Yuen Ren Chao

Yuen Ren Chao
Chao as a young man (c. 1916)
Born3 November 1892
Died25 February 1982 (aged 89)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
CitizenshipAmerican (from 1954)
EducationHarvard University (Ph.D.)
Cornell University (B.A.)
Known forGwoyeu Romatzyh system, Mandarin Primer, Chinese dialect studies
Buwei Yang Chao (m. 1921⁠–⁠1981)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of California, Berkeley
Harvard University
Tsinghua University
Notable studentsJerry Norman
Anne O. Yue-Hashimoto
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese

Chao Yuen Ren (Chinese: 趙元任; pinyin: Zhào Yuánrèn; 3 November 1892 – 25 February 1982) (known in the West as Yuen Ren Chao) was a Chinese-American linguist, educator, scholar, poet, and composer, who contributed to the modern study of Chinese phonology and grammar. Chao was born and raised in China, then attended university in the United States, where he earned degrees from Cornell University and Harvard University. A naturally-gifted polyglot and linguist, his Mandarin Primer was one of the most widely used Mandarin Chinese textbooks in the 20th century. He invented the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization scheme, which, unlike pinyin and other romanization systems, can transcribe Mandarin Chinese pronunciation without needing diacritics to indicate tones.


Early life

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. He then became interested in philosophy, and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1918 with a dissertation entitled "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 Russell visited China in 1920. In his My Linguistic Autobiography, he wrote of his ability to pick up a Chinese dialect quickly, without much effort. Chao possessed a natural gift for hearing fine distinctions in pronunciation that was said to be "legendary for its acuity",[2] enabling him to record the sounds of various dialects with a high degree of accuracy.

Career development and later life

He returned to China in 1920, marrying the physician Yang Buwei there that year.[3]:17 The ceremony was simple, rather than the noisy traditional wedding, attended only by Hu Shih 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.[4]

Chao taught mathematics at Tsinghua University and, one year later, 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.[5] 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 Fang-Kuei, the other two leading Chinese linguists of his generation, to edit and render into Chinese Bernhard Karlgren's monumental Études 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.

Both Chao and Yang 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 in 1981. Previously at the invitation of Premier Zhou En-Lai, 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 (1922–2013) was Professor of East Asian Studies and Music at Harvard. His third daughter Lensey, 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 characterize Chinese characters as bound (used only 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 the Chao tone letters.[7]

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." [8]

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 of 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.

Chao translated Jabberwocky into Chinese[9] by inventing characters to imitate what Rob Gifford describes as the "slithy toves that gyred and gimbled in the wabe of Carroll's original."[10]

Mrs. Chao published How to Cook and Eat in Chinese in 1946, and the book went through many editions. Their daughter Rulan wrote the English text and Mr. Chao developmentally edited the text based on Mrs. Chao's developed recipes, as well as her experiences gathering recipes in various areas of China.[3]:177-178 Among the three of them, they coined the terms "pot sticker" and "stir fry" for the book, terms which are now widely accepted, and the recipes popularized various related techniques.[11] His presentation of his wife's recipe for “Stirred Eggs” (Chapter 13) is a classic of American comic writing.

Selected works


  1. ^ Howard Boorman, Biographical Dictionary of Republican China Vol 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 148-149
  2. ^ Coblin (2003), p. 344.
  3. ^ a b Chao, Yuen Ren. Interviewed by Levenson, Rosemary. "Chinese linguist, phonologist, composer and author: oral history transcript / and related material, 1974-1977," "China Scholars Series" [1]
  4. ^ Jin Feng, "With This Lingo, I Thee Wed: Language and Marriage in Autobiography of a Chinese Woman," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 18.3-4 (2011)
  5. ^ Malmqvist, N. G. D. (2010). Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of a Scholar. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 302. ISBN 978-1-61146-001-8.
  6. ^ Epstein, Jason (June 13, 2004). "Food: Chinese Characters" . The New York Times. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  7. ^ "UC Berkeley Phonology Lab" . www.linguistics.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 2010-01-02.
  8. ^ Zongxin Feng, "Translation and Reconstruction of a Wonderland: Alice’s Adventures in China," Neohelicon 36.1 (2009): 237-251. [2]
  9. ^ Chao, Yuen Ren (1969). "Dimensions of Fidelity in Translation With Special Reference to Chinese". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 29: 109–130. doi:10.2307/2718830 . JSTOR 2718830 .
  10. ^ Gifford, Rob. "The Great Wall of the Mind." China Road. 237.
  11. ^ Jason Epstein, “Chinese Characters,” New York Times Magazine (June 13, 2004): FOOD Late Edition - Final, Section 6, Page 71, Column 1.

Notes and Further reading

External links

Categories: 1892 births | 1982 deaths | Chinese male composers | Pre-1949 Republic of China emigrants to the United States | Linguists from China | American writers of Chinese descent | Republic of China translators | English–Chinese translators | Chinese–English translators | Chinese non-fiction writers | Cornell University alumni | Phonologists | Chinese sinologists | University of California, Berkeley faculty | Tsinghua University faculty | Harvard University faculty | Harvard University alumni | Cornell University faculty | National Southwestern Associated University faculty | Boxer Indemnity Scholarship recipients | Members of Academia Sinica | Writers from Tianjin | Educators from Tianjin | Musicians from Tianjin | Republic of China musicians | Scientists from Tianjin | 20th-century translators | Chinese composers | 20th-century composers | American people of Wu descent | Linguistic Society of America presidents | Linguists of Chinese

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