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16 April 2024

China's Zhou Youguang, linguist turned dissident, dies at 111


Linguist Zhou Youguang, the man who helped invent the Pinyin system used for writing Chinese worldwide before becoming an outspoken critic of the communist government died Saturday in Beijing. He was 111.

Zhou, who was probably China's oldest dissenter, died Saturday at his house in the country's capital, a day after having celebrated his 111th birthday, state media said.

‘He lived through many eras and helped enlighten ordinary people,’ the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily said.

Zhou is commonly known as the ‘father of Pinyin’, a system for transliterating Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet introduced in the 1950s and now used by hundreds of millions of language learners in China, as well as abroad.

Born to an aristocratic family in 1906, Zhou experienced the last years of the Qing dynasty and its revolutionary overthrow.

He avoided China's civil war between the Communists and Nationalists by going to work for a Chinese bank on Wall Street, twice meeting Albert Einstein while visiting friends at Princeton.

But following the Communist victory in 1949, Zhou returned home to teach economics and became a close associate of the party's number two, Zhou Enlai.

He was attracted to Mao Zedong's Communists because "at that time they promoted themselves as democrats", he wrote in a 2012 autobiography.

An amateur linguist who had taught himself some Esperanto, Zhou was assigned in 1955 to co-chair a committee tasked with increasing literacy by reforming the Chinese language.

He eventually backed a system based on one developed in the Soviet Union, using Roman letters to represent pronunciation alongside marks to indicate tone.

The proposal, named Pinyin — ‘putting together sounds’ — is used in schools across China and has been instrumental in boosting the country's literacy rate from around 20 percent in the 1950s to more than 90 percent today.

In recent decades, Pinyin has become key to the easy creation of Chinese characters on computers.

But Zhou's contributions did not save him from the chaos of Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966, during which intellectuals were persecuted.

Zhou, then in his 60s, was sent to work at a labour camp in faraway Ningxia for more than two years, separated from his wife and son.

He has described the two decades from 1960 to 1980 as ‘wasted", adding: ‘In all honesty I haven't got anything good to say about Mao Zedong."

He had a higher opinion of Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping, who launched market-style reforms which helped transform China into the world's second-largest economy.

But after he retired aged 85, Zhou wrote dozens of books arguing that Deng's reforms were insufficient without political change.

‘Chinese people becoming rich isn't important,’ he said. ‘Human progress is ultimately progress towards democracy.’

‘After 30 years of economic reform, China still needs to take the path of democracy,’ Zhou told AFP in a 2015 interview. ‘It's the only path. I have always believed that.’