Zhao Yuanren

Zhao Yuanren 趙元任 (1892-1982) was born in Tianjin, China and came to the United States for university studies, which he pursued initially at Cornell. After earning his B.A. in mathematics in 1914, Zhao was admitted to the graduate program in philosophy at Harvard. He was granted his Ph.D. in 1918 with a dissertation entitled “Continuity: A Study in Methodolgy.” After a short period of teaching at Cornell, he was appointed Lecturer of Chinese at Harvard and, in 1922, offered the first class in Chinese to be taught at Harvard since the short-lived efforts of Ge Kunhua in the 1880s. He was recruited by Qinghua University in Beijing in 1925, and became one of the founding figures of modern

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Chinese linguistics. He developed what came to be known as the National Romanization, which the Chinese government adopted as the official phonetic alphabet in 1927. He also oversaw the linguistic activities of the Institute of History and Philology, established as part of the Academia Sinica in 1928.

During the pre-war years, he and his colleagues and students conducted extensive field surveys of Chinese dialects in Zhejiang, Guangdong, Guangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Hunan, and Hubei.By the time Zhao returned to Harvard in 1941 to join the Harvard-Yenching Institute’s Chinese Dictionary Project, he was one of world’s foremost experts in Chinese dialectology. When the demand for East Asian languages courses exploded in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, this experience made Zhao well-prepared to teach not only an intensive class in Mandarin Chinese, but also Harvard’s first class in Cantonese. Zhao’s work at Harvard during wartime was published in a number of important reference works and textbooks, including the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese (1946), Cantonese Primer (1947), and Mandarin Primer (1948).

Although Zhao left Harvard after the war and took a position at U.C. Berkeley in 1947, his daughter Rulan Chao Pian remained, finished her Ph.D., and was eventually appointed to the position of Professor of Chinese Literature and Music in the Department of Far Eastern Languages.

Zhao published over a hundred articles and books in Chinese and English over the course of his lifetime, as well as several original musical compositions. His linguistic work was extensive and catholic, covering Chinese tones and intonation, music, dialects, logic, and grammar, as well as more general topics in linguistic theory. In 1968, he published his magnum opus, the monumental A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. His most influential articles include The Non-uniqueness of Phonemic Solutions of Phonetic Systems (1934) and Graphic and Phonetic Aspects of Linguistic and Mathematical Symbols (1961).