Thursday, September 15, 2011

Long Live Zhōu Yǒuguāng!

Googling something up, I clicked (at a whim) on the link for the Wikipedia page about one Zhōu Yǒuguāng (周有光), called the "father of pinyin"*... and saw that while it listed his birth date (January 13 1906), it didn't list the date of his death.

Frankly, I thought that this might be an oversight on the part of the
Wikipedia hive-mind... but no, it seems that he's still alive and well and living in Beijing. He recently celebrated his 106th birthday. According to Wikipedia, he has an eight-year-old great grandson.

Here's a profile of him from two years ago (from which I took the above image). Here's a video profile from a year before that (via).
The editor of the English-language site met him a few years back. The same site has the table of contents of Zhōu's book, The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts, plus a few sample pages, such as this page on what pinyin is not (the "three nots" of pinyin), this page on homophones and (from an appendix) the rules of pinyin orthography.

He's lead quite a life. He was an economist, who returned from the U.S. to China in 1949 (the year of the founding of the PRC), convinced by his acquaintanceship with Zhou Enlai (no relation), one of the top people in the party, that it would be a democracy (he was not himself a communist). He was put in charge of the pinyin project thanks to that same acquaintanceship, despite protests that he was just an amateur linguist. And he, like so many intellectuals, was exiled to the countryside (away from his family & work) during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. But he survived, returned after three years, and kept working: and he's still doing fine. Writer and actor Stephen Fry interviewed him for a documentary last year ("Joy... never stopped laughing" Fry tweeted); here's a photo of the two of them.

A nice, happy discovery that a man who did great work is still alive & doing well at a pleasantly advanced age.

What can I say but
Wànsuì Zhōu Yǒuguāng! (Although I guess he's pretty much got that covered, doesn't he.)

* Pinyin, of course, is the standard romanization for Chinese, adopted by the People's Republic of China in the 1950's, and by now adopted pretty much universally (e.g. even in Taiwan), which is why the city you used to see referred to as Peking is now universally known as Beijing: it's just a different way of romanizing the same Chinese name, 北京.

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