Zhou Youguang: The "Simplified" Reason the Chinese Linguist Gets Google Doodle

He's the reason that Chinese is, relatively speaking, so much easier to learn.

Have you ever wondered why it’s Peking Duck from the city of Beijing? Turns out, it’s all due to the work of a Chinese linguist named Zhou Youguang, who is being celebrated on Google’s homepage on Saturday.

Google’s doodle today shows the Pinyin characters (Gǔgē) flipping to Chinese characters (谷歌) to honor the 112th birthday of the man that created the system of “spelled sounds” that has become the standard for Romanized Chinese. Gǔgē / 谷歌 is how the popular search engine is translated into Mandarin Chinese.

Zhou started his project in 1955 at the behest of the Chinese government, completing it three years later in 1958. drastically increasing China’s literacy rate — which hovered around 15 percent for much of the early 20th century — and helped serve as a bridge between numerous Chinese dialects by providing a common”spelling” of sound.

Today, it is taught to Chinese schoolchildren as a predecessor to learning the complex hundreds of thousands of characters of the Chinese language. It was also Pinyin that, half a century later, allowed the Chinese language to be digitized.

Zhou Youguang in 2012. 

Charlie Fong / Wikimedia

Born as Zhou Youping in 1908, Zhou later changed his pen name to Youguang (meaning, roughly, to come into the light again), to bring light into the world. Before he became a linguist by virtue of creating the modern Chinese written language, he was a trained economist and had worked in the finance worlds in both New York City and London before returning to China and starting the project that would become his greatest legacy.

In addition to Pinyin, Zhou wrote more than forty books throughout his life and translated the Encyclopedia Brittanica into Mandarin Chinese. In his later life, he became an outspoken critic of communism — which is perhaps why in China, his name is virtually unknown.

Zhou died on January 14, 2017, a day after his 111th birthday.

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