Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In His Words

A friend mentioned to me the other day there was an article about Zhou Youguang (周有光).

"Is he dead?" I asked cautiously, as the man is 105 years old.

"No," she said. "Actually he was critical of the government," she replied.

It's refreshing to know that the old comrades who helped build the People's Republic of China with good intentions over 60 years ago are now not afraid to lash out against the system as they creep older in age.

Despite being over a century old, Zhou still keeps his mind active with writing and the odd comments to the media. He speaks good English and has a wry sense of humour that makes him even more endearing.

He recently published a book called Shi Bei Ji, or Collecting Shells -- the words of a 105-year-old man to awaken the world.

Zhou is best known as the "father of pinyin", the man who helped devise a way not only for Chinese people to become literate, but also millions of people around the world learn Putonghua. It is also pinyin that has allowed people to send text messages and emails without having to memorize the stroke order of characters.

But before that, Zhou studied economics at St. John University in Shanghai and in Japan, and then became an economics professor before becoming a representative of Xinhua Bank in New York.

When civil war broke out in the late 1930s, Zhou was keen to help rebuild his country and returned to China.

"I opposed the Kuomintang and supported the communists because they advocated democracy," he says. "During the war in Chongqing, I took part in small-group meetings each month with Zhou Enlai. Every time he said that the Communist Party advocated democracy. We very much believe him and detested the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek."

It was in the mid 1950s that he and a team developed the pinyin system, and probably because of this massive contribution to the country, he was able to escape persecution in the anti-rightist movement, unlike many of his intellectual friends, some of whom committed suicide.

But Zhou did not escape the political tumult completely -- in 1969, all the members of the language committee were sent to a "May 7 cadre school" in northwest China's Ningxia Province for reform through labour.

"There were 20 such camps, with more than 10,000 officials and their families from a dozen departments under the State Council," he remembers. "I worked there for two years and four months, which improved my health and cured me of insomnia."

It was during that time that Chairman Mao's chosen successor, Lin Biao had died in a plane crash in September 1971, after what appeared to be a failed coup attempt.

The leaders of the school ordered us to assemble for a meeting at five o'clock in the morning, to hear a report. Fearing that it would be very hot, I took a wide-brimmed hat to protect me from the heat.

At 10 o'clock, the sky was filled with a huge flock of wild geese, not several thousands, but tens of thousands. The sky became dark as they flew overhead and, on the loud screech of a leading goose comrade, they all excreted at the same time, on the heads of the May 7 soldiers.

Since I had the hat, the impact on me was limited, but not my comrades, who were covered from head to toe in goose feces. One local resident said that, while such collective behaviour was normal, to discharge on the heads of people happened once every 10,000 years. We were so lucky and thanked this rain. Lin Biao was dead and soon we were all able to go home.

Today Zhou is critical of Marx, saying he denied the value produced by brain power and its contribution, but in fact it accounts for 60-80 percent of GDP in western countries.

"In Japan there are factories with no workers and the US farms with no farmers [only machinery]. In the US some factories are owned 50 percent by the workers. Are they exploiting or being exploited?"

And, more than 70 years after listening to Zhou Enlai's speeches, Zhou is still hopeful China will have democracy one day.

"We need democracy to develop our society," he says. "The two biggest problems are income disparity and corruption. But democracy is no simple matter and we must not be rushed. There is a lot of work to do -- first we must establish laws. Since the start of reform and opening up, we have passed some excellent laws, such as the property law.

"Democracy is not a new product or a patent, it is the result of the collective experience of mankind. We need two pre-conditions -- we need to be open and improve the quality of thinking of the common people."

Here here.

1 comment:

  1. too bad this type of true intellectuals are not properly rewarded or sometimes even prosecuted for political purposes. proficiency in language helps in better communication and understanding. pin-yin plays a great part promoting the ease of learning the difficult chinese language. don't know if the nobel committee has ever thought of him, or even knows his existence.