The New York Times today has a magnificent article by Margalit Fox, “Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, dies at 111.” I’ve been studying Mandarin for a year now, and like all new learners I am using Pīnyīn. Zhou Youguang led the effort to create Pīnyīn, the romanization system that allows Chinese to be written without characters. There were other previous efforts to create an alphabet for Chinese, but after the Chinese government adopted Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, all the others quickly fell out of favor.
What struck me about the article, whoever, was less Zhou Youguang’s intellectual achievement in helping to create Pīnyīn, but rather the breadth of his life. Here is someone who lost a daughter to appendicitis during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and who was sent to the fields to harvest crops during the Cultural Revolution. Yet he published ten books after the age of 100.
While remarkable, Zhou Youguang was not unique. The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer continued to design major buildings well after he turned a 100. And the Brazilian poet Cora Coralina was born in 1889 (the year the Brazilian empire ended, and one year after the abolition of slavery) but did not publish her first book until 1965. Of course she had been writing for most of her life, but she flourished after this book was published at the age of 76. Without question, she is one of Brazil’s canonical poets. Our culture celebrates youth, including in academia. Forbes has a “30 under 30 list” of young entrepreneurs; literary competitions seek to identify new talent; mathematicians who turn 30 begin to wonder if their best years are behind them. And yet, some of the world’s most insightful and creative poets, thinkers, and designers do their best work in their senior years. How much talent is lost because people assume that older people can no longer be creative?
Cora Coralina described a deep personal change when she turned 50, which she described as a “loss of fear.” Similarly, Zhou Youguang became a well known critic of the Chinese government, whose age made him almost untouchable. For these thinkers, there was a freedom that came with time, which enabled them to speak truth to power, and to create work without worrying what others thought. Zhou Youguang’s father served in the last Chinese dynasty, and he lived through the Second Sino-Japanese war. Out of a life that knew suffering he crafted a new writing system, which has helped hundreds of millions of people learn Mandarin. May we all remember what is possible if we have the good fortune to have a long life, and the wisdom not to see aging as only a loss.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University