The man credited with creating the system used to write the Chinese language using the Latin alphabet passed away today, January 14, just one day after his 111th birthday.
Zhou Youguang (周有光) was born January 13, 1906, and was 112 years-old according to the Chinese method of counting a person’s age.
In 1955, Zhou was appointed head of a committee to develop a romanization system to render the sounds of the Chinese language using the Latin alphabet. The system the committee created, Hanyu Pinyin, is used around the world to represent Chinese words, people’s names, and Chinese place names.
Originally created to improve literacy rates in China, the Hanyu Pinyin system was eventually adopted in the international community. Outside of China, Hanyu Pinyin replaced the Wade-Giles romanization system, which was created in the UK in the late 19th century.
The Wade-Giles system was useful for scholars trained in its proper use, but caused a lot of confusion when used in the general community. For example, China’s capital city Beijing, was pronounced “pee-king” by most English speakers until Hanyu Pinyin began to be used outside of China in 1979.
Pinyin is credited as helping to raise literacy rates among Chinese people. In the 1950s, the literacy rate was just 20%. Today the literacy rate is more than 90%. Children in China learn Pinyin before they learn to read and write Chinese characters.
Despite Zhou’s significant contributions to his nation, much of his written work remains censored in China, due to the pro-democratic views he expressed later in life. The supercentenarian wrote 10 books after turning 100.
Zhou passed away at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, which ironically, still uses the Wade-Giles system spelling of “Beijing” as “Peking”.