Character-based Sign Language

Shortly after I arrived in China and observed the deaf community in Hangzhou, a beautiful thought struck me. Deaf people communicate in an entirely different way. If all the deaf people in the world use sign language, they could all learn the same sign language and communicate with each other regardless of race or nationality. No barriers. A truly international language!

But alas, that was not to be. You see, sign language doesn’t just “substitute for” or “imitate” human language… it is a human language. As such, it is subject to the same restrictions and limitations by which all human languages are bound. In this case, one of the most important factors is that deaf communities are very often isolated. They’re isolated within a country, with a city, or within a district. Without a means to regularly communicate, communities drift apart linguistically over time.

Not only is Chinese sign language different from sign language of other countries, but it also varies from city to city. The sign language of Shanghai differs from that of Hangzhou or Beijing, for example. Even so, there is a national standard promoted. (I’m not sure how hard the Chinese deaf communities strive to adhere to it.)

One of the ways that Chinese sign language sets itself apart is its references to Chinese characters. Certainly not all signs make reference to Chinese characters, and those signs that do make reference to characters don’t necessarily do it in a character-for-character way, but the influence of characters in Chinese sign language is tangible.

Here are a few examples from my book:


Sign: 人


Sign: 人民


Sign: 公民


Sign: 干


Sign: 食品

I don’t actually know Chinese sign language… does anyone know any other interesting Chinese signs?


John Pasden

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


  1. I’ve found this site, which offers instructional videos in Chinese sign language, to be pretty interesting. I was originally looking for differences in grammar between spoken Chinese and Chinese sign, and ended up there. At the end of each lesson, the instructor shows (briefly) how people actually sign the sentences in practice, and there is a difference from her spoken words. I didn’t actually learn any of it, though.

  2. The only word I know in Chinese sign language is “Thank you”. It is done by holding your right hand in a fist with the thumb extended.

    The base of the thumb should be placed at the front of the jaw. Then bend the thumb twice to say XieXie, or Thank you.

    I know this from the deaf students who sell magazines to people taking buses to the various housing developments here in Guangzhou.

  3. I used to live in Taiwan, and I learned how to say my Chinese last name “Bo” (cyprus). The left side of the character is a mu, or tree, and the right side is a bai, or white. Your right hand makes a waving sound (like it’s a tree with waving branches) and your left hand points at your teeth (theoretically people’s teeth are white).

  4. From what I’ve read in the past, signers who are born deaf and then learn a sign language, develop a true ‘language’ with it’s own internal rules, accents and such. So it’s understandable that in China the sign languages have as much variety as the local dialects.

  5. There’s only one international sign: W/_

  6. Zhong Guo
    open mouth (kou) + index finger over the middle of your open mouth = zhong then with your right hand index finger touch your upper left chest then drag it across to the right side of your chest then drag straight down (this last sign comes from where the buttons were located on the traditional Chinese apparel) = guo.

    John I’m an avid reader of your blog, I’m especially delighted in your recent interest in CSL, I’m a CODA(which in the Deaf community means Child Of Deaf Adult) so ASL is my first language. I’m here in Shanghai studying Mandarin and CSL, so hearing about your new fascination is quite surprising and exciting to read about. Good Luck!

  7. @erik, I’m a coda as well, but never had a chance to take any CSL classes, are you studying on your own and do you have a chance to practice it with native speakers? I’m always shy about looking at signers here in Beijing when I see them.

  8. This is really fascinating. Now I am left wondering if there is traditional and simplified Chinese sign language? Any Hong Kongers or Taiwanese out there to confirm or deny?

    • B.BarNavi Says: May 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      Taiwanese use a different SL altogether – more related to Japanese sign, due to the colonial period.

  9. Out of what I know of CSL, I’m not sure what is actual CSL and what is just the system my friends and I have used to communicate. Like the sign for 才 is drawing the character in the air. As far as I can think of, there aren’t too many CSL signs that use Chinese characters as a base. It is really amazing the extent of differences between say Beijing and Shanghai sign language and how few words are actually similar. Some of the cross-cultural stuff is interesting, the sign for “like” (as in I like that), in ASL means “gay.”

    I would advise you, and anyone else, to be very, very VERY careful about attempting to practice CSL with deaf people you see on the street in China. Due to the limited job opportunities that exist for the deaf, some have turned to crime and, while they prey on everyone, they will pick out those who are signing in particular. So while it may be okay to try with the cute kids you may see in school uniforms, with anyone else I’d be very careful. Most of the deaf Chinese I know are very cautious when signing in major commercial areas where those thiefs tend to hang out.

    • I was very interested in your comments. I am the mother of 3 deaf adults and 2 deaf grand children. I am also a writer and artist. I have written several children’s stories and illustrated them and my son is making the DVDs in ASL to go with the books for deaf children, as there is very little out there for them. One of the fairy tales that I have written and illustrated takes place in China, and I hoped to have it also translated in CSL. Do you know anyone that could do this–that I could contact? Thanks.

  10. Interesting. I guess I never thought of SL being different in other countries, but I guess it would make sense that it is. You learn something everyday. SL has always been a fascination with me, and I would have learned it in college, but they didn’t start the program until the semester after I graduated. Go figure, huh? Maybe one of these days I’ll go back to school and study it so I can learn how to sign more than just the ABC’s, my name is . . ., and thank you.

  11. I saw some Taiwanese people signing to each other on the subway today. I really wanted to ask them about it… but they were deaf. Seriously. This isn’t a joke. If only I’d had a pen and pad of paper on me.

  12. @ Eden – Awesome, love meeting CODAs. Every week at church I hangout with the Deaf group(20 – 30 ppl) for a couple of hours to chat, that’s how I’m learning. I’ve chatted with lots of Deaf people that I’ve seen signing on the street, it’s always welcomed, you know Deaf culture. I always start with the classic deaf? me not, mother father deaf then the convo gets rolling.

    @b.cheng – the signs for like in CSL, and gay in ASL actually are not the same. As you know the sign for gay is with the letter g, while like could be more described as the letter L with the points of the index and thumb fingers bent slightly inward. Also in my experience of chatting with Deaf I meet in the street, it’s been a very safe and rewarding experience, I even had a deaf guy who saw me signing, with my dad and his friend, take us to the Bund and explain some of the history behind it, and afterwards buy us all a drink. Remember there are lots of hearing Chinese people who also don’t have jobs or are low on money who might resort to “crime”. But you’re right on the general concept, it’s always safe to be safe.

  13. I attended the deaf school in Suzhou so I think I used Shanghai sign language. I was told that Hong Kong and Singapore (uses ASL mostly) borrowed some of Shanghai sign language. I still remember several signs from late 1980’s/early 1990’s:

    I am not sure why the sign is used representing Beijing, but it reminds me of king, emperor, or ruler. It’s still used today.

    I couldn’t find an explanation why it’s like that. I guess it’s like hanging city over ocean? It’s still used today too.

    I found it pretty funny. We were taught about Anti-Japanese War of Resistance and tended to portray Japanese devils having tooth moustache. I am not sure if this sign is outdated or not… Oh yeah, the same sign in ASL means Hitler.

    Just because Americans always have curly hair 😀 It’s probably outdated.

    Just similar to “人”

    Taiwanese sign language isn’t same as Mainland one, but pretty similar to Korean and Japanese sign language, probably due to Japanese occupation/influence.

  14. There’s a book in English out on Japanese sign language and the Deaf community and language politics in Japan by Karen Nakamura.

  15. I appreciate the info. I met and talked with some Deaf people in western China back in 2003 and desire to go back. I found the Deaf I met both there and in Beijing very friendly. Sure didn’t have as much time as I would have liked there, but learned a bit of their language and enjoyed hanging out with them.

    Erik, I’d love to talk more with you as I have a few questions for you in regards to your experience there in China. Please email me at

  16. Hi,

    I’m trying to pick up American Sign Language myself through books and online. I’m very interested in learning more and faster. I station in Shanghai (China) and travel a lot to Beijing. Is there any course I can take in either of these 2 cities?

    Any information will be appreciated.

    Thanks in advance.


  17. Hi. I have some knowledge of ASL but I am interested in Chinese sign language and Japanese sign language. Could anyone recommend a book or website to learn CSL and JSL? Please email me at:

  18. ps… I am living in Hong Kong at the moment so…if there is anyone on board that lives in China, please email me.


  19. JohnnyGurl Says: January 8, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    hey, i have always wanted to learn SL, and have a dream of going to China. so of course learning CSL is logical. i was surprised to learn that the SL is so different between cities. hopefully there is maybe a basic SL i could learn? i live in New Zealand and finding chinese (speaking) classes are hard enough, and so far i have found no CSL classes, but i will keep trying.
    if anyone knows of a program that can teach me (Sigh Language or Spoken) Chinese that would be really great if you could tell me.
    im at


  20. would you also have the sign language for hongkong?

  21. I was very happy to find all of your comments about CSL. I am a hearing Canadian, living in Shanghai. I have been studying ASL for the past three years in Canada and my partner, who is still in Canada, is Deaf and is fluent in ASL and English. I have encountered a few Deaf people in the streets in Shanghai but have not been very successful in communicating with them with my ASL. However, while I am in China I want to learn some CSL and in the spring my partner will be joining me and is very interested in connecting with the Deaf community in Shanghai and learning some CSL.
    Going to church is a great idea to learn language but I work on Sundays. Does anyone have any other suggestions on how to pick up some CSL? Are there any other Deaf events around town? Or better still, does anyone know of a Deaf person in Shanghai who would be interested in tutoring me? Could work out well for both of us, if someone is interested in making some extra cash.
    Thanks for any suggestions you can give me!

  22. Bushra Khan Says: November 25, 2008 at 11:53 am

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Hello, I am deaf woman. I arrived in Beijing 2 weeks ago. I am a new here. I would like to visit deaf community around here.

    I would like to ask you some questions:

    1. Are these CSL courses available in Beijing?

    2.Do u know any acititives or events of Deaf association in Beijing?

    1. Can u give me full address of Deaf Association in Beijing?

    2. Are these training programs for job skill or vocational education available for the Deaf?

    I would be grateful if you could give me some details.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    Thank you,

    Bushra Khan

  23. Bushra Khan Says: December 18, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Hello, I am deaf. I moved to Beijing last month. I want to learn Chinese Sign language course.
    If u know any CSL course in Beijing, please send me email is I hope to hear from you soon. Bushra

  24. I would like to learn CSL. Do you know of any universities or schools that teach it?


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