The Man Who Made China a Literate Nation

Zhou Youguang (漢語拼音之父周有光) is the scholar who invented pinyin, a system of romanisation for Chinese characters Since 1958, Chinese primary school students have learnt pinyin, before they learn characters. Thanks to him, one billion Chinese have become literate – the greatest contribution by a linguist in history. After an extraordinary life, he died in January 2017 at the age of 111 years. He had several lives – a banker in Shanghai, New York and London: supplying food and textiles for the army and ordinary people during World War Two: after 1949, a linguist. He lived through the campaigns of the Maoist period, spending 28 months in a labour camp in west China. He wrote 49 books, many critical of the Soviet Union, the Soviet model used in China and of Mao Zedong. In the last 20 years of his life, he was one of the few intellectuals in China willing to speak the truth in public. He lived so long thanks to an innate optimism, intellectual curiosity about everything and a Buddhist-like humility to see himself and his belongings as of little value.

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