In Chinese language education, pinyin is the common name to refer to the system. The more official name Hanyu Pinyin (汉语拼音 / 漢語拼音) is sometimes used, where Hànyǔ means the oral language of Han (putonghua) and pinyin literally means "spelled sound" (phonetics).
Pinyin was developed by Zhou Youguang, often called "the father of Pinyin," as part of a Chinese government project in the 1950s. Zhou was working in a New York bank when he decided to return to China to help rebuild the country after establishment of the PRC in 1949. Believing he was helping Mao Zedong build a democracy, Zhou became an economics professor in Shanghai. In 1954 China's Ministry of Education created a Committee for the Reform of the Chinese Written Language. Zhou was assigned the task of helping to develop a new romanization system.
Hanyu pinyin was based on several preexisting systems: (Gwoyeu Romatzyh of 1928, Latinxua Sin Wenz of 1931, and the diacritic markings from zhuyin). "I’m not the father of pinyin," Zhou said years later. "I’m the son of pinyin. It’s [the result of] a long tradition from the later years of the Qing dynasty down to today. But we restudied the problem and revisited it and made it more perfect."
A first draft was published on February 12, 1956. The first edition of Hanyu pinyin was approved and adopted at the Fifth Session of the 1st National People's Congress on February 11, 1958. It was then introduced to primary schools as a way to teach Standard Chinese pronunciation and used to improve the literacy rate among adults. In 2001, the Chinese Government issued the National Common Language Law, providing a legal basis for applying pinyin.
Pinyin superseded older romanization systems such as Wade-Giles (1859; modified 1892) and Chinese Postal Map Romanization, and replaced zhuyin as the method of Chinese phonetic instruction in mainland China. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted pinyin as the standard romanization for modern Chinese in 1982 (ISO 7098:1982, superseded by ISO 7098:1991); the United Nations followed suit in 1986. It has also been accepted by the government of Singapore, the United States' Library of Congress, the American Library Association, and many other international institutions.
The spelling of Chinese geographical or personal names in pinyin has become the most common way to transcribe them in English. Pinyin has also become a useful tool for entering Chinese text into computers.
Chinese families who speak Mandarin as a mother tongue use pinyin to help children associate characters with spoken words which they already know. Chinese families who speak some other language as their mother tongue use the system to teach children Mandarin pronunciation when they learn vocabulary in elementary school.
Since 1958, Pinyin has been actively used in adult education as well, making it easier for formerly illiterate people to continue with self-study after a short period of Pinyin literacy instruction.
Pinyin has become a tool for many foreigners to learn the Mandarin pronunciation, and is used to explain the grammar and spoken Mandarin together with hanzi. Books containing both Chinese characters and pinyin are often used by foreign learners of Chinese; pinyin's role in teaching pronunciation to foreigners and children is similar in some respects to furigana-based books (with hiragana letters written above or next to kanji) in Japanese or fully vocalised texts in Arabic ("vocalised Arabic").
The tone-marking diacritics are commonly omitted in popular news stories and even in scholarly works. An unfortunate effect of this is the increased ambiguity that results about which Chinese characters are being represented.