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Yuen Ren Chao (Chinese: 趙元任; 3 November 1892 – 25 February 1982) 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 can, unlike pinyin and other romanization systems, transcribe Mandarin Chinese pronunciation without needing diacritics to indicate words' tone.
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".
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", enabling him to record the sounds of various dialects with a high degree of accuracy.
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 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.
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.
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 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 (趙如蘭) (1922–2013) was Professor of East Asian Studies and Music at Harvard. His third daughter Lensey (趙來思), born in 1929, is a children's book author and mathematician.
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