Born in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, Zhao Yuanren went to the United States in 1910 to study mathematics at Cornell University and philosophy at Harvard University. He returned to China in 1920 to serve as a tutor in the graduate faculty of Tsinghua University.
In 1922, Zhao invented General Chinese, a phonetic system that represents the pronunciation of all major varieties of Chinese simultaneously. In 1928, he began conducting linguistic fieldwork throughout China for the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica before returning to the U.S. in 1938. There, he held teaching positions at the University of Hawaii and both of his alma maters. In 1945, he became China's delegate to UNESCO and president of the Linguistic Society of America.
Zhao died on February 25, 1982.