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Linguist who simplified Chinese writing dies at 111

Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, considered the father of the Pinyin system used to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters and who was an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist party, has died in Beijing at the age of 111.

Born to a wealthy family in 1906 when a Qing Dynasty emperor was on the throne, Zhou’s life spanned China’s tumultuous and often tragic twentieth century. He witnessed the fall of the Qing in 1911, worked as a financier in the nationalist stronghold of Chongqing when it was under siege by Japanese forces during the second world war, and in the late 1940s had a spell at a Chinese bank on Wall Street. 

But he returned after 1949, when the Communist party led by Mao Zedong claimed victory over the nationalists. “I thought the country had been liberated, and had a new hope,” he later wrote, adding that he then believed in the party’s promises that China would become democratic. 

An amateur linguist, Zhou was assigned in 1955 by the Communists to co-chair a committee tasked with developing a Romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese, which the party was promoting as a common language to unify a vast population. 

Zhou backed a proposal known as “Hanyu Pinyin” that uses Roman letters to represent pronunciation and marks to indicate tone. Pinyin’s use in Chinese schools has been key to boosting the country’s literacy rate from around 20 per cent in the 1950s to more than 90 per cent today, and it later became a basis for typing using computers.

“Zhou’s legacy extends to almost everything typed on a phone or computer today, to say nothing of signage, alphabetised lists and acronyms,” said Brendan O’Kane, a translator of Chinese literature. 

But Zhou’s contributions did not save him from Mao’s anti-intellectual campaigns aimed at eliminating dissent. In his 60s he was sent to work at a labour camp in the remote Ningxia region for more than two years, separated from his wife and son and forced to sleep on an earthen bed. “When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic. The pessimists tend to die,” he later wrote of the experience. 

His reputation somewhat restored after Mao’s death, Zhou took an academic post before retiring aged 85, when he enjoyed a second career as an irreverent critic of authoritarian rule. He wrote dozens of books arguing that open economic policies needed to be accompanied by political reform. Many were censored in China and could only be published in the freer atmosphere of Hong Kong. 

Zhou periodically welcomed foreign journalists to his humble walk-up apartment in central Beijing, where he often joked and played down his achievements while taking potshots at Mao and other Communist leaders. 

“I don’t have any feeling of pride. I don’t think I’ve achieved very much,” Zhou said in an interview marking his 109th birthday in 2015, when he spoke lucidly but slowly and with obvious effort. “After 30 years of economic reform, China still needs to take the path of democracy,” he added.

Zhou’s wife died in 2002 and their son died in 2015. His health worsened steadily over the past year, often leaving him unable to speak, his editor Ye Fang said. He fell unconscious at home on the day of his 111th birthday, before being pronounced dead at a local hospital in the early hours of Saturday. 

Under China’s current president, Xi Jinping, China has taken a harsher line towards dissent, and publishers said it was increasingly difficult to win approval for Zhou’s books. A 2014 programme filmed by Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television celebrating his life was ordered not to be broadcast. 

Chinese state media covered Zhou’s death but avoided mention of his democractic advocacy. Liu Yunshan, propaganda czar and a member of China’s elite politburo standing committee, sent a message of condolence, a person familiar with the matter said. But no high-level officials are expected to attend Zhou’s funeral.

Twitter: @hancocktom

Via FT