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Chinese Sign Language

Chinese Sign Language
中国手语, Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ
Native to China, Malaysia, Taiwan
Native speakers
likely a few million
20 million deaf in China
Southern (Shanghai) CSL
Northern (Beijing) CSL
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Either:
csl – Chinese Sign
hks – Hong Kong Sign
Glottolog chin1283  (Chinese SL)[1]
hong1241  (Hong Kong SL)[2]

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 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.


  • History 1
  • Perception 2
  • Classification 3
  • Structure 4
  • References 5


An American missionary named C. R. Mills supported his wife, Neddie Thompson, in the establishment of the first school for the deaf in China in Shandong in 1887. Neddie Thompson was an American who had recently graduated from Wellesley College. She was a teacher of the deaf at the Rochester School for the Deaf when Rev. Mills met Neddie. She was the teacher of his son, who was deaf. Neddie had taught herself deaf language in order to teacher her 1/2 brother who was deaf. Rev. Mills proposed marriage to Neddie but she refused. She wanted to be able to be his intellectual equal, not his inferior. She wanted to go to Wellesley College first and then consider whether to marry Rev. Mills. He agreed and Neddie attended Wellesley, after which she decided to go to China and marry Rev. Mills. Neddie was a recognized professional in the teaching of the deaf. When she arrived in China Neddie was shocked to discover that China hid the deaf and there were no schools for the deaf. Not only did Neddie begin the first school for the deaf in China, she also created a sign language system for China. It is said that it was an oral school so American Sign Language did not have a strong influence on the sign language that developed among its students, but the sign language that was developed at the school was the creation of Neddie Thompson Mills. Rev Mills died some 5 years after he & Neddie were married; Neddie devoted her life to the School and the expansion of the education for the deaf in China for the remaining 40+ years of her life. A second school opened in Shanghai in 1892; there instruction was in CSL, as the teachers were Deaf. Shanghainese immigrants to Hong Kong in the early 20th century took the language there; Shanghainese teachers established schools for the deaf in Singapore and Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Chinese Sign was recognized by the central government in the 1950s.


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 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.[3] The Shanghai dialect is found in Malaysia and Taiwan, but Chinese Sign 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.[3]

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 is because the Chinese languages also usually specify "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.


  • CSL: Chinese Sign Language
  • article
  • Seen Not Heard by Cassie Biggs. From Weekend: February 26–27, 2005
  • Chinese Sign Language: by Elizabeth T. Yeh, 10/28/04
  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Chinese Sign Language". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Hong Kong Sign Language". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ a b Fischer, S.; Gong, Q. (2010). Brentari, Diane, ed. "Sign Languages". p. 499.  
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