A Very Reluctant Fan of Optimists
You need to be an optimist when you encounter difficulties
prepared to let all pessimists who' re not occult tease
you for you not facing, as they claim to do, reality,
regarding optimism as a sign of subnormality,
but always should remember that those who are not Jeremiahs
are, if they're not dependent on fake news quite frankly liars,
and that the survival rate of pessimists is greater than
that of most optimists, of whom I wish I were a fan.
Margalit Fox's obituary of the inventor of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang, appears in the 1/14/17 NYT:
Zhou Youguang, known as the father of Pinyin for creating the system of Romanized Chinese writing that has become the international standard since its introduction some 60 years ago, died on Saturday in Beijing, Chinese state media reported. He was 111.
In recent decades, with the comparative invincibility that he felt great age bestowed on him, Mr. Zhou was also an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.
“What are they going to do,” he asked bluntly in an interview with the BBC in 2012. “Come and take me away?”
In fact, they had already done that once before, long ago.
Adopted by China in 1958, Pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
It is to Pinyin that we owe now-ubiquitous spellings like Beijing, which supplanted the earlier Peking; Chongqing, which replaced Chungking; Mao Zedong instead of Mao Tse-tung; and thousands of others. The system was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982 and by the United Nations in 1986.
Yet for all Mr. Zhou’s linguistic influence, his late-life political opposition — in 2015, the news agency Agence France-Presse called him “probably China’s oldest dissenter” — ensured that he remained relatively obscure in his own country.
“Within China, he remains largely uncelebrated,” The New York Times wrote in 2012. “As the state-run China Daily newspaper remarked in 2009, he should be a household name but is virtually unknown.”
It took Mr. Zhou and his colleagues three years to develop Pinyin, but the most striking thing about his involvement was that he was neither a linguist nor a lexicographer but an economist, recently returned to China from Wall Street.
But because of a fortuitous meeting at midcentury, and a lifetime love of language, he was conscripted by the Chinese government to develop an accessible alphabetic writing system. It was a turn of fate, Mr. Zhou acknowledged afterward, that may well have saved his life....
Today, Pinyin is used by hundreds of millions of people in China alone. Schoolchildren there first learn to read by means of the system before graduating to the study of characters.
As a result, the country’s illiteracy rate today is about 5 percent, according to Unicef. Pinyin is also part of the standard pedagogy for foreign students of Chinese around the world.
In the interview with Agence France-Presse in 2015, Mr. Zhou articulated the philosophy that he said sustained him through his years in the labor camp. It seems a fitting ethos for his long life as a whole.
“When you encounter difficulties, you need to be optimistic,” he said. “The pessimists tend to die.”