Zhou Youguang, a linguist considered the father of pinyin, a system of Latin letters for reading and writing standard Chinese, died on Saturday at his home in Beijing at age 111, one day after his birthday.
In 1955, Zhou, then an economics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, was asked by the central government to quit his job and join a national committee to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system.
It took him and his colleagues three years to devise the official Romanization system, which was adopted in 1958. Since then, pinyin — which can be translated as "spelled sounds" — has helped to considerably increase literacy across the country, and has made it easier for foreigners to study the Chinese language. It also has facilitated the use of Chinese characters on computer keyboards and cellphones: pinyin is entered on a keyboard, and users are given a choice of characters.
"The committee's work was extremely important to establishing a modern country because about 85 percent of Chinese people were illiterate when New China was founded," Zhou recalled in one of his many reference books.
He later lectured at Peking University and Renmin University of China on linguistics.
In the early 1980s, Zhou participated in a successful campaign proposing pinyin as the international standard spelling for Chinese. It is considered superior to the Wade-Giles system, developed in the 19th century and widely used until the 1980s. Zhou also worked with other scholars to translate the Encyclopaedia Britannica into Chinese.
"Mr Zhou is a great scholar whose knowledge has spread from East to West," said Su Peicheng, a linguistic professor at Peking University. "He is the founder of the theory of modern learning for the Chinese language."
Zhou was born in 1906 in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, and in 1923 enrolled at the prestigious St John's University in Shanghai. There, he majored in economics and also took courses in linguistics.
In 1933 he went to Japan to further his economics studies, but returned to Shanghai two years later when Sino-Japanese ties became tense. After World War II ended, he worked as a banker in the United States, but in 1949, he chose to return to China shortly after New China was founded.
He joked about his longevity on his birthday in 2013: "God is so busy. He has forgotten me."
Zhou was married for nearly 70 years to Zhang Yunhe, who came from a legendary literary family in Hefei, Anhui province. Zhang died in 2002 at age 94. The couple had a daughter who died as a child and a son, Zhou Xiaoping, a meteorologist, who died in 2015 at age 82.
Zhou Youguang, linguist, began work on devising pinyin in 1955.