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.

The Discussion: 65 Comments

Take that, Wade and Giles!

October 20, 2011 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

If only Taiwan had realized how superior Zhou’s system was/is.

October 20, 2011 @ 12:21 pm | Comment

[…] This showed up in my feed today from Peking Duck’s blog and its well work a read.  Original article was “Baked by Richard @ 12:16 pm“. […]

October 20, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | Pingback

The guy is a National Treasure.

October 20, 2011 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

I retain a soft spot for ㄅㄆㄇㄈ …

October 20, 2011 @ 1:51 pm | Comment

PBS was the most viewable channel while i was studying in the US

October 20, 2011 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

When a 106-year-old man expresses impatience for political reform … he might just be on to something.

October 20, 2011 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Don’t worry, Rich…NPR is on pretty safe ground. Gov’t finance is actually not all that huge and private donations are usually very strong when they have their funding drives.

Americans are a lot saner than the media and politicians give them credit for…

…for now, that is!

October 20, 2011 @ 3:38 pm | Comment

Running out of patience?

October 20, 2011 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

The communist party is an organization of corrupt incompetent bolshevik race traitors. Their monopoly on political power in China must be destroyed. Though this is only a means to an end.

What comes next though is a matter of concern. The desire of the seditious liberal elite in China and the subversive Western global elite to turn China into a liberal democracy is merely exchanging the noose for the guillotine. It will destroy the Chinese people and nation just as it is destroying the West.

Only fascism and reaction can save China.

October 20, 2011 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

Your arguments are so…. 1933

October 20, 2011 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

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

Except when they do crap like this:

October 21, 2011 @ 12:05 am | Comment

No one’s perfect, Dave — and this is standard practice in the media, unfortunately. For in-depth reporting with old-fashioned dogged journalism no one beats NPR or PBS. Frontline challenges the government every week, and NPR has done many stories on torture. The fact that the ombudsman and went well out of his way to quote people on both sides of the issue says a lot. Just look at the depth of that article, even if we may disagree with its conclusions.

October 21, 2011 @ 12:11 am | Comment

“Only fascism and reaction can save China.”

I’m trying to figure out what more China could do in that direction to satisfy you. It’s already solidly on that end of the spectrum of nations….

October 21, 2011 @ 1:24 am | Comment

That you need to be answer your question only proves how far gone the West truly is.

China needs to end all of its affirmative action programs. To penalize the Han race at the behest of undeserving so-called “minorities” is the height of Marxist nihilism. The systemic discrimination in education against the Han is unforgivable. Worst of all is its application in regards to the one child policy. This most monstrous of crimes perpetrated against the Han race spits in the face of generations of my ancestors. It openly declares that the life of a Han individual is worth less than that of anyone else. It actively murders Han children and allows the barbarians to propagate at will. All goodliness and right has been inverted by this policy. It should be reversed, allowing the Han race to have 2 or more children while the rouran should be limited to one child only.

China also needs to fully enforce it’s legal system. The Han are preyed upon by savage barbarians in their cities yet the police do nothing. Old petitioners or people who have the temerity of resisting eviction are met with the full force of the state security apparatus, yet so-called minority criminals stalk China’s streets with impunity from the police. Thieving, raping, murdering, and selling drugs with wanton abandon all the while the police look the other way through selective enforcement. A Han criminal would get the death penalty for crimes a “minority” would be ignored.

All of the immigrants in China have to expelled. My ancestors built a three thousand mile wall to keep out the Mongolians and other inferior peoples yet now they come in to China through a border as porous as a sponge. The most egregious of these examples are the hundreds of thousands of negros that have invaded my homeland in the last decade who bring ruin to every community they come into contact with that doesn’t have the good sense to drive them out.

Barbarian majority areas should be thrown out of China. Unlike the worthless communists, I realize that a nation is more than mere land but its people. Holding onto these areas is more trouble than its worse and is akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. Its best to carve out a quarter of Tibet and Xinjiang and deport/expel all of the Uighurs and Tibetans into them respectively and seal the borders for good. What the communists do not realize is that the only way these people can be a threat to us is when they live among us. The inherent superiority of the Han people, and their fundamental mediocrity means that they will never be able to mount a strategic challenge to us.

There’s is of course much more but I’ll save that for another day.

October 21, 2011 @ 6:32 am | Comment

You are joking, aren’t you? If not, I’m afraid you’re quite mad.

That echoes what some white supremacists would like to do with blacks and Jews.

October 21, 2011 @ 6:44 am | Comment

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

Definitely agree.

Damn the whores at Fox.

October 21, 2011 @ 7:09 am | Comment

That echoes what some white supremacists would like to do with blacks and Jews.

You mean it echoes what white people actually did, in the past, forgetting the part about destroying the Native Americans (and completely annihilating the Inca and Aztec civilizations).

Then you have to remember Europeans slaughtered, massacred and enslaved other Europeans like the Celts, Basques, etc.

October 21, 2011 @ 7:12 am | Comment

Of course I’m mad. As any sane bolshevik will tell you, the correct policy is that some (hostile aliens) are more equal than others (your co-ethnics). That parasitical societies your ancestors have fought for three thousand years should be welcomed into your bosoms. That the negro be imported wholesale to mulattoize your race in the name of multiculturalism and diversity. That you should conquer weaker peoples so that you can make them your masters! It makes perfect sense!

October 21, 2011 @ 7:15 am | Comment

Ya know, it’s funny: I used to have a frequent commenter here named Jing, who was quite bright and reasonable, even though we often didn’t see eye to eye. The really odd thing is that you’re using his email address and name, but I am almost certain you are not the Jing of days gone by. So what’s going on here? Obviously you’re having fun, but I have to say it’s very strange.

October 21, 2011 @ 7:22 am | Comment

Cookiehead, I didn’t say it ONLY echoed white supremacists. No matter who’s doing it, recommending the isolation and/or extermination of minorities is a pretty bad thing, don’t you think?

October 21, 2011 @ 7:29 am | Comment

Another one who uses others alleged (according to himself) crimes to justify his own crime wet dreams

October 21, 2011 @ 8:04 am | Comment

Richard, the way you put it makes it sound so imaginary, but I’m sure you are very well aware things like the Holocaust actually do happen – and it’s almost always Europeans doing it.

I can’t understand how the American left can sound so well informed when it comes to the utter depravity the average American is subjected to by the corporatists and oligarchs, but simultaneously diminish and deny many of the evils the West commits elsewhere.

It’s not surprising that a powerful, sociopathic few would have even fewer regrets about hurting foreigners (Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis and others who suffered under US policy) than they would the 99%.

October 21, 2011 @ 8:25 am | Comment

Man, the Foil Hatters are out in force here!
Cookie, do you have some prrof of Europeans enslaving Clets and Basques in the post legal slavery era? And I am assuming you’re equating Europeans with Americans – are you trying to say American Europeans that pre-date Amerindians sailed across the Atlantic to enslave my ancestors?

Mehtinks Zhou Youguang should be worrying about bigger things than the Chinese political structure….. The comments on the blogsphere by nationalistic Chinese and the actions of Chinese Samaritans suggest a deeper malaise…..

October 21, 2011 @ 8:55 am | Comment

“and it’s almost always Europeans doing it”
Proof? None? Ahhhh, who’d a thunk it 😉

October 21, 2011 @ 8:56 am | Comment

Cookie, do you have some prrof of Europeans enslaving Clets and Basques in the post legal slavery era

Yeah lets ignore the whole “Roman Empire” and “Viking Age” thing, or the massive slave population during the Carolingian era

Proof? None? Ahhhh, who’d a thunk it 😉

Knowledge? None? Ahhh, who’d a thunk it

October 21, 2011 @ 9:21 am | Comment

Errrrm, you missed the “in the post legal slavery era” part…..
But hey, why let that get in the way of things 😉 What is it they say about a little bit of knowledge misused? Heheheheheh!

As you so correctly put it
“Knowledge? None? Ahhh, who’d a thunk it”

October 21, 2011 @ 10:00 am | Comment

I believe in the complete romanization of the written Chinese language. These box shaped Chinese characters limit people’s imagination, enslaves people’s thoughts, everyone mentally become a “rule follower” and conformist when you have to memorize and deal with this kind of complex character set and its associated set of stock phrases (成语) and expressions.

Chinese language + Confucianism are the two yokes that prevent the Chinese civilization from turning yellow to blue.

Liu Xiaobo was right when he said that if one of his biggest regret in life is having the Chinese language as his mother tongue, and if he have a choice he wants nothing to do with this bullsh*t language.

October 21, 2011 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Is it broke? Then why fix?
Chinese characters have worked for thousands of years, like the alphabet. Neither is better or worse – one is harder to learn but enables you to read in different languages while having the same script (don’t tell me all Chinese is the same language – if you can’t understand the “dialect”, it is a different language). Can’t do that with the western script. I have difficulty understanding old English when it is written down, a difficulty Chinese don’t (well, unless they’re “simplified”, as I’m led to understand) with their literature of the same age, give or take.
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. In this I have to say there is no better system – both work equally.
Anyway, isn’t the Chinese script the reason Chinese have higher IQs than us thicko westerners? 😉

October 21, 2011 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

Wow, we’re talking Romans and Vikings now? This thread is really going retro.

To StephenKing,
any language is but a set of rules around the use of its alphabet/characters. You can avoid being a “rule follower” by making your own language and your own language rules (and ironically, hoping that others will become followers of your rules). But unless and until that happens, you’d be talking gibberish in the eyes of the world around you.


And what is up with this Jing character? If ever there was a need to establish that Chinese people have the capacity to be racist, he’d be exhibit A.

October 21, 2011 @ 2:02 pm | Comment

Despite hi usual gibberish, Stephen King is making a good point about the fixity of meaning encapsulated in Chinese characters and imagination/possibility.

I think you are being a bit quick to jeer here, SKC.

If there is anybody on this forum with a sound knowledge of linguistic theory, I am quite sure they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss.

October 21, 2011 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

@ Richard – Come back Maths, all is forgiven! Didn’t there used to be a crew of self-proclaimed ‘leftists’ commenting on this blog?

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

As much as I hate playing the stereotypically arrogant Englishman (actually, I love it) but basically these are just poor-man versions of the BBC. Radio 4 basically gave me my education (particularly Kaleidoscope, The Today Program, The Archers, etc.), and the genius of BBC television (AKA the bevy of privately-run production companies that supply it nowadays) is finally gaining the global recognition it deserves. Sure, the fact it’s all paid for by a ridiculously out-moded tax on television sets (the television “license”) is an embarassment, but the sacrifice has never seemed excessive.

October 21, 2011 @ 5:09 pm | Comment

See my comment #29
It’s just how you want to read words. There’s no better or worse way – both have advantages and disadvantages.
If only there was a best of both we could all follow…

October 21, 2011 @ 5:47 pm | Comment

@Mike. Get with the plot here. I’m not talking about piss weak Wiki entries on Chomksy’s linguistic theories, nor am I talking about NZ sheep jokes (of which I have many). The point I raised is beyond most everybody on this forum including myself, Richard and the rest of us trolls.

And no, you will not settle this issue with one of your routine BBC links.

This was a serious point way above our pay scale, okay.

October 21, 2011 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

I know more than a few Mongolians who would agree with Jing that the Great Wall should be China’s proper northern border. But is the Han decolonization of some 40% of the current PRC territory this Far East Stormfront guy seems to point to really doable?

October 21, 2011 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

Wade-Giles is much better!

October 21, 2011 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

I highly recommend that everyone in this thread read this excellent article on Chinese characters and why they can be so frustrating to learn.

October 21, 2011 @ 11:17 pm | Comment

Obviously, I am no linguistic expert. I’m fluent in 2 languages, and barely functional in a third. Beyond that, I can order a couple of beer in a couple of other languages, and that’s about it.

Written Chinese is probably a harder second language to acquire than most others. And even within “Chinese”, there are the myriad spoken dialects, of which I only know one (and I’m a native speaker). So yeah, if Chinese isn’t your mother tongue, then it’s probably tough slogging.

However, if Chinese is your mother tongue, and you’re immersed in it from day 1, then I’m not sure it’s so difficult. After all, millions upon millions of people pick it up as a matter of routine in HK, and we dealt with the traditional characters.

So insofar as King’s point, I don’t see how Chinese as a language would limit people’s imagination if their native tongue is Chinese. At the very least, i don’t see how it would limit you moreso than another language would place limitations on a native speaker of that language.

October 22, 2011 @ 1:34 am | Comment

but basically these are just poor-man versions of the BBC

Wrong. The BBC is propaganda-laden shit. The plus side is that BBC has better production values and has some good programming outside of their garbage news.

SK Cheung
If ever there was a need to establish that Chinese people have the capacity to be racist, he’d be exhibit A.

I really, really doubt he’s Chinese. Any troll can take any name. He could use “Mohammed” or “J. Winklethorpe III” if he felt like it.

King Tubby
The point I raised is beyond most everybody on this forum including myself, Richard and the rest of us trolls.

Nothing you say is ever beyond anyone. Chemically, maybe, but there are a lot of ganja-philosophers on the net.

October 22, 2011 @ 3:12 am | Comment

When I completed a year of intensive Chinese studies in Taiwan in 1980, with simplified characters, I came away convinced that while Chinese characters were demanding to learn, the logic of how Chinese vocabulary was built made it easier for native speakers to be widely literate in their language. Whereas English draws on cognates from German, Latin, Greek and French that relatively few native speakers command, China had a self-contained lexicography. I’ve never been into the study of linguistics, which I find dry, but I have learned several Asian languages for practical use and fun.

On StephenKing’s point, I think King Tubby is onto something — vaguely, that there are theories out there about the conservative, backward-looking nature of the Confucian world view and the culture of rote study of the classics.

October 22, 2011 @ 4:25 am | Comment

I agree that rote study has its limitations, and Chinese education (in the past anyway) is certainly big on rote memorization of all kinds of stuff. The “confucian world-view” may also have its pros and cons. I’m just not sure how that relates to the language itself. A person may have limitations based on the education system in which he/she is taught, or based on the societal mores in which he/she is immersed. But that’s different than suggesting that any such limitations are derived inherently from language itself.

October 22, 2011 @ 5:13 am | Comment

I didn’t mean to be read as endorsing that theory, SKC, merely noting that something like it is out there. If the erudite King Tubby hasn’t found it at his paygrade, then I surely will fail in the quest as well.

Perhaps stephenking may mean that the laborious effort of learning to write Chinese breeds subservience and lack of initiative? I don’t see that. I can see how relentless studying for examinations could sap the artistic and political energy of the young.

The Chinese language may contain strong factors imposing and upholding orthodoxy of thought. (Roughly in the way that pejorative words in English today like gauche and sinister are derived from Latin roots meaning left that themselves carry negative connotations.) I’ve always come away from political events and conversations in Northeast Asia feeling that the concept of “loyal opposition” seems weak and that words like “opposition” or “dissent” are still pejorative — not just in places where opposition is illegal, but also in the Hanzi-sphere countries that have democratized. But I’m more inclined to attribute this to political culture than to language.

October 22, 2011 @ 6:31 am | Comment

“But that’s different than suggesting that any such limitations are derived inherently from language itself”.

Add Confucianism and we have the linguistic constraints on thought – after all we think thru language categories – and this is what I am exactly suggesting.

***One thing is certain, we do not think and then look for the language terms to represent that thought. That is plain silly since it suggests that our thought processes are fully formed and pre-exist independently of our immersion in language.***

Culture read Confucianism and language, both of which are trans-historical entities, shape the individual generally speaking. This also implies that the similarities far outweight the differences to be found in pre- and post Maoist culture.

Hell, I’m off to the library to win this point.

And whatever my pay scale, this has nothing to do with one’s multilingual abilities and the capacity to order strange drinks.

October 22, 2011 @ 7:02 am | Comment

To kt:
“strange drinks”? I thought brewskis were your beverage of choice.

But adding Confucianism to language means you’re no longer talking about language. One would then have to consider if Confucianism added to English, for instance, creates the same thought constraints. Alternatively, whatever thought constraints you perceive, you would have to determine whether the constraints were due to Confucianism, or the language. And my money’s on the former.

I agree you need language to codify your thoughts. But that again would not be a unique “constraint” to Chinese as opposed to any other language.

October 22, 2011 @ 8:55 am | Comment

William, you’d better get your facts straight on NPR.

In case you missed it—The Lisa Simeone story was pretty much a one-day affair. It sizzled for a few hours and there’s not much more to it. It fed off of a mistaken belief out there that NPR had fired someone, had overreacted to something. And in the aftermath of Juan Williams, that’s an enormous story. It just didn’t happen to be true.

Through all the hubbub, Simeone will keep her post as host of a killer opera show, though, despite popular belief, opera affords many opportunities for a left-wing activist to insert her views into the program.

October 22, 2011 @ 9:45 am | Comment

Stephen Fry has a new documentary series about language.

Well worth a look. He interviews Zhou Youguang in the fourth episode.

October 22, 2011 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

I agree with Taiwanese laowai, the pinyin system is often non-intuitive and has won out through sheer political determination, not unlike the one-China policy and other pointless ideas.
But this guy’s pretty sharp politically!
How do you say fuck you, CCP in pinyin? Caonima gongchandang.

October 22, 2011 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

@SKC I wasn’t conflating culture and language into a single entity. As I have a structuralists view of language, China is doubly cursed, when you add (the recent variant of) Confucian organisation of their social universe.

To be honest, I’m a fan of ginger beer above all else.

October 22, 2011 @ 6:25 pm | Comment

Càonǐ,Zhōng​guó​ Gòng​chǎn​dǎng.

I agree with Taiwanese laowai, the pinyin system is often non-intuitive

Pinyin is not particularly more or less intuitive than other romanization systems. I see its benefits coming from its use of tone diacritics, intuitiveness is not really a factor once you’ve mastered the basic differences it has with the particular pronunciation of the roman alphabet that you are familiar with.

and has won out through sheer political determination,

I won’t disagree with there being political determination behind the spread of pinyin, but I think that sheer force of numbers is a greater factor.

October 22, 2011 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

@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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