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A voice of dissent in China that took its time

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BEIJING » Even at 106 years old, Zhou Youguang is the kind of creative thinker that Chinese leaders regularly command the government to cultivate in their bid to raise their nation from the world’s factory floor.

So it is curious that he embodies a contradiction at the heart of their premise: the notion that free thinkers are to be venerated unless and until they challenge the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

Zhou is the inventor of Pinyin, the Romanized spelling system that linked China’s ancient written language to the modern age and helped China all but stamp out illiteracy. He was one of the leaders of the Chinese translation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1980s. He has written about 40 books, the most recent published last year.

Leaders here might hail him as a role model for young Chinese, but for one flaw: Zhou does not support one-party rule or think it can last. So within China, he remains largely uncelebrated. As the state-run China Daily newspaper remarked in 2009, he should be a household name but is virtually unknown.

A telling example of the party’s discomfort with him: When the government summoned 500-plus scholars in 2009 to celebrate the Encyclopedia of China’s second edition, Zhou was disinvited at the last minute. Friends say they believe it was because the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, did not wish to shake his hand.

Zhou does not dwell on such snubs. Nor do they intimidate him. He is a relative latecomer to controversy, turning his attention to politics only after retiring from his full-time job at age 85.

But he is making up for lost time. Chatting recently in his study, filled with overflowing bookshelves, Zhou declared democracy "the natural form of a modern society." He rejected the argument that China is not suited to it. "You can have democracy no matter what level of development," he said. "Just look at the Arab Spring."

Many Chinese intellectuals share such beliefs. But the most outspoken are often the aged — Communist Party elders or retired cadres who either rely on the Chinese reverence for the elderly or who no longer worry about the consequences.

China’s state news media ignore Zhou’s political views but not his role as the architect of Pinyin. Three years ago, he figured prominently in an hourlong documentary on Pinyin on the state-run CCTV network.

Chinese characters do not directly correspond to sounds. Pinyin’s phonetic alphabet enabled learners to match words easily to actual speech.

"It had an enormous impact on literacy," said Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. All Chinese students now begin to read and write using Pinyin before moving on to characters.

Sweet-natured but wry and rigidly dispassionate, Zhou works at a tiny wooden desk in a government-provided, third-floor walk-up apartment with unpainted concrete walls. His longtime colleague Chen Zhangtai, 80, said Zhou decided renovations would be too distracting.

He described Zhou as the embodiment of a "true scholar." He added, "He just always seems at peace with the world."

And continually fascinated by it. His blog entries range from the modernization of Confucianism to Silk Road history and China’s new middle class. Computer screens hurt his eyes, but he devours foreign newspapers and magazines. A well-known Chinese artist nicknamed him "Trendy Old Guy."

Zhou was born on Jan. 13, 1906, when the Qing Dynasty ruled and women bound their feet. The son of a Qing Dynasty official, he married the daughter of a wealthy family and went into banking.

After the Japanese invaded in 1937, his family was forced into the countryside to escape Japanese bombs in Chongqing, China’s wartime capital. His 5-year-old daughter died from appendicitis.

Although he never joined the Communist Party, Zhou’s sympathies with it date from that period. In Chongqing, he got to know Zhou Enlai, then the party’s main emissary to the outside world — a relationship that later helped save his life.

In 1946, Zhou and his family moved to New York, where he represented the Xinhua Trust and Savings Bank. He toured the United States in luxury Pullman cars, rode the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner to Europe and fended off offers from Western banks. His intellectual life was equally rich: He had several lengthy chats with Albert Einstein.

But shortly before the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, Zhou brought his family home. He taught economics at a university in Shanghai and studied linguistics as a hobby.

In 1955 Zhou Enlai, now prime minister, called him to Beijing. The party wanted to make Mandarin China’s national language, simplify Chinese characters and devise a new phonetic alphabet. Zhou’s son, Zhou Xiaoping, an astrophysicist, said his father protested that he was a mere amateur. He was told: "Everyone is an amateur."

The summons came just in time. The next year, Chairman Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign targeted Western-trained economists. One of Zhou’s best friends, the head of an economic research unit, committed suicide. So did Zhou’s favorite student.

In his new job, Zhou found tremendous confusion, but also a foundation for his work. In the late 1500s, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci had formulated a system to Romanize Chinese characters. Many English speakers were already using the British Wade-Giles system, developed in the 19th century. Chinese linguists had devised other alternatives.

Zhou’s team wrangled endlessly: how to cope with the homonyms that are rife in Chinese; how to indicate the four tones of Mandarin; whether to use a Cyrillic, Japanese or Roman alphabet, or to invent a new Chinese alphabet based on the shapes of characters.

Zhou argued for the Roman alphabet, to better connect China with the outside world. In 1958, after three years of work, Pinyin — literally "to piece together sounds" — was finished and quickly adopted.

The decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 wiped out Zhou’s lingering belief in communism. He was publicly humiliated and sent to toil for two years in the wilderness. Upon his return, he rejoined the government, fighting for Pinyin to be adopted as the international standard. Mair said the United Nations agreed in 1986.

Zhou says Chinese characters will exist for centuries to come. But to his delight, Pinyin has proven ever more useful. Chinese now rely on Pinyin-to-character programs to send cellphone text messages, post on Internet microblogs and write emails.

Zhou himself uses a typewriter that converts Pinyin into characters to deliver ever-more pointed critiques of the party in essays and on his as-yet-uncensored blog.

About Mao, he said in an interview: "I deny he did any good." About the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre: "I am sure one day justice will be done." About popular support for the Communist Party: "The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know."

As for fostering creativity in the Communist system, Zhou had this to say, in a 2010 book of essays: "Inventions are flowers that grow out of the soil of freedom. Innovation and invention don’t grow out of the government’s orders."

No sooner had the first batch of copies been printed than the book was banned in China.

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