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Chinese Sign Language

Chinese Sign Language
中国手语, Zhōngguó Shǒuyǔ
Native toChina
Native speakers
likely a few million[citation needed]
20 million deaf in China
  • Southern (Shanghai) CSL
  • Northern (Beijing) CSL
Language codes
ISO 639-3
csl – Chinese Sign

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 in China, Chefoo School for the Deaf, was established in 1887 by the Presbyterian missionary Annetta Thompson Mills. She developed what would become known as Chinese Sign Language, based on an oralist approach to deaf education, coming out of the Milan Conference of 1880.[2] Another school for the deaf was established in Shanghai in 1897 by a French Catholic organization. Chinese Sign Language has grown out of these two bases.[3]

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.


Chinese Sign Language is a language isolate. There are two main dialects: Southern CSL (centered on Shanghai and influenced by French Sign Language) and Northern CSL (coming out of the Chefoo School of Deaf and influenced by American Sign Language).[3] 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.[4] 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.[4] 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.

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, eds. (2017). "Nuclear CSLic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ McLeister, Mark (August 2019). "Worship, Technology and Identity: A Deaf Protestant Congregation in Urban China". Studies in World Christianity. 25 (2): 220–237. doi:10.3366/swc.2019.0258. ISSN 1354-9901.
  3. ^ a b Gertz, Genie; Boudreault, Patrick, eds. (2016). "Deaf History: Eastern Asia". The SAGE Deaf Studies Encyclopedia. SAGE. doi:10.4135/9781483346489.n74. ISBN 9781452259567.
  4. ^ a b Fischer, S.; Gong, Q. (2010). "Variation in East Asian sign language structures". In Brentari, Diane (ed.). Sign Languages. p. 499. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511712203.023. ISBN 9780511712203.