Among the enormous changes he has witnessed since his childhood in the last years of the Qing Dynasty are those brought about over more than 50 years by the writing system he created. From a 2008 interview by Tania Branigan in The Guardian:
Although Zhou is marking the half-century by publishing the latest of his many books, he is otherwise modest about his achievements and a life so packed with incident that for many years he completely forgot a brief friendship with Albert Einstein.
“I’m not the father of pinyin – I’m the son of pinyin,” says Zhou. “It’s [the result of] a long tradition from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today. But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect.”
The results are remarkable. Over the last half-century, the illiteracy rate in China has slumped from 80% to as little as 10% – the precise figure is disputed – thanks to a combination of mass education, simplified characters and pinyin.
Zhou Youguang was a child of 6 when a revolution toppled China’s last emperor in 1912. He was 43 when he says he left a Wall Street banker’s job to help Mao Zedong’s Communists create what he thought would be a democracy after decades of warlord rule, occupation and civil war.
Now 103, he has seen China transformed from a country of 368 million being carved up by foreign powers to a nation of 1.3 billion and the world’s fastest-growing major economy. He says he still believes China will eventually become a democracy — in spite of communism, not because of it.
“China will follow the mainstream of the world, sooner or later,” the pajama-clad Mr. Zhou said during an interview in the book-lined study of his third-floor walk-up apartment in central Beijing.