Chinese Sign Language: Fingerspelling

手语基础 (book cover)

手语基础 cover

I recently picked up a book on Chinese sign language called 手语基础. “Practicality” was not a major consideration in the organization of the book; it seems to be written by linguists for linguists. If I needed the book to actually communicate in Chinese sign language I’d probably be pretty disgusted with it, but since my interest is primarily academic, I’m enjoying it.

In its second chapter the book talks about fingerspelling (also called manual alphabets). It runs through a variety of systems, including the earliest systems used in Chinese. I’ve scanned the charts (click through to the Flickr page for larger size), which you see below.

First up is the two-handed British fingerspelling system, which was devised around 1790.

Fingerspelling: 2-Hand British System

Then comes the one-handed American fingerspelling system. I remember learning this one when I was around 10.

Fingerspelling: American English

There’s a Russian system as well.

Fingerspelling: Russian

Don’t forget Japanese! (And try not to be offended by せ.)

Fingerspelling: Japanese

Chinese fingerspelling started well before pinyin, so the first system was based on Visible Speech, a system of phonetic notation devised by Alexander Melville Bell (father of Alexander Graham Bell). This Chinese fingerspelling system was called 赖恩手势.

Fingerspelling: 赖恩手势

If you compare similar sounds, such as B and P or D and T you can see how one detail holds phonetic meaning. In those cases, a movement of the thumb signifies aspiration. This is pretty cool from a linguistic perspective, although probably not the most practical system, because P and T (or B and D, or B and M, etc.) look pretty hard to tell apart!

Below you can see how the fingerspelling signs combine to make syllables (spelled on the chart in zhuyin).

Fingerspelling: 赖恩手势切

To help cope with the problems of the above system, a zhuyin (注音 fingerspelling system was developed in 1930.

Fingerspelling: Zhuyin

Following the adoption of pinyin, a corresponding pinyin fingerspelling system became official in the PRC in 1963.

Fingerspelling: Hanyu Pinyin

Note the similarities and differences between pinyin fingerspelling and American fingerspelling.

I’m finding this book really interesting. In case you’re wondering, even when you get beyond spelling systems, sign language is not at all universal. I’ll be posting more about Chinese sign language and its distinctive features soon.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I use ASL fingerspelling all the time for my Spanish class… no, it’s not culturally appropriate, I know. But they learn it fast enough. Besides, I’m too lazy to get up and write on the board.

    I know that Chinese people sign numbers, but I’m guessing that fingerspelling pinyin is not that common among the hearing?

    btw, I’m hoping to go to Hangzhou this summer, with the CET program. Any advice?

  2. Interesting! I’ve also been wondering about writing for the blind, like Braille. Is there an equivalent system in Chinese? How would it work?

  3. Great post. I only know Pinyin and American fingerspelling. I find British fingerspelling very difficult to memorize because of using two hands. Glad that ASL derived from French Sign Language!

  4. Cool post. I used to practice finger spelling while I commuted in the U.S. You know, so I could road-rage and insult people with low odds they’d really know what I was saying and shoot me. Anyway, it’s rrrreally interesting that the Chinese pinyin fingerspelling is so close to the US version, I could pick this up and use it! to at least say hello to someone I know here (China) who is deaf.

  5. Thanks for posting this great compilation of resources. I learned ASL because it’s complete with 26 gestures and it’d be cool to learn the pinyin one “just ‘cuz.”

  6. So, what about the “writing the character on your palm with your other finger” method? I’ll even do this with Roman characters sometimes…I’m becoming one of those “been in China too long” types…

  7. feel dizzy after viewing all kinds of fingerspelling…

  8. In a nutshell, sign language 也有dialects! interesting!

    当”上海话”遭遇”普通话” 聋人”听不懂”电视手语
    2006年12月03日15:05 新闻晚报





  9. I can understand using your hands for indicating numbers, but letters? How often and in what situations do you find yourself fingerspelling? Also, I don’t recall learning about or even hearing about fingerspelling in school.

    • Fingerspelling has it’s appropriate places in the deaf world. There are things that do not have distinct signs and need to be spelled out. Example is a name.

  10. @ JPV206,

    Do you have a link for the CET program? I’m studying Chinese in the US and sometime during my junior or senior year (im in college), I’d like to go to China.

    @ John,

    Been reading your stuff for a while (and listening to Cpod.. good ol’ intermediate..). Great stuff! I find it all very interesting and very helpful.


  11. This is great I am interpreter of ASL. I always want to learn more about Japanese Sign Language as well as Chinese Sign Language. Are there any books in English that show more signs of either language. Please let me now my other interpreter friends would love this info.

    • have you ever heard of plains indian sign language? the native americans had a well developed sign language hundreds of years before ASL was invented and in fact a few of ASL’s signs (like the word for ‘sorry’) come from there. I am trying to propose it as a universal language so that all people deaf or hearing or whatever have a language to communicate with. If you are interested, just email me. I know some good books to get started and we could practice signing with eachother. Pretty random, but I’m looking for people who would be interested in international signing and your comment made me think you would.

  12. @guang, hmm… I wonder why the article refers to hearing people as 健康人. Does 健康 here mean more than just “healthy?” In English, you’d probably see “hearing person” in an article comparing deaf and hearing people, rather than “healthy person” since the latter gives off a negative connotation towards being deaf.

    Where did you see that posted, btw?

  13. @eden, the Chinese don’t have anything near the big D “Deaf culture” that exists in the US, therefore the deaf are treated as disabled (残疾)just like the blind or people in wheelchairs, etc. When talking about deaf vs. hearing or blind vs. sighted, instead of referring to the sighted or the hearing, the most common term used in Chinese is indeed 健康, which means healthy person or, perhaps a bit more polite, non-disabled. Most who are deaf, however, will use 键听人 instead.

    @ben, as for Chinese braille, its sort of a mess, there are 2 different systems in use, though one has become more of the standard. The one system basically uses bopomofo system and then attachs a sign at the end to show the tone. I think (not 100% on this at all) that the other one is similar to pinyin and typically ignores the tone character, but not sure…

  14. Hey John, thanks for the info 🙂 I’m trying to learn sign language myself – both english and chinese. I think it allows one to understand another culture, another world perhaps.

    • I was looking through this site, learning Chinese sign language is going to be very difficult…I know ASL, it took me forever to grasp the concept of it, Yish…the only advice that I have for you is to practice what you learn…otherwise you will lose everything you learn.

  15. Adam,

    Here’s the link to CET Hangzhou. I can’t wait to start in July!

  16. Hoa Hoang Says: November 6, 2007 at 9:24 am

    hi .. my name is kim.. and i m deaf and vietnamese!!! i m interesting all different fingerspelling and sign languages!!! i like to know what look like different!! that’s cool and great…. i like to learn some i want to know vietnam sign language!! do u know it ?

  17. Ashtin :] Says: January 11, 2008 at 2:53 am

    Hello, all. My name is Ashtin. I am deaf. I would love to learn sign language in Chinese! I think it is very interesting. :]


  18. Carol Beachley Says: February 12, 2008 at 12:15 am


    I am an ASL interpreter and teacher now living in China. I teach English at Shandong Medical University in Jinan. Some of my students have learned Chinese Sign Language just for fun and have taught me many of the signs. They love sign song and are learning Chinese signs very quickly. Thank you for posting the alphabet online so that I can practice it on my own and help my Chinese students improve their hand shapes. Sign language has helped me make a better connection with the medical students in China.

    • Ashley White Says: August 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm

      Hi Carol. Are you still living in Shanghai? We are from the states and I am trying to find a ASL teacher for her.

  19. Hello,

    i am Deaf and living in Shanghai now. If you are interest about chinese sign language. You can to visit my Vlog or Blog: or

    have fun

  20. newstudent_84 dice:

    Hi! I was surfing the net when I saw your web page.
    I need some help from you. I’m an Italian girl who is studying Chinese language at the University.
    I’m searching some material for my thesis. My thesis is about Chinese Sign Language.
    For my graduation, I have to translate some papers form Chinese into Italian.
    I found some good articles but I want (and I need) to know more about this topic.
    Can you suggest me some good Chinese and English books regarding this topic? I have a friend in China at the moment and she can buy them for me. ^^
    Thank you very much to everyone who will answer at me!

    Postato 2

  21. Nice. I’m hard of hearing, living in Puerto Rico. Since PR is a USA territory, but our main language is Spanish instead of English, Deaf persons use American Sign Language (ASL) with little adaptations.

    In my job, at a Protection and Advocacy Agency, I learned about the British Sign Language (BSL), which is used also for persons which are deaf-blind. I never had the oportunity to learn it (lack of interest and have no one to use it).

    Right now I’m planning a travel to China and doing research on Chinese Mandarin. That’s how I found out that the Chinese use number fingerspelling because their dialects or regionalism, many people don’t understand verey well among themselves. That gave me the idea to find a little bit about the Chinese Sign Language (CSL), which got me to this page. I find it very nice.

    Thanks for the pinyin sign reference. I’m a little bit brain-burned myself because of too much reading about China hehehe, but I hope that I can learn it very soon.

  22. I am deaf and use ASL. I want to learn ISL (Italian Sign Language) so if any of you know any thing…. please help me!

  23. Bushra Khan Says: December 18, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Hi there,

    I am deaf. I moved to Beijing last month. I am new here. I know American Sign language. I would like to learn Chinese Sign language. If u u know any CSL course information, please send me email is I hope to hear from you soon. Thank you, Bushra

  24. Bushra Khan Says: December 18, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    P.S If u know any CSL course information in Beijing, please send me email. thanks

  25. ResearchWell Says: June 29, 2009 at 12:46 pm


    Realize this thread is quite old, but just for the record thought I’s add some comments.

    Been many years since I was studying Chinese Sign Language (official and Hangzhou dialects) in Hangzhou (1990-1997), but at the time it was very difficult to get my hands on any publications. Finally traveled to Beijing and knocked on the door of their publishing house, went through their warehouse and bought a ton of books for later use. I think the publisher was Huaxia chu ban she (华夏出版社). I’ve not been back to China for over a decade, sadly, and am sure the publishing situation has changed as much as everything else.

    At the time, the official Chinese Sign Language dictionary actually had English definitions with all words, so English Speakers can make use of it, even without the ability to read Chinese. Sadly, my Chinese is going downhill these days, and my copies of the dictionary are on a very high shelf where I cannot reach them, but I think this is the one:
    Zhongguo shou yu : xiu ding ban = Zhongguo shouyu / Zhongguo long ren xie hui bian
    中国手语 : 修订版 = Zhongguo shouyu / 中国聋人协会编 , published by 华夏出版社.

    From a linguistic standpoint (and just an interesting one) you should look for the work of Dr. James Woodward and his collaborators. A sociolinguist who started out at Gallaudet, then did work in Hong Kong, Thailand, and now–I believe–Viet Nam, all on sign languages. Their work is very, very interesting. During my day, they were certainly the only folks I could find in Chinese or English publishing serious linguistic works on CSL.

  26. Hello, I am try to read those zhuyin in 1930s from left to right. You have any idea about those? Is from A to z fingerspelling? what about rest last 12 manual hand? Are those numbers?

    Eric neuman

  27. randi furlow Says: December 22, 2009 at 12:42 am

    wow im really impressed by these my self know sign language my both birth parents are deaf so i know alot and i really got to see other signs and i have to say i am very interseted 🙂

    • Francesca Lanfranchi Says: August 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm

      my parent both are deaf too and i was born deaf. i know
      alot too and some of my friends even ask me for how to sign some words!

  28. Marcellus Mullins Says: January 1, 2010 at 8:58 am

    I am deaf person and I am eager to learn chinese sign language because maybe i plan to visit foreign lands in the future.

  29. hi
    Does any one knows about Tamil Finger spelling
    if yes please contact me via my email

  30. Do you know where in Shanghai we might be able to find a Sign Language interpreter? The child is American. please contact me if anybody knows,thanks,my email is

  31. Geraldine Pagarigan Says: January 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Can you out there tell me where to learn Chinese (Mandarin) sign Language for the deaf, preferably online–websites, etc? Thank you. My email address is

  32. […] fingers in different languages which contains a number of interesting launching points, including eight finger spelling charts – including for British, American, Russian and Japanese alphabets. This entry was posted in […]

  33. Francesca Lanfranchi Says: August 3, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    wow! i am deaf too i come from England, i know b.s.l and american language. I would like to learn wales and ireland sign language for the deaf please? Email is : thanks

  34. iam coming from new zealand and iam real coming from new zealand my name is aureet wade clark both aureet clark
    but i live in australia for 30 year and i wait for us visa permanlte
    i like live in new york us but iam lot of learning sign language from american later im very proud you love live in chinese for 9 year im very jealous you stayed in chinese too longer and good for you are brave meet love person plenty of chinese good luck

  35. Eze Okechukwu Says: June 19, 2016 at 9:28 am

    I am a Nigerian not deaf but learnt ASL because I want to help the heard of hearing and deaf. Now I am in Soochow University, China studying Chinese language but want to learn Chinese sign Language please where can I learn it? My email is

  36. I am a high school student and am planning a project to make a brief medical booklet for signs in all types of sign languages around the world of basic phrases needed in emergencies used by medical professionals.

    Does anyone know a site I could reference, particularly for Chinese Sign Language (CSL), that I could access and create this booklet? I also need help in BSL (British), LSF (French), RSL (Russian), and LSE (Spanish). Or would anyone be willing to confirm some of the signs I’ve collected (you don’t have to be a professional-any help would be greatly appreciated!)? If anyone has any info, please contact me at Thank You!

  37. […] All images in this post from John Pasden’s Flicker and compilation of the information inspired by 2007 his Sinosplice post. […]

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