If you’ve ever learned another language that doesn’t have an alphabet system, like the English language does, you’d probably agree that it was quite an intimidating task. Chinese is one of those languages. Yes, you can learn specific strokes, stroke orders, the origins of the characters, and even the varying tones of characters to make things easier, but before the pinyin system (or the romanized spelling of Chinese words) was created, people had to use the ol’ noggin and memorize every character. How many characters would that be exactly? It depends which dictionary you use, but there are over 100,000 known Chinese characters. The average person, however, knows about two to three thousand characters. That’s still a lot to memorize, wouldn’t you agree?
In 1958, China adopted the pinyin system, a method that helped translate Chinese characters into words using the Roman alphabet. For example, the word for “heart” in Chinese 心 would be translated to “xīn” in English. The inventor of pinyin, Zhou Youguang, died earlier this month at the age of 111 years old, but his legacy of helping to create pinyin lives on. Zhou is not only credited for helping the Chinese government create this powerful tool, but his work was thought to be one of the reasons for how China was able to connect to the Western world and become the economic powerhouse that it is today. What’s more? Zhou is also recognized for changing the literacy rate in China. Before the creation and adoption of pinyin, only approximately 15 percent of the population could read. Now, 95 percent of the population is literate. Amazing? We think so too!
Fun Fact: Although the Roman alphabet only has twenty-six letters in it, it took Zhou and his colleagues over three years to create the pinyin system. Now, pinyin is the most widely used and accepted tool for understanding and pronouncing the Chinese language.