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5 things you didn't know about Zhou Youguang, 'the father of pinyin'

We remember the man who made learning mandarin a whole lot easier

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has studied Mandarin in the past half-century will have learnt their Chinese ABC with the help of pinyin, the system for expressing Chinese characters in the Roman alphabet.

It’s thanks to pinyin, which literally means 'spell sound', that we know that 你好 is pronounced nǐ hǎo and that is (horse), while 妈妈 is māmā (mum).

The creater of pinyin, Zhou Youguang, died in Beijing on Saturday at the age of 111. Although one of the most influential figures in recent Chinese history, there's still little known about the Beijinger. Here are five facts you probably didn’t know about the man who has made learning Chinese a whole lot easier.

1. He wasn't a linguist – he was an economist


Zhou Youguang studied economics at St John’s University in Shanghai before going to work on Wall Street in New York as a trader for three years in the 1940s. Linguistics was a pet hobby of his that came to define his career when Zhou Enlai asked him to lead a committee to create an alphabetic system for Mandarin.

2. He helped reduce China's illiteracy rate to nearly zero


When Zhou started in his project to make Mandarin more comprehensible to beginners, illiteracy in China was over 85 percent. Now, thanks in part to the fact that 26 letters can be used to learn thousands of characters, illiteracy in China is only around 5 percent.

3. He published more than 40 books – 10 of them after he turned 100


For the man who turned a complicated language into a handful of letters, age was clearly just a number. He earned the nickname 'Encyclopaedia Zhou' for his work on translating Encyclopaedia Britannica into Chinese, and continued to write well into his old age, including many books that are banned in China.

4. His system wasn't the first attempt at alphabetising Chinese characters


Until pinyin, the most popular system for writing Chinese characters in the Roman alphabet was Wade-Giles, named after the two British diplomats who designed it in the 19th century. It's Wade-Giles you're reading when you look at old maps that say 'Peking' rather than Beijing. Linguists agree that the Wade-Giles system is rather unwieldy, and isn't as faithful to Chinese pronunciation as pinyin.

5. He was one of China's few supercentenarians


Elias Wen (left), another of China's supercentenarians

'Supercentenarian', or chāojí rén, is a person who reaches the grand old age of 110. Zhou reached this landmark on 13 January 2016, one year and one day before he passed away at the age of 111. There are only 10 Chinese supercentenarians in recorded history (according to Wikipedia).

On behalf of primary school students across the country, we say Xièxiè, Mr Zhou!

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