Chao Yuen Ren bigraphy, stories - Chinese American linguist and composer

Chao Yuen Ren : biography

3 November 1892 - 25 February 1982

Chao Yuen Ren ( 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.Howard Boorman, Biographical Dictionary of Republican China Vol 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 148-149

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. 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. 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.Jason Epstein, “Chinese Characters,” New York Times Magazine (June 13, 2004): FOOD Late Edition - Final , Section 6 , Page 71 , Column 1. 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.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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