Chinese Sign Language

Chinese Sign Language
中国手语, Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ
Native to China, Malaysia, Taiwan
Native speakers
likely a few million (date missing)
20 million deaf in China
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
csl  Chinese Sign
hks  Hong Kong Sign
Glottolog nucl1761[1]

Modern Chinese Sign Language (or CSL or ZGS; simplified Chinese: 中国手语; traditional Chinese: 中國手語; pinyin: Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ) is the deaf sign language of the People's Republic of China. It is unrelated to Taiwanese Sign Language.

The first deaf school using Chinese Sign Language was created by the wife of an American missionary C.R. Mills, Nellie Thompson Mills in the year 1887. Schools, workshops and farms in different areas for the Deaf are the main ways that CSL has been able to spread in China so well. Other Deaf who are not connected to these gathering places tend to use sets of gestures developed in their own homes, known as home sign.

The Chinese National Association of the Deaf (ROC) was created by the Deaf People mostly from the United States. The biggest reason for the organization of the Deaf in China was to raise quality of living for the Deaf which was behind the quality of living standards provided for the other disabled. The members of the ROC worked together to better the welfare of the Deaf, to encourage education of Deaf and Chinese Sign Language, and to promote the Deaf Community in China.


There is a growing awareness about deaf education and care in China. China Disabled Persons’ Federation website reports that China has 21 million people with hearing loss. There is a bilingual-bicultural school for the deaf and a deaf university in Tianjin. For the majority of the last 50 years, CSL has been discouraged, even banned from most classrooms. Instead an oral-only policy has been pushed. The China Disabled People’s Federation runs nearly 1,500 pre-school “hearing rehabilitation centers” established since the 1980s. Less than 10% of the children who attend these schools are able to have an adequate enough grasp on the Chinese oral language to enter public school. The few who enrolled in public school were children with residual hearing or who were able to afford cochlear implants. As mentioned before, Chinese is a tonal language, making it very difficult for deaf children to learn to speak, as they are unable to see the changes in tones that drastically change the meanings of words. Most deaf children leave school with an education three grades lower than their hearing peers, presenting few job opportunities available. Only recently have the local authorities in Tianjin with the cooperation of organizations such as UNICEF begun to create new job opportunities to the deaf population. In 2001 the Tianjin school for the Deaf adopted Chinese Sign Language as their main method of communication and made an effort to have deaf employees. The school has had very positive results in education and attitude among the students. The Tianjin Technical College for the Deaf, a partner in PEN-International at the Tianjin University of Technology, is the first technical college for deaf Chinese students. The college was established in 1991 and focuses on computer technology education, giving deaf Chinese students an opportunity to work outside of a factory. Now there are also schools for the deaf in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming, Yantai, and Hong Kong.

Despite the growing awareness about deaf needs, there is a lack of awareness about deaf culture and what constitutes deaf culture, even among the deaf community. Many parents of deaf children spend tens of thousands of yuan on various types of treatment to cure the deafness. These include: acupuncture, Chinese medicine rehabilitation centers and hearing aids. Many parents believe that sign language will only inhibit their child’s ability to speak and therefore see signing as a bad influence and have forbidden their children to associate with others in the deaf community. As a result of this kind of upbringing, many deaf people have difficulty coming to terms with their deaf identity and often look down upon deaf people. Many deaf students would prefer a hearing teacher to a deaf one as a result of this stigma. There are no role models to look up to for no famous deaf people are known within China. Deaf people in China commonly try to integrate with the mainstream and do not want to be associated with the deaf community. The schools have begun a movement of embracing deaf culture, but the change is slow. More facilities are now available to the deaf community than ever before. There are more schools specialized for the deaf, and in Shanghai there is a medical center focused on hearing loss and oral communication that is jointly run by the Shanghai health bureau and Fudan University.


Chinese Sign Language is a language isolate. There are two main dialects: Southern CSL, the prestige dialect centered on Shanghai, and Northern CSL used in Beijing. Northern CSL has the greater influence from Chinese, with for example character puns. Hong Kong Sign Language derives from the southern dialect, but by now is a separate language.[2] The Shanghai dialect is found in Malaysia and Taiwan, but Chinese Sign Language is unrelated to Taiwanese Sign Language (which is part of the Japanese family), Malaysian Sign Language (of the French family), or to Tibetan Sign Language (isolate).

CSL shares morphology for forming negative clauses with British Sign Language; it may be that this is due to historical contact with the British in Shanghai.[2]

A feature of both CSL and British Sign Language is the use in many related signs of the thumb for a positive meaning and of the pinkie for a negative meaning, such as DON'T KNOW.


Like most other sign languages, Chinese Sign Language is mostly conveyed through shapes and motions joined with facial expressions. CSL has at its disposal an alphabetic spelling system similar to pinyin, with a system of blinks used to communicate tones, usually expressed as a change in gaze or a slight head turn.

The Chinese culture and language heavily influence signs in CSL. For example, there is no generic word for brother in CSL, only two distinct signs, one for "older brother" and one for "younger brother". This parallels Chinese, which also specifies "older brother" or "younger brother" rather than simply "brother". Similarly, the sign for "eat" incorporates a pictorial representation for chopsticks instead of using the hand as in ASL.


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Nuclear CSLic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. 1 2 Fischer, S.; Gong, Q. (2010). "Variation in East Asian sign language structures". In Brentari, Diane. Sign Languages. p. 499. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511712203.023. ISBN 9780511712203.
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