MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now, a story about a very old and very innovative man in China. Zhou Youguang is the inventor of Pinyin. That's the system for transcribing Chinese characters in the Roman alphabet. As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, Zhou could be a national hero. Instead, he's become a thorn in the government's side.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN'S CLASS)
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A class of Chinese kids learns Pinyin, a system for spelling out Chinese words using the Roman alphabet. This is the first step towards literacy in China, one that hundreds of millions of people have taken over the past half-century.
Pinyin is largely the work of one extraordinary and extraordinarily modest man. Zhou Youguang is now 105 years old. As a young man, he moved to the States and worked as a Wall Street banker, but returned to China after the 1949 revolution.
Today, he's frail, but he still lives in a third-floor walk-up and he still blogs. He's cheerful as he remembers how, as an economist, he was named to head a committee to reform the Chinese language.
ZHOU YOUGUANG: (Through Translator) I said I was an amateur, a layman. I couldn't do the job, but they said it's a new job. Everybody's an amateur. Everybody urged me to change professions, so I did. So from 1955, I abandoned economics and started studying writing systems.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Zhou didn't start out intending to revolutionize the Chinese language.
LIM: It's a measure of Zhou's fame that cartoons like this one are made about his life. In his younger days, he even made friends with Albert Einstein, though their conversations are now lost in the mists of time.
It took Zhou and his colleagues three years to come up with the system now known as Pinyin. It was introduced to schools in 1958. Recently, Pinyin's become even more widely used to type Chinese characters into mobile phones and computers. Zhou is delighted by this.
ZHOU: (Through Translator) In this era of mobile phones and globalization, we use Pinyin to communicate with the world. Pinyin is like a kind of open sesame, opening up the doors.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: Even though his life is celebrated in official documentaries by the state broadcaster, Zhou's position is more precarious. In the late '60s, he was branded a reactionary and sent to labor camp for two years. In 1985, he translated the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese and then worked on the second edition, so he was in a position to notice the changes in China's official line.
ZHOU: (Through Translator) At the time, China's position was the U.S. started the Korean War, but the encyclopedia said North Korea started it. That was troublesome, so we didn't include that bit. Later, the Chinese view changed, so we got permission from above to include it. That shows there's progress in China, but it's too slow.
LIM: Zhou has, unbelievably, published 10 books since he turned 100. Some have been banned in China, making him something of a political dissident. But he seems to relish the controversy, saying he enjoys it when people criticize him. Zhou believes China has become a cultural wasteland with the Communists attacking traditional Chinese culture but leaving nothing in the void.
He becomes animated as we talk about a statue of Confucius, which was first placed near Tiananmen Square earlier this year, then removed.
ZHOU: (Through Translator) Why aren't they bringing out statues of Marx and Chairman Mao? Marx and Mao can't hold their ground so they brought out Confucius. Why did they take it away? It shows the battles over Chinese culture. Mao was 100 percent opposed to Confucius, but nowadays, Confucius's influence is much stronger than Marx.
LIM: At 105, Zhou calls it as he sees it without fear or favor. He's outspoken about what he believes is the need for democracy in China and he says he hopes to live long enough to see China change its position on the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989. He believes China needs political reform and soon.
ZHOU: (Through Translator) Ordinary people no longer believe in the Communist Party anymore. The vast majority of Chinese intellectuals advocate democracy. Look at the Arab Spring. People ask me if there's hope for China. I'm an optimist. I didn't even lose hope during the Japanese occupation in World War II. China cannot not get closer to the rest of the world.
LIM: One final story illustrates Zhou's unusual position. A couple of years ago, he was invited to an important reception. At the last minute, he was told to stay away. The reason he was given was the weather, but his family believes another explanation. One of the nine men who rule China was at the event and that leader did not want to have to acknowledge Zhou and so give currency to his political views. That a Chinese leader should refuse to meet this old man is telling, both of his influence and of the political establishment's fear of him.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.