Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

For those of you who are studying or have studied Chinese (in China at least), were it not for this man, Zhouo Youguang, you would be learning  the language without the benefit of Pinyin.This is the guy who decided that the letter q would represent a ch sound, x an sh sound, and an i the semi-vowelled r sound.

For those of you unfamiliar with Pinyin, it is the standard Romanization system used in China to phonetically represent the sounds of Chinese characters.  Chinese has tens of thousands of characters, but only about 400 ways to pronounce them.  In other words, once we learn how to say these 400 ‘words’ we can actually say (not to be confused with speak) Chinese.


After studying linguistics in the US  (where he was a friend of Albert Einstein), he returned to China in the 1950’s and was given the task of coming up with a standard Romanization of Chinese. It was introduced in 1958.


This past week Louisa Lim, Beijing correspondent for NPR did a fascinating story on this 105-year-old professor. She writes:


When Zhou was born in 1906, Chinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the “Centenarian Scholar” — seems unbelievable….


It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin, which was introduced in schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin has become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers — a development that delights Zhou.


“In the era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of ‘Open sesame,’ opening up the doors,” he says.


Today he has become an outspoken advocate for political reform in China. You can read/listen to Louisa’s full report here.


105 years old and still going strong!


(image source:



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4 thoughts on “Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

  1. Hi Jo, When my daughter, Christine, had been in China just a short time, she sent me the link to your insightful blog. So many of your entries have helped me get a glimpse of what life is like for her. You’ve also provided new perspectives on the wonderful memories I have of my brief visit to Beijing and NanChang in April 2009. So this really isn’t a comment but a big “Thank you.” Your humor and good sense make for great reading. Thanks so much for helping me understand China a little better! (I enjoy your mother’s blog as well!)