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Zhao Yuanren

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Zhao Yuanren

Yuen Ren Chao (Y. R. Chao)
Chao as a young man ca. 1916
Born (1892-11-03)November 3, 1892
Tianjin, China
Died February 25, 1982(1982-02-25) (aged 89)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Occupation linguist, composer
Spouse(s) Buwei Yang Chao (m. 1921–81)

Yuen Ren Chao (traditional Chinese: 趙元任; simplified Chinese: 赵元任; pinyin: Zhào Yuánrèn, 3 November 1892 – 25 February 1982), was a Chinese American linguist and amateur composer. He made important contributions to the modern study of Chinese phonology and grammar.

Besides helping to shape the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a Chinese romanization scheme, Chao is also credited with inventing a notation for transcribing tonal pitch variation in spoken languages.


Born in Tianjin with ancestry in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, Chao went to the United States with a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship in 1910 to study mathematics and physics at Cornell University, where he was a classmate and lifelong friend of Hu Shih, the leader of the New Culture Movement, switching to philosophy later. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University in 1918 with his dissertation Continuity: Study in Methodology.[1]

Already in college, his interests had turned to music and languages. He spoke German and French fluently and some Japanese, and he had a reading knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin. He served as Bertrand Russell's interpreter when the renowned British philosopher visited China in 1920. In his My Linguistic Autobiography, he wrote of his ability to pick up a Chinese dialect quickly, without much effort.

He returned to China in 1920, teaching mathematics at Tsinghua University. One year later he returned to the United States to teach at Harvard. He again returned to China in 1925, teaching at Tsinghua, and beginning a survey of the Wu dialects in 1926.[2] He began to conduct linguistic fieldwork throughout China for the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica from 1928 onwards. During this period of time, he collaborated with Luo Changpei and Li Fanggui, the other two leading Chinese linguists of his generation, to edit and render into Chinese Bernhard Karlgren's monumental Etudes sur la Phonologie Chinoise (published in 1940).

He left for the US in 1938, and resided there afterwards. In 1945, he served as president of the Linguistic Society of America, and a special issue of the society's journal Language was dedicated to him in 1966. He became an American citizen in 1954. In the 1950s he was among the first members of the Society for General Systems Research. From 1947 to 1960, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where in 1952, he became Agassiz Professor of Oriental Languages.

In 1920 he married the physician Yang Buwei. The ceremony was simple, rather than the noisy traditional wedding, attended only by Hu Shi and one other friend. Hu's account of it in the newspapers made the couple a model of modern marriage for China's New Culture generation. [3]

Mrs. Chao became known as author of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese for which Chao wrote the text based on his wife's recipes and experience. He coined the terms "pot sticker" and "stir fry" for the book, terms which are now widely accepted.[4] His recipe for “Stirred Eggs” (Chapter 13) is a classic of American comic writing.

Both husband and wife were known for their good senses of humor, he particularly for his love of subtle jokes and language puns: they published a family history entitled, Life with Chaos: the autobiography of a Chinese family.

Late in his life, he was invited by Deng Xiaoping to return to China. Chao and his wife returned to China in 1973 for the first time since the 1940s. He visited China again between May and June in 1981 after his wife died in March the same year. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His first daughter Rulan Chao Pian (赵如兰/趙如蘭), born in 1922, is Professor Emerita of East Asian Studies and Music at Harvard. His third daughter Lensey (赵来思/趙來思), born in 1929, is a children's book author and mathematician.


When in the US in 1921, Chao recorded the Standard Chinese pronunciation gramophone records distributed nationally, as proposed by Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation.

He is the author of one of the most important standard modern works on Chinese grammar, A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), which was translated into Chinese separately by Lü Shuxiang (吕叔湘) in 1979 and by Ting Pang-hsin (丁邦新) in 1980. It was an expansion of the grammar chapters in his earlier textbooks, Mandarin Primer and Cantonese Primer. He was co-author of the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese, which was the first dictionary to mark Chinese characters for being bound (only used in polysyllables) or free (permissible as a monosyllabic word).

General Chinese (通字) is a phonetic system he invented to represent the pronunciations of all major varieties of Chinese simultaneously. It is not specifically a romanization system, but two alternate systems: one uses Chinese characters phonetically, as a syllabary, and the other is an alphabetic romanization system with similar sound values and tone spellings to Gwoyeu Romatzyh. Chao also made a contribution to the International Phonetic Alphabet with his system of writing syllabic pitch shapes (sometimes referred to as "Chao letters").[5]

His translation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where he tried his best to preserve all the word plays of the original, is considered "a classical piece of verbal art." [6]

He also wrote "The "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den". This Chinese text consists of 92 characters, all with the sounds shī, shí, shǐ and shì (the diacritics indicate the four tones of Mandarin). When written out using Chinese characters the text can be understood, but it is incomprehensible when read out aloud in Standard Chinese, and therefore also incomprehensible on paper when written in romanized form. This example is often used as an argument against the romanization of Chinese. In fact, the text was an argument against the romanization of Classical Chinese and Chao was actually for the romanization modern vernacular written Chinese; he was one of the designers of Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

His composition How could I help thinking of her (教我如何不想她 jiāo wǒ rúhé bù xiǎng tā) was a "pop hit" in the 1930s in China. The lyrics are by Liu Bannong, another linguist, who is famous for coining the Chinese feminine pronoun ta ().

Chao translated Jabberwocky into Chinese[7] by inventing characters to imitate what Rob Gifford describes as the "slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe of Carroll's original."[8]

The book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, a cookbook originally published in 1945, was credited to Buwei Yang Chao, Yuen Ren Chao's wife. Jason Epstein of The New York Times stated "it is obvious that the professor wrote virtually the entire book in his wife's name."[9] Buwei Yang Chao had admitted that she was almost unable to write or even speak English.[9]

Selected works

  • (with Yang Lien-shang) Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese (1947). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Mandarin Primer (1948). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Grammar of Spoken Chinese (1968). Berkeley: University of California Press.


Further reading

  • Chao, Yuen Ren, "My Linguistic Autobiography", in Aspects of Chinese Sociolinguistics: Essays by Yuen Ren Chao, pp. 1–20, selected and introduced by Anwar S. Dil, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976.
  • Wang, William S-Y., "Yuen Ren Chao", Language, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 605–607, JSTOR

External links

  • Chinese linguist, phonologist, composer and author, Yuen Ren Chao, interview conducted by Rosemany Levenson, Bancroft Library
  • (Chinese) Chao's gallery, with related essays, at Tsinghua's site
  • (Chinese) Biography at Guoxue
  • Yuen Ren Society for Chinese dialectology
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