notice these things, such as when purists deride the hybrid Greek-Latin roots of "automobile".

  11. KeithB said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    I wonder how he fared during the cultural revolution.

  12. KeithB said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    Should have read Wikipedia first. Two years in a labor camp. Wow. Well at least he is getting the last laugh!

  13. julie lee said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    Thanks for letting us know Zhou Youguang has reached 108, and is still sharp.

    I found Zhou's 108th birthday message thought-provoking: "要从世界看国家,不要从国家看世界” (We must look at the nation through the world, not look at the world through the nation.) He said he thought this would expand people's minds.

    Zhou Youguang lived and worked in New York for a number of years. I wonder how different Mao and Hitler would have been if they had lived and worked in another country for a number of years. Both Zhou Enlai, who was more moderate, and Deng Xiaoping, who liberalized China after Mao's death and whom China's surviving intellectuals credit for saving their lives by overturning Mao's discrimination against intellectuals, had experience living and working in France in their youth.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    @Mark Dunan

    "While I may not be the biggest fan of Pinyin, particularly for foreign learners…."

    Well, many Chinese — mistakenly in my opinion — think that it's mainly for foreigners.

    Zhou xs's little Sharp typewriter employs Pinyin inputting with conversion to characters.

    I'm not sure that this is the exact model, but it looks something like it (see the typewriter at the beginning of the third line [as of today]). I'm the guy at the beginning of the first line (only had a beard for one year of my life, and it happened to be on my face at that moment when I was examining an old Chinese typewriter at the University of Kansas).

    "Chinese typewriter, part 2"

    Or it might be like this one (6th item on this page; cf. the item just below it, which seems more advanced) Notice the little window (long rectangle) just in front of the platen. This is where the dot matrix characters show up.

    When his typewriter is not in use, Zhou xs keeps it lovingly wrapped in a furushiki-like cloth.

  15. Matt said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    I love Pinyin. Sure, it's not as elegant as kana or hangul (or admittedly even most Roman-scripted European languages), but it's about as good an alphabetization as can be had for MSM. It may be eccentric relative to the phonetic-orthographic conventions of other Roman-scripted alphabets, but at least it's internally consistent, which is what really matters.

  16. Matt said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    Also, compared to all the unsuccessful romanization attempts of all its neighboring languages (just look at Cantonese, Hokkien, Shanghainese, Korean, Mongolian, the Indic languages, Burmese, and Thai-Lao), MSM is pretty much one of only two major languages in continental Asia to have a fully functional romanized alphabet (the other of course being Vietnamese). The only other Asian languages with fully serviceable romanized alphabets are the phonologically simple Austronesian and Japonic languages. To what extent this can be attributed to the inherent phonemic compatibility of MSM to an alphabetical system, I cannot say, but I still think this demonstrates just what an exceptional if not extraordinary achievement Hanyu Pinyin is.

  17. Matt said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    ^*with the exception of Turkic and possibly Iranian languages.

  18. George said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    @Julie Lee

    Not too sure about the experience abroad thing… Pol Pot studied in France too

  19. Brian Page said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    Lovely comments on his well deserved birthday. 108 years young. I am here with a Chinese shufa exemplar who is a Manchurian and speaks Japanese and she is telling me to explain that most of the works connoting our concept of a "learning master" or sensei in Japanese are directly derived from the cultural interactions related to the introduction of Buddhism and are loans from China and Korea to Japan, she says they are in part assumed to have been in the 隋书, suishu and throughout the Tang Dynasty 唐朝, Tang Chao.

    I explained the article to her and added that I think he lives a wonderful way and his key to longevity is every scholars dream: to sleep whenever he feels like it and get up and work whenever he feels like doing so.

    She said, well don't get any ideas about that here lazy bones, or slacker, 懒人, Lan Ren. To which I of course laughed, adding, napping like this could the fountain of youth! To which she said learning is and threw a book at me.

    One cannot help but feel admiration for the astounding lifelong commitment it took to accomplish Zhu Youguang's works. I hope many more young Chinese academics have the courage to follow in his footsteps. Imagine the breadth of learning it took to get this far, and the strength to remain sharp!

  20. Brian Page said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    Zhou YouGuang's^*

  21. mcnugget said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    Dear me, too true.

  22. julie lee said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    You're right, studying in France didn't prevent Pol Pot from becoming a monster.

  23. Matt said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 10:39 pm


    Not to mention Kim Jong-un studying in Switzerland. Then again, who knows what he'd be like if he *didn't* study in Switzerland…

  24. Zheng said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 10:54 pm


    Is it possible to provide a link to the 《汉语大百科全书》? I wasn't able to find anything about it online.


  25. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 1:05 am


    Mea culpa!

    There's no Hànyǔ dà bǎikē quánshū 汉语大百科全书 (Great Encyclopedia of Sinitic).

    It's the Zhōngguó dà bǎikē quánshū 中国大百科全书 (Great Encyclopedia of China)

    Here are some links for you:

    English Wikipedia

    Chinese Wikipedia


  26. Mark Dunan said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 5:28 am

    Just a quick note for those interested: I think I've found the man's typewriter; Professor Mair, is this the one?


  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 7:39 am

    @Mark Dunan

    Definitely, yes! That's the typewriter, and that's the man!

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 10:24 pm

    One other advantage of Pinyin is that it makes typing characters on a standard keyboard straightforward. Now, any Windows or Mac PC can instantly switch in & out of typing them without any extra software.

    In contrast, if China had decided to create its own phonetic alphabet, you'd have to learn both the new keyboard and the alphabet (and possibly need to physically switch keyboards). (Is this the case with Taiwan's alphabet?)

    Pinyin allows me to type the characters, i.e., 拼音, almost as easily as typing the pinyin itself. Similarly, Microsoft Word readily gives the pinyin for characters, which is great for those of us who struggle reading characters (me!). No extra software needed….

    Considering that pinyin was created well before the age of PCs, it's quite commenable that it enabled the transition to a PC-based world so well.

  29. Luisa Lu said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

    RE xs

    "先生" in classical Chinese means teacher, same as "sensei" in Japanese, but it is used as mister in modern Chinese. Modern Chinese word for teacher is 老师/老師 (laoshi). Many Japanese words loaned from Chinese still retained the classical meaning, while modern Chinese have evolved.

  30. Lugubert said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    @ Dave Cragin:
    "Similarly, Microsoft Word readily gives the pinyin for characters"

    Do you refer to adding ruby text? It worked today for me in W XP for the two words that I tried, but too many times, it has given only a blank form.

    Is there a way that I've overlooked to have copied characters in Word and viewing their pinyin within Word? When that problem occurs to me, I copy the suspects to Wenlin (yes, duly paid for) for their reading.

    Sorry (not really) for the derail, but do any of you know of a manual in English for wakan.exe?

  31. Jean-Michel said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    In contrast, if China had decided to create its own phonetic alphabet, you'd have to learn both the new keyboard and the alphabet (and possibly need to physically switch keyboards). (Is this the case with Taiwan's alphabet?)

    Taiwanese keyboards have Zhuyin symbols alongside the Latin letters (and usually Cangjie and Dayi characters as well). Since there's more than 26 Zhuyin symbols, they're also mapped to punctuation and number keys. As you might imagine, the resulting keyboards can get a bit cluttered. Keyboards in mainland China are usually just U.S. keyboards with no additional labels.

  32. Dave Cragin said,

    January 18, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    Jean-Michel – Thanks. Very interesting. It confirms to me that Pinyin is quite valuable as regards to how it allows the use of a standard keyboard. It makes it easier for Chinese to type in a Western language, because they already know the keyboard. Similarly, it makes it easier for non-Chinese to type characters.

    Lugubert – Yes, as ruby text . It's been a while since I used it in XP, but I believe it was under Phonetic guide. If you copy the characters into Word, I think you need to do so as simple text and then it readily gave the pinyin (I typically used it to help me read e-mails friends sent, i.e., seeing if I could understand the pinyin. Hence, I wasn't getting the pinyin for characters I had typed in Word).

    The only problem I had with it was sometimes it only did part of a page and I'd need to re-highlight the text that didn't show the pinyin. It should do much much more than 2 characters.

    Under the newer version of Word, the Phonetic guide that displays pinyin is actually a standard button on the Home tool bar. It will give pinyin for a full page.

    Regardless of the version of Word, you need to install an alternative Chinese keyboard beforehand (under Control Panel>Region and language>Keyboards and Languages). The alternative keyboard also allows typing characters. If more detailed instructions are needed, I can provide them.

  33. Matt Kosko said,

    January 22, 2014 @ 10:28 pm


    I can't even imagine what it must be like to see the transformations he has seen over 100 years; to invent something like Pinyin and then decades later still see it in use, with people making computer games to learn it.

    What I thought was interesting was Adeline Yen Mah could only find one book series that used Pinyin, reinforcing the unfortunate idea that Pinyin is just something for foreigners.

  34. Mark Mandel said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 12:45 am

    Am I the only reader who expects a headline like this –

    [personal name] , [NP or VP describing significant achievement]

    – to be on an obituary?

  35. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2014 @ 12:59 am

    @Mark Mandel

    Not when he's 108 and still going strong.

  36. Tony Chow said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 9:38 pm

    @Luisa Lu: Japanese is not the only language where the original meaning of 先生 is preserved. In Shanghainese, 先生 also means "teacher".

  37. Mark Mandel said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    @Victor: The author of the article knew that the subject was 108 and still going strong, but the headline is for the reader.

    Here are the headlines of the first ten obituary stories from Philadelphia on http://www.philly.com/philly/obituaries/, as of a few minutes ago:

    Richard Hayes, 84, singer and talk radio host
    Glenn McDuffie | Times Square sailor, 86
    Roger M. Fey, 46, Phila. air-quality official
    Marcello DiPietro Sr., 84, paint chemist
    Peggy Morgan, 89, a singer who performed in Philly, A.C.
    Robert S. Strauss, 95, top Washington trouble-shooter
    Seymour Holtman, 88, veterinarian
    Frank Adler, 60, engineer, computer expert
    L'Wren Scott, fashion designer who was Jagger's girlfriend
    Woodrow Millhouse, 92, laborer, gravedigger and loyal churchman

    Except for the age, they have a similar structure to the headline of this post.

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