Pinyin’s inventor, 105, speaks out against government

This is amazing.

Zhou Youguang should be a Chinese hero after making what some call the world’s most important linguistic innovation: He invented Pinyin, a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Western alphabet.

But instead, this 105-year-old has become a thorn in the government’s side. Zhou has published an amazing 10 books since he turned 100, some of which have been banned in China. These, along with outspoken views on the Communist Party and the need for democracy in China, have made him a “sensitive person” — a euphemism for a political dissident.

You simply have to hear this NPR interview to believe it. This guy is sharper than a tack at 105, and he still blogs. His criticisms of the CCP are sharp and specific. Go listen now.

NPR and PBS are the sole sources of sanity in today’s US media. Of course, they are among the right’s primary targets. If they go, I go.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 65 Comments

@KT, comment 34
Nothing to do with sheep (though we did win the RWC 😉 – we being my NZ persona…English persona lost badly….) – it ain’t broke. Pictographs have lasted millenia, in some countries only recently being replaced by alphabets. How it affects the society is a moot point as we only have historical evidence to go by, which means we can only make assumptions based on modern times and societal thought.
It could be that pictographic script is a dead end….but it doesn’t look like it is right now. Alphabet might be the way forward but in both writing systems the same depth of thought and ability to convey thoughts are apparent. Both systems can produce novels and convey philosophical thought so I can only assume they are as good as each other.

BBC? Thought I was more of a Guardian person….. 😉 And I don’t care if France did play better in the final – they lost. The Webb Ellis Cup has come to it’s spiritual home 😀

October 24, 2011 @ 5:34 pm | Comment

@Cookie Monster. Your #39. Good one. Raised a smile here.

October 24, 2011 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

Hey Richard! Thanks for the interview link, as well as the link to the piece about the anguish of learning to read Chinese. 🙂

NPR and PBS are the sole sources of sanity in today’s US media

Richard, please don't forget Democracy Now (! Amy Goodman is a national treasure!

Take care!

October 24, 2011 @ 9:30 pm | Comment

Guys who advocate pinyin = 大
Normal guys = 太

I think you get the point.

October 24, 2011 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

@By Just a Taiwanese laowai: If your point is that you like telling jokes that are only funny to people who don’t understand the content of the joke, then I get the point. Also, you should probably check the etymology for 太, it kinda fucks your joke ever further.

October 25, 2011 @ 11:11 am | Comment

The Pinyin=castration meme is just pure politicization of linguistics…just goes to prove that the CCP does not have a monopoly on this subject.

Pinyin’s influence by Esperanto is responsible for its “non-intuitiveness” to those who learned the Roman alphabet in the context of English. Slavic c’s and Iberian x’s are the main culprits. The unstressed i’s in Pinyin (eg. jiaozi) are identical to the undotted i in latinized Turkish. If there’s one change I’d like to see in Pinyin, it would be the replacement of ‘o’ by ‘o umlaut’ (where is a European keyboard when you need one?), and ‘ou’ by ‘o’.

October 25, 2011 @ 9:06 pm | Comment

Atticus Dogsbody, try to see two images, not words or etymology, straw bag.

October 25, 2011 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

So…to a Chinese illiterate person like me….pinyin is like texting? Just saw teh recent comments re PLA human bridge – why can’t people write correctly in fora where they aren’t charged per letter?

October 26, 2011 @ 6:04 am | Comment

I just ended that Human PLA Bridge post, the controversy is so ridiculous. Most of the commenters were obviously not Americans or Brits.

October 26, 2011 @ 7:28 am | Comment

Incredible, such a innovative and humble man. Chinese government has to change… hope this will happen soon.

October 27, 2011 @ 1:46 am | Comment

@Just a Taiwanese laowai: are you sixteen or something?

Dumbest attempt at joke I have seen in a long time 😛

October 30, 2011 @ 12:04 am | Comment

Pin yun was invented for Chinese to learn how to write characters. In the process, it makes it much harder for Westerners to learn Chinese. Wade Giles is much more intuitive for native English speakers. There is no way to convince me that “Xia” is a better way to write a word that is pronounced “Shia.” In a better world, one where the CCP didn’t view Wade Giles as a nasty form of Western Imperialism, foreign students of Chinese would still be using Wade Giles

October 30, 2011 @ 10:01 am | Comment

“There is no way to convince me that “Xia” is a better way to write a word that is pronounced “Shia.””

You mean asides from the fact that “下”, “夏”, “虾” etc. do not have the same pronunciation as “Shia” – as in the branch of the Muslim faith, or the first name of the Hollywood actor surnamed La Boeuf?

Or the fact that many Wade-Giles pronunciations do not, anyway, represent Mandarin pronunciation, but instead represent the Cantonese pronunciation (hence “Peking”, “Nanking” etc.)?

Or the fact that even the pan-Greens in Taiwan ditched it for Tongyong?

Or the fact that it was never properly standardised – there is still more than one way of writing a single pronunciation (e.g., “tzu” and “tsu” for the Hanyu Pinyin “zi”)?

Or the use of (tiresome to read and write) superscript numbers to represent tones?

I rest my case.

October 30, 2011 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

I remember walking down the food street in Taibei and seeing different restaurants with signs for Shabu Shabu, Xiabu Xiabu,Syabu Syabu, etc. The romanized version of Jinmen Island was Kinmen, and many other oddities.

October 31, 2011 @ 2:16 am | Comment

@Richard – I’ve seen those signs, and they’re all the more crazy because Shabu-Shabu is the Japanese name, written in the standard Japanese Romaji. Romanisation in Taiwan is an utter, glorious, and confusing mess, to the point where it feels like a minor sacrilege to suggest bringing order to it by imposing only one form of Romanisation. The cause of all this is the fact that no-one actually needs to know a form of Romanisation in Taiwan, since they use BoPoMoFo.

October 31, 2011 @ 5:03 am | Comment

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