Chinese written characters began as little pictures representing objects. Later representations of abstract thoughts appeared and later still they were modified into phonetic characters. As time went on the characters themselves became more simplified and abstract so that today they are now symbols and bear little resemblance to the original objects they represented.

Markings that may be writing have been found on objects dated to 7000 B.C. at the Jiahu neolthic site. Unusual black markings on pottery produced by the Dadiwans — a stone-age culture that resided in what is now Gansu Province beginning at least 5000 B.C.”are regarded by some archeologist as primitive pictographic characters.

The first examples of what are universally recognized as Chinese characters — inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze vessels — were produced during the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) Some 2000 different characters were already in use in the Shang dynasty. Some of the earliest writing was done on perishable bamboo and wood, nearly all of which has been lost to time.

Book: "The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms" by Andrew Robinson

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Language.org chineselanguage.org ; Learning Chinese Chinatown Connection ; Omniglot omniglot.com Romanisation and Pinyin Info: pinyin.info

Writing in Ancient China

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Evolution of Chinese characters
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Chinese characters are one of the world's most unique forms of writing. They reflect the perfect fusion of idea and image. Although cuneiform and hieroglyphics disappeared with the civilizations that produced them, Chinese has continued down to the present day, evolving into a beautifully aesthetic system of lines and dots the incorporates such calligraphic styles as seal, clerical, cursive, running, and standard script for visual appeal. Using the brush to create them results in one of the world's most beautiful forms of writing. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Writing is one of the pillars by which a civilization is judged. Words and the way they are written down also preserve many aspects of the culture that produced them by incorporating elements of time and space. The system of Chinese characters remains one of the most important threads that ties together its three thousand years of written history. \=/

Forms of ancient Chinese writing include: 1) oracle bone writing; 2) bronze writing bronze writing; and 3) writing on bamboo slips.Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) bronze writing from Mao-pi Yi; 2) Bronze Writing from Sung Hu; 3) the Ch'u Bamboo Slips; and the Ch'u Bamboo Slips from Ching-meng Pao-shan. \=/

Forms of ancient Chinese script include: 1) Small Seal Script; 2) Clerical Script; 3) Running Script; 4) Standard Script and 5) Cursive Script. Some of the more famous examples of these are: 1) Small Seal Script from Mt. T'ai; 2) Clerical Script in the “Stone Gate Eulogy”’ 3) Running Script in the “Lan-t'ing Preface”; 4) Standard Script in the “Record of Niu Chueh”; and 5) Cursive Script in “Essay on Calligraphy.” \=/

“In China, writing before the Ch'in dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. evolved to become the clerical script of the Ch'in and Han dynasties, making these ancient forms difficult to decipher. At around 100 AD, Hsu Shen of the Eastern Han compiled "An Etymology Dictionary" of 9353 small-seal characters and included ancient forms or equivalents. This first effort at understanding ancient characters laid the foundation for the study of bronze inscriptions from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. "The Stone Classics in Three Scripts" from the 3rd century AD not only corrected characters in the Classics, but more importantly provided a link between contemporary and ancient writing. \=/

“Deciphering Shang and Zhou bronze inscriptions has consistently relied on Hsu's dictionary. Even the discovery of script on unearthed oracle bones from the late Shang relied on his text. Just as important, however, oracle bone script has also made corrections to the dictionary itself. The study of ancient characters involves investigating the original appearance, addressing problems of pronunciation, and researching issues of meaning and grammar. \=/

“5,000-Year-Old Writing” Discovered in China

In July 2013, Chinese archaeologists announced they had discovered a new form of primitive writing in markings on stoneware excavated from the relic site in eastern China dating 5,000 years back, about 1,400 years earlier than the oldest known written Chinese language. The stoneware—a piece of a stone ax and the “Zhuangqiao grave relic”—were found in Pinghu, in eastern China's Zhejiang province. The inscriptions predate the oracles, writings on turtle shells dating back to the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046 B.C.), which are commonly believed to be the origin of the written Chinese language system. [Source: Associated Press, July 11, 2013 ]

Associated Press reported: “Archaeologists say they have discovered some of the world's oldest known primitive writing, dating back 5,000 years, in eastern China, and some of the markings etched on broken axes resemble a modern Chinese character. The inscriptions on artifacts found south of Shanghai are about 1,400 years older than the oldest written Chinese language. Chinese scholars are divided over whether the markings are words or something simpler, but they say the finding will shed light on the origins of Chinese language and culture. The oldest writing in the world is believed to be from Mesopotamia, dating back slightly more than 5,000 years. Chinese characters are believed to have been developed independently.

right “Inscriptions were found on more than 200 pieces dug out from the Neolithic-era Liangzhu relic site. The pieces are among thousands of fragments of ceramic, stone, jade, wood, ivory and bone excavated from the site between 2003 and 2006, lead archaeologist Xu Xinmin said. The inscriptions have not been reviewed by experts outside the country, but a group of Chinese scholars on archaeology and ancient writing met last weekend in Zhejiang province to discuss the finding. They agreed that the inscriptions are not enough to indicate a developed writing system, but Xu said they include evidence of words on two broken stone-ax pieces. One of the pieces has six word-like shapes strung together to resemble a short sentence. "They are different from the symbols we have seen in the past on artifacts," Xu said. "The shapes and the fact that they are in a sentence-like pattern indicate they are expressions of some meaning."

“The six characters are arranged in a line, and three of them resemble the modern Chinese character for human beings. Each shape has two to five strokes. "If five to six of them are strung together like a sentence, they are no longer symbols but words," said Cao Jinyan, a scholar on ancient writing at Hangzhou-based Zhejiang University. He said the markings should be considered hieroglyphics. He said there are also stand-alone shapes with more strokes. "If you look at the composition, you will see they are more than symbols," Cao said.

“But archaeologist Liu Zhao from Shanghai-based Fudan University warned that there was not sufficient material for any conclusion. "I don't think they should be considered writing by the strictest definition," Liu said. "We do not have enough material to pin down the stage of those markings in the history of ancient writings." For now, the Chinese scholars have agreed to call it primitive writing, a vague term that suggests the Liangzhu markings are somewhere between symbols and words.”

Debate Over the “5,000-Year-Old Writing” Discovered in China

A day after the discovery of the “5,000-year-old writing was announced, AFP reported: “Fierce debate has erupted among experts in China over the discovery of 5,000-year-old inscriptions that some believe represent the earliest record of Chinese characters. Pottery pieces and stone vessels unearthed at the Zhuangqiaofen archaeological site in the eastern province of Zhejiang push "the origin of the written language back 1,000 years", the state-run Global Times newspaper reported. [Source: AFP]

“Li Boqian, an archaeology professor from Peking University, said the symbols reveal the ancient Liangzhu civilisation — which existed in Zhejiang and neighbouring Jiangsu in the Neolithic Age — had already developed the basic structure of sentences from independent words, the Global Times said earlier this week. Other specialists dismissed the significance of such a find. Xu Hong, an archaeology researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, expressed scepticism on links between the inscriptions and the development of Chinese script. "Even if those signs on the stones were characters, they were simply from a long dead east Asian country before the Middle Kingdom existed," he said on Sina Weibo, China's version of the social network Twitter. "Many signs and character lookalikes earlier than the oracles have been found in east Asia."

Xia Jingchun, a professor of Chinese language from Beijing Technology and Business University, also wrote on Weibo: "It's long been believed by experts that there were more ancient characters than the oracles, because the oracles were too mature, and older languages are supposed to be less developed." The inscriptions were found among artefacts unearthed between 2003 and 2006, state media said.

Shang Oracle Bones

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Making an oracle bone
Shang priests practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan. Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition and written language held very high places in the lives of the ancient Chinese.

The oracle bones unearthed in Xiaotun also provided some of the earliest evidence of Chinese writing and the first examples of writing in East Asia. They recorded harvests, childbirths and wars, detailed accomplishments of kings, described human sacrifices, plagues, natural disasters, enemy tribes and the ailments of kings. Some 3000 different Chinese characters — most of them pictograms — were used during the Shang dynasty.

Messages recorded on the oracle bones included: “Lady Hao’s childbearing will be good”; “After 31 days” Lady Hao “gave birth, it was not good, it was a girl”; “In the next ten days there will be no disasters;” “If we raise 3,000 men and call on them to attack the Gofang, we will receive abundant assistance.” Some of the messages could even be poetic. One goes: “In the afternoon a rainbow also came out of the north and drank in the Yellow River.” [Source: National Geographic]

Inscriptions on the Oracle Bones

Users of oracle bone divinations sought advice and predictions on matters such as raising of crops, the outcome of battles, illness, and childbirth. They also sought advise from the dead, the meaning of dreams, and suggestions on how many people to sacrifice. One inscription proposed sacrificing prisoners to an ancestor. Possibly after a divination was another inscription that recommended five prisoners.

The oracle bones were seen as a medium of communications between diviners and ancestors, with the latter regarded as the sources of the information. David N. Keightley, an expert on oracle bones at the University of California at Berkeley, told National Geographic, “When it cracked, the ancestors were responding to the diviner’s statement. The diviners wanted to capture this moment.”

In an article in the New Yorker Peter Hessler described a rubbing of an oracle bone that Keightley studied on which a Shang king sought out an unhappy ancestor the king though was responsible for a tooth ache he was experiencing, Four names are listed “Father Jia, Father Geng, Father Xin, Father Yi” the king’s dead uncle and three dead generals. For each ancestor there were multiple divinations. One inscription read: “Offer a dog to Father Geng...I think it was Father Geng who was causing the illness.”

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Evolution of Chinese Characters

Before the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 A.D.) there were no names for script forms and calligraphy was referred to simply as "writing" ("wen") or "characters" ("tzu"). The Emperor Qin Shihuang standardized the Chinese writing system, absorbing different regional forms, into "large seal script" ("ta-chian") which was later simplified into more regular, flowing "small seal script” ("hsiao-chuan").

Through much of China’s history official writing has been conducted using classical Chinese, a language form developed in the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) that exited only in written form. It has long been said he the Emperor Qin unified the Chinese writing system but a careful look reveals the system was largely standardized after him in the Han dynasty. The Han produced the first Chinese dictionary and the first official history. They gave names to the dynasties that preceded them and unified China's diverse ethnic groups, using their writing system, into the Chinese.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The pictograph for the character of father in Chinese suggests a hand holding an ax or adz (also pronounced fu). The pictograph is like an early stone adz, which was a tool of the ancient Chinese used in farming. Therefore, the hand suggested the action of physical labor. Since males were the prime source of labor in patriarchal families, this graph was used to represent father. The pictograph of the character for man in Chinese is similar to a stick figure shown frontally with hair tied up, suggesting a man of distinction. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

The pictograph for the character of mother in Chinese represents the form of a female kneeling with her hands on her knees (the related pictograph for girl). The addition of two dots suggests breast feeding, thereby making the distinction of motherhood in traditional Chinese society. A horizontal line above suggests a hairpin, also indicating adulthood. \=/

The pictograph of the character for farm shows a field with weeds being removed by hand using a shell tool. Before the invention of tilling, the ancient Chinese used shells to dig out the weeds from their fields. Close examination of this character shows therefore shows that it is actually the earliest representation of farming. \=/

Oracle Bone Inscriptions Evolve Into Characters

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Primitive characters were often pictographs. On an oracle bone character for ‘rain’we can see the drops falling from the clouds.. But as with Egyptian hieroglyphs, over the centuries the language evolved tremendously. First, the pictographs became more stylised as writing became more common— first on carved jade seals, then bronzes, then written with brush and ink on paper (a Chinese invention). Orthography (basic character shapes) were standardised and fixed in about 200 BC. This was known as the ‘rectification of writing, one of the great accomplishments of Emperor Qinshihuang. Leader of a unified China from 221 to 210 B.C. [Source:“CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

“But by that time, characters were quite stylised relative to their original forms. The modern character for ‘rain’ is ზ; already, the pictographic origin is less obvious. Then, and crucially, pictographs began to be combined to create more complex characters that had new and more abstract meanings. In some cases, these more abstract meanings can be guessed from the combination of pictographs. For instance, rain with lightning streaking from the clouds to the ground is (but in modern script, it is, traditionally meant ‘lightning storm’. In modern usage, it has come to mean ‘electricity’. But the combinations are far from always being as obvious as that. For instance, the combination of a person passing a door became the character (in modern script, which also means ‘lightning’. One traditional etymology explains that lightning happens ‘in a flash’, just as a person moves quickly through a door. This explanation is wonderful, but hardly intuitive; ‘person in doorway’ does not automatically suggest ‘lightning’. Additionally, as we now know also about Egyptian hieroglyphs, in many cases Chinese combinations are based on sound as much as or more than they are on pictographic content. For instance, the character that means ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ is often combined with other characters to suggest parts of the human body. The characters it combines with generally suggest the sound of the body part, at least the sound that was in use at the time the character was created.

Bird’s Nest and Brain The flesh character combines with the top part of the character that means ‘bird’s nest’ (today pronounced ‘chao’, and in Middle Chinese closer to ‘nao’) to make the character (also pronounced ‘nao’), which means ‘brain’. The etymology is simply phonetic: this, the components tell us, is the character for that body part which sounds like ‘nao’. We defy anyone, using any logic other than phonetics, to explain why a fleshy bird’s nest should otherwise suggest ‘brain’.”

See Calligraphy

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Evolution of Chinese characters

Early Chinese Dictionary

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Erya: a Dictionary is the earliest dictionary in Chinese history. "Er" means "close", while "ya" means "correct / right" This is a tool book that uses the official language to interpret the meaning of ancient words, provincial dialects and rarely used words. The author is unknown, and the book was first written some time after Western Han Period. As spoken and written language had changed rapidly from the Cunchiu, Warring Kingdoms to the Western Han periods, later generations were soon unable to understand books from earlier periods; therefore Erya: a Dictionary, a tool book specializing in interpretation of ancient words, was born. Annotations of Erya: a Dictionary by Guo Pu (275~324) of Western Jin Period was highly popular amongst the literati, and these made "The Annotations to Erya: a Dictionary become the most widely disseminated today. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“During the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties, imperial examinations became an important means for the government to recruit officials. At the time the Directorate of Education had adopted a duplicate print of Erya: a Dictionary from the Five Dynasties era as the official edition, but this edition contained annotations without explanations. During the middle of the Jinkang era the Directorate of Education edition was robbed by the invading Jin, so that not many of these remained; after the imperial family crossed to the south, the Directorate of Education first commissioned the counties in the vicinity of Linan City to remake plates for Erya: a Dictionary, and then ordered these counties to submit the plates to the Directorate of Education for preservation. Therefore, although this set of Erya: a Dictionary in the National Palace Museum collection is attributed to the Directorate of Education, in actual fact it had been made by some county in the vicinity of Linan. This set of Erya: a Dictionary has a broad columns, upright and powerful character style, and the characters are as large as coins. The majority of later scholars consider it to retain the book carving style of the Northern Song Dynasty, and it is now the world's sole surviving sample from that edition.

Literacy and Inaccurate Use of Language in the Qing Dynasty

By the 17th century, China had a well-established written press and people in many walks of life were literate. According to some estimates 30 percent to 45 percent of the population of China was illiterate in the 18th and 19th century, more than in Europe. Before the Japanese occupation and World War II, the Chinese read up and down, from right to left and went through books from back to front. Now they read the same way that Westerners do.

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “The same lack of precision which characterizes the Chinese use of numbers, is equally conspicuous in their employment of written and even of printed characters. It is not easy to procure a cheap copy of any Chinese book, which does not abound in false characters. Sometimes the character, which is employed is more complex than the one whjch should have Jbeen used, showing that the error was not due to a wish to economize work,. but it is rather to be credited to the fact that ordinarily accuracy. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“is considered as of no importance. A like carelessness of notation is met with in far greater abundance, in common letters, a character being often represented by another of the same sound, the mistake being due as much to illiteracy as to carelessness. Indifference to precision is nowhere more flagrantly manifested than in the superscription of epistles. An ordinary Chinese letter is addressed in bold characters, to "My Father Great Man," “Compassionate Mother Great Man," "Ancestral Uncle Great Marl," “Virtuous Younger Brother Great Man," etc., etc., generally with no hint as to the name of the “Great Man “addressed.

“It certainly appears singular that an eminently practical people like the Chinese should be so inexact in regard to their own personal names, as observation indicates them to be. It is very common to find these names written now with one character, and again with another, and either one, we are informed, will answer. The names of villages are not less uncertain, sometimes appearing in two or even three entirely different forms and no one of them is admitted to be more “right" than another. If one should be an acknowledged corruption of another, they may be employed interchangeably, or the correct name may,be used in official papers, and the other in ordinary speech, or yet again, the corruption may be used, an adjective forming with the original appellation, a compound title.

First, much allowance must be made for this trait, in our examination of Chinese historical records. We can readily deceive ourselves, by taking Chinese statements of numbers and of quantities to be what they were never intended to be, exact. Secondly, a wide margin must be left for all varieties of what is dignified with the title of a Chinese "census." The whole is not greater than its parts, Chinese enumeration to the contrary notwithstanding, When we have well considered all the bearings of a Chinese “census," we shall be quite ready to say of it, as was remarked of the United States Supreme Court, by a canny Scotchman who had a strong realization of the “glorious uncertainty of the law," that it has “the last guess at the case!"

Written Chinese in the 20th Century

In the 1910s, the prominent scholar Qian Xuantong suggested that China should switch its written and spoken language to Esperanto. Other scholars advocated abandoning Chinese characters on the grounds they held back progress, literacy and democracy. Lu Xun, perhaps China’s greatest 20th century writer, argued for a switch to the Latin alphabet.

Mao proposed replacing the Chinese writing system with an alphabet. In 1936 he told a foreign journalist that such a change was inevitable and many expected him to decree such a change when the Communists came to power in 1949. In the 1950s Mao called for the creation of a “national in-form” alphabet — a new writing system that was the distinctly Chinese. He reportedly pursued this idea after Stalin that China was a great country and should have its own writing system. A number of systems were created: some with Latin or Cyrillic-influenced letter; others with pieces of Chinese characters. One system was based on Arabic; another used numbers.

In 1955, the list was reduced to six finalists: Latin, Cyrillic, and four new “Chinese” systems. In the end Mao and his advisers concluded that China was not ready for a Chinese alphabet and the Pinyin system was adopted as an educational tool not as a replacement for Chinese characters. The idea of a new Chinese alphabet was kept alive until the Cultural Revolution, after which Chinese became fed up with any kind of radical change.

The Pinyin system was introduced in 1958 and was approved by the State Council in 1978 as the standard system for the romanization of Chinese personal and geographic names. In 2000 the Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin phonetic alphabet was written into law as the unified standard for spelling and phonetic notation of the national language.

Chinese Writing Reforms

In the 1950s, the government decided to simplify more than 2,000 characters. A philologist named Chen Mengjia opposed the plan paid dearly for his views,. Accused of being a “rightist,” he was sent to a labor camp in central China. He committed suicide in 1966 after being subjected to public criticism sessions during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1951 as part of a campaign to eradicate illiteracy the party issued a directive that inaugurated a three-part plan for language reform. The plan sought to establish universal comprehension of a standardized common language, simplify written characters, and introduce, where possible, romanized forms based on the Latin alphabet. In 1956 putonghua was introduced as the language of instruction in schools and in the national broadcast media, and by 1977 it was in use throughout China, particularly in the government and party, and in education. Although in 1987 the government continued to endorse the goal of universalizing putonghua, hundreds of regional and local dialects continued to be spoken, complicating interregional communication. [Source: Library of Congress]

A second language reform required the simplification of ideographs because ideographs with fewer strokes are easier to learn. In 1964 the Committee for Reforming the Chinese Written Language released an official list of 2,238 simplified characters most basic to the language. Simplification made literacy easier, although people taught only in simplified characters were cut off from the wealth of Chinese literature written in traditional characters. Any idea of replacing ideographic script with romanized script was soon abandoned, however by government and education leaders.

“A third area of change involved the proposal to use the pinyin romanization system more widely. Pinyin (first approved by the National People's Congress in 1958) was encouraged primarily to facilitate the spread of putonghua in regions where other dialects and languages are spoken. By the mid-1980s, however, the use of pinyin was not as widespread as the use of putonghua.

In 2009, the government introduced a plan to simply 44 ideograms “to adapt to the requirements of the information era, the evolution of language and the development of society.” Among the change was the removal of an upward stroke from the base of the character for “cha” (tea). Although the reforms are far less sweeping than the ones that took place a half century before they was greeted with great hostility and resentment, especially on the Internet. In one online poll, 80 percent of the respondents opposed the reform, with some saying that yes only a few characters are affected but the characters are often-used ones and their modification will have a profound impact on dictionaries, books, school textbooks, signs and the Chinese people. [Source: AFP]

One Internet user quoted by AFP said, “Chinese characters are a precious part of the cultural herbage left to us by our ancestors thousands of years ago. We should respect them and protect them, not change them on a whim.” Liu Jingbo, a well known calligrapher, disagreed. He said, “Chinese characters come from ancient history, but is possible to reform them, respecting certain rules, if it helps to make life easier for people. A lot of people, such as the elderly, however are opposed to this as they are used to the characters.”

Romanizing Chinese: Wade-Giles Versus Pinyin

Romanizing means writing Chinese words in Roman letters. “A number of systems have been developed to do this. The Wade-Giles Romanization system for Chinese was developed by two British missionaries and scholars — Sir Thomas Wade, who devised it, and Herbert Giles, who adapted it — from 1867 to 1912. Cambridge University is credited with being the place that hatched the system. It was the most widely used Romanization system of Chinese for most of the 20th century and was phased out after the People’s Republic of China adopted Pinyin in 1979 . The Chinese government introduced Pinyin (“phonetic spelling”) as the Chinese romanization system in 1958. In 1979, after several revisions, China declared Pinyin as its official Romanization system of Chinese (Mandarin). Peking official became Beijingand Tsingtao became Qingdao among many others. Shanghai stayed the same. [Source: Yun Chung, Korea Times, August 13, 2012]

In many ways Wades-Giles was invented for non-Chinese to understand Chinese and Pinyin was invented for Chinese to communicate in Roman letters. Yun Chung wrote in the Korea Times: “Now most Chinese use Pinyin when texting and or using computers. Pinyin has successfully displaced Wade-Giles simply because the former works better than the latter for them, not because the Chinese wanted to promote Pinyin as their national brand. China had to adopt Pinyin because the Chinese words when Romanized according to the Wade-Giles rules just did not sound like Chinese to the Chinese people. One critic of Wade-Giles went as far as to say that Wade-Giles was a “travesty worse than you can imagine because it was confusing to Chinese people when unvoiced consonants were pronounced as voiced English consonants.

China dropped Wade-Giles not because it was “invented and owned?" by the British as a national brand but because it just did not work for the Chinese people. It was not a question of “ownership" of the Romanization system that made China abandon Wade-Giles. It did its contribution for a long time, but just outlived its usefulness.

Zhou Youguang, Inventor of Pinyin

Zhou Youguang, is commonly known as the "father of Pinyin" — a system of romanizing Chinese characters using the Western alphabet. “He and a Communist party committee spent three years developing the Pinyin system in the 1950s. According the BBC: “It changed the way the language was taught and helped raise literacy rates. “"We spent three years developing Pinyin. People made fun of us, joking that it had taken us a long time to deal with just 26 letters," he told the BBC in 2012. Before Pinyin was developed, 85 percent of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can. Pinyin has since become the most commonly used system globally, although some Chinese communities - particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan - continue to use alternatives. It is also widely used to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones, leading some to fear it could end up replacing Chinese characters altogether. [Source: BBC News, January 14, 2017]

“I said I was an amateur, a layman, I couldn't do the job," he told NPR. "But they said, it's a new job, everybody is an amateur. Everybody urged me to change professions, so I did. So from 1955, I abandoned economics and started studying writing systems." Pinyin was introduced in schools in 1958. In the 2000s, Pinyin became 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. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, October 19, 2011]

“As a young man Mr Zhou spent time in the US and worked as a Wall Street banker. He returned to China after the communist victory in 1949 and was put in charge of creating a new writing system using the Roman alphabet. The achievement protected Mr Zhou from some of the persecution that took place under former leader Mao Zedong. However, he was later sent to the countryside for re-education during Mao's Cultural Revolution. In his later years he became strongly critical of the Chinese authorities and wrote a number of books, most of which were banned. In a 2011 interview with NPR he said he hoped he would live long enough to see the Chinese authorities admit that the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been a mistake. He said ordinary people no longer believed in the Communist Party, and that the vast majority of Chinese intellectuals were in favor of democracy.

Life of Zhou Youguang: Father of Pinyin

Zhou who was born into an aristocratic family in 1906, whenChinese men still wore their hair in a long pigtail, the Qing dynasty still ruled China, and Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Tom Hancock of AFP wrote: He “experienced the last years of the Qing dynasty and its revolutionary overthrow., before studying at elite universities in Shanghai and Japan. “Zhou was educated at China's first Western-style university, St. John's in Shanghai, studying economics with a minor in linguistics." When Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Zhou moved with his wife and two children to the central city of Chongqing, where he endured constant air raids but made contacts with leaders in the then comparatively weak Communist party.[Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, January 13, 2015 \^/]

“After Japan's defeat he avoided China's civil war between the Communists and Nationalists by going to work for a Chinese bank on Wall Street, twice meeting Albert Einstein while visiting friends at Princeton. But following the Communist victory in 1949, Zhou returned home to teach economics and became a close associate of the party's number two, Zhou Enlai. "I came back for two reasons: because I thought the country had been liberated, and had a new hope. Also, because my mother was in China," he wrote in a 2012 autobiography. He was attracted to Mao Zedong's Communists because "at that time they promoted themselves as democrats", he wrote. 'Pessimists tend to die'. \^/

“An amateur linguist who had taught himself some Esperanto, Zhou was assigned in 1955 to co-chair a committee tasked with increasing literacy by reforming the Chinese language. He eventually backed a system based on one developed in the Soviet Union, using Roman letters to represent pronunciation alongside marks to indicate tone. The proposal” was “named Pinyin. Though systems for transcribing Mandarin into the Roman alphabet already existed — including Wade-Giles, produced by two British diplomats in the 19th century — Pinyin is regarded as simpler. \^/

“But Zhou's contributions did not save him from the chaos of Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution from 1966, during which intellectuals were persecuted. Zhou, then in his 60s, was sent to work at a labour camp in faraway Ningxia for more than two years, separated from his wife and son. "I had never slept on an earth bed before," he wrote of the experience, adding: "When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic. The pessimists tend to die." He has described the two decades from 1960 to 1980 as "wasted", adding: "In all honesty I haven't got anything good to say about Mao Zedong." He has a higher opinion of Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping, who launched market-style reforms which helped transform China into the world's second-largest economy. \^/

In his cramped third-floor apartment in Beijing, where dog-eared books — including dozens by Zhou himself — line the walls, the writer was modest about his achievements when to talked to AFP on his 109th birthday. "I don't have any feeling of pride. I don't think I've achieved very much," he said, speaking lucidly but slowly and with obvious effort. "My birthday is of no importance at all." \^/

Zhou Youguang Died at 111 But Was Speaking Out for Democracy at Age 109

Zhou Youguang died in Beijing in January 2017, day after his 111th birthday, Chinese media reported, but was outspoken and busy right to the end. NPR reported in 2011 when he turned 105 in 2011. "Despite his age, Zhou still lives in a modest third-floor walk-up. He's frail but chipper, as he receives guests in his book-lined study. He laughs cheerfully as he reminisces, despite his complaints that "after 100, the memory starts to fail a bit." That someone from that era is alive — and blogging as the "Centenarian Scholar — seems unbelievable. [Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, October 19, 2011]

Tom Hancock of AFP wrote: Since retiring aged 85, Zhou has written dozens of books arguing that Deng's reforms are insufficient without political change. "Chinese people becoming rich isn't important," he said. "Human progress is ultimately progress towards democracy." 'Problem with the system'. “ His “outspoken support for democracy means his writings are still censored by the ruling Communist party. "After 30 years of economic reform, China still needs to take the path of democracy," Zhou told AFP in an interview, his wrinkled face topped with a patch of white hair. "It's the only path. I have always believed that."[Source: Tom Hancock, AFP, January 13, 2015 \^/]

“Zhou is probably China's oldest dissenter and sleeping takes up an increasing proportion of his time as his health flags, but he is still a voracious reader. Confucius and Socrates remain his favourite thinkers. Zhou's books have also come under more intense scrutiny, with topics which could be tackled just a few years ago now taboo. Censors demanded that Zhou's latest book, due out next month, be purged of some references to anti-intellectual movements, as well as a 1950s famine which killed tens of millions as a result of Mao's "Great Leap Forward".

“"The restrictions on publishing have got tighter. No one knows if it's a short-term thing, or a long-term change," said Ye Fang, Zhou's editor. Sitting beneath peeling paint in his flat, Zhou said the leader was not the issue. "I don't think it's a problem of individuals," he said. "It's a problem with the system. We don't have freedom of speech in China."

Image Sources: 1) Early characters, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Later characters, omniglot ; 3 Oracle bone, United College Hong Kong ; 4) Making an oracle bone, British Museum; 5) Experimental keyboard, wikipedia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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