Zhou Youguang: Meet the man who developed phonetic Chinese translations

Clark Mindock

The man responsible for developing the phonetic translations of Chinese characters is being celebrated this week by Google, with a doodle.

Zhou Youguang would be 112 years old Saturday. During his life, Youguang not only developed phonetic translations of Chinese characters — meaning, he’s the reason why you say “Beijing” instead of “Peking” these days, for instance — but also authored more than 40 books, and translated the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese.

Youguang was born in Changzhou in 1906, and showed an interest in linguistics early on, at the age of 12. He went on to graduate from his high school with honours.

Still, although he was clearly a bright young man, as evidenced by his stellar performance in school, he faced financial hardships that threatened his ability to pursue higher education. He enrolled in the St Johns University in Shanghai in 1923, but wasn’t able to attend until family and friends put together a successful effort to fund the education.

In school, he majored in economics and took courses in linguistics.

Youguang would end up fighting during World War 2, and afterward went on to live in New York City and in London, where he worked at a Chinese bank.

It wasn’t until 1955 when he began to work on the Romanization of the Chinese characters, when he was placed by the Chinese government at the head of a committee to reform the language. While he protested initially, saying that linguistics was just a hobby of his, he ultimately couldn’t refuse.

It turns out the the assignment was a good one, and he completed the pronunciation guide by 1958.

But, Youguang did not get propped up as a hero for his efforts. He was put into a Chinese labour camp in 1969 after he was accused of being a reactionary academic, where he worked in rice fields. He was there for two years.

He left there and continued to write about language, and to compose books. He translated the Encyclopedia in the 1980s. Many of his books he wrote were banned by the Chinese government.

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