Deaf, not Dumb: Chinese Sign Language

It’s been a while since I last wrote about sign language, but some interesting YouTube videos by Alice (胡晓姝) recently pulled me back into it.

Below is the video that I found most fascinating. It’s subtitled in Chinese, but worth a watch even if you don’t read Chinese. I’ll sum up the main points in English below the video.

Before I list Alice’s main points, I need to first explain some background. In the video, Alice discusses the Chinese sign language counterparts of the Chinese words 聋哑人 (literally, “deaf mute person”) and 聋人 (“Deaf person”). The former is the most common way to refer to a Deaf person in Chinese, whereas the latter is the word many in the Chinese Deaf community wishes everyone would use. 哑巴 is the word for “mute,” and it’s definitely not polite.

Alice’s main points are:

– The Deaf Chinese are used to using signs for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) and “mute” (哑巴) but these signs are not respectful to Deaf people.
– Overseas, Deaf communities stopped using the expression “deaf-mute” 20 years ago, and only China persists.
– It was foreigners that appreciated that within the character for deaf, “,” is the character , meaning “dragon,” a traditional mythological protector being. That’s pretty cool!
– The traditional Chinese sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) is loaded with negative connotations, but there is an international symbol for for “Deaf person” (聋人) that we should be using.
– The word “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) should also be rejected because “deaf” and “mute” are two separate concepts; deaf does not have to mean unable to speak, and being unable to speak does not mean one must be deaf.
– Some Deaf people believe basic, improvised signs are lowly and spoil the aesthetics of the language. This is wrong, because sign language is the language of the Deaf, developed by the Deaf, with its own grammar and special characteristics.
– There are two kinds of sign language: literary sign language (文法手语), used to reflect mainstream written language, and natural sign language (自然手语), the everyday language of the Deaf.
– Deaf people are not handicapped people (残疾人). We have our own culture and language. Let’s unite and improve ourselves.
– The Chinese Deaf community needs to be bolder, to candidly discuss issues and to struggle together.
– Remember, it’s 聋人, not 聋哑人. Spread the word: 聋人.

I have to say, this video fascinated me. There’s so much there, linguistically (not to mention that it was filmed next to a sushi conveyor belt, which is just damn cool). I think you can tell when a gifted orator makes a stirring speech in a foreign language, and this is the same feeling I get watching Alice deliver her message. It’s inspiring.

My favorite part of the video is the stretch from 1:12 to 1:22. You can easily tell from Alice’s facial expression that the sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人), which uses the pinky finger, is distasteful, and that one should use the index finger instead to say “Deaf person” (聋人). It’s not just a matter of arbitrary signs, though. In Chinese sign language, the sign for “good” () is the “thumbs up” sign. The opposite of that is thumb in, pinky out. That’s the sign for “bad” (不好). So the meaning of the sign for “deaf-mute” is clear: “ears bad, mouth bad.” Quite negative. The newer sign uses the index finger, drawing attention to the ear and mouth without disparaging it. You can watch Alice put down the negativity of the pinky finger and choose the index finger instead.

Check out Alice’s other videos. Not all of them have Chinese subtitles, but one interesting one that does is an interview with Deaf rapper Signmark. Alice interviews him in international sign language.

I haven’t watched them all, but it looks like none of Alice’s videos to date have English subtitles. I’m working on convincing her that it would be worthwhile.


“deaf” vs. “Deaf” (read the explanation on the side)
Signmark rapping in Japan (note the character on the back of the group’s shirts)
– the 2009 Deaflympics are in Taipei, the year after the Beijing 2008 Olympics (coincidence??)


John Pasden

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


  1. Please do convince her!

  2. I was told that 聾子 is also considered derogatory. I never figure out why there is “龍” in “聾” until last year. It’s because a dragon is deaf in ears, only use its horn to hear…

  3. Peng,

    Interesting theory, but the most obvious explanation is that 龙 is simply the phonetic component, whereas 耳 is the semantic component of the character.

  4. That theory makes sense a lot if it’s true.

    Hi John: the explanation you gave is indeed obvious. But I think the point is why 龙 is the one chosen to be its phonetic part , not some character else. For an easy example, why not it’s 牛 combined with 耳 as a charater to mean deaf person, and can be pronounced “Niu”. Quite a lot of Chinese characters have their stories of origin. It’s always interesting to know them.

  5. Kate,

    Spoken language comes first; written language follows. So you would never choose 牛 instead of 龙 because the word is pronounced “long.” True, though, it could have been another “long,” but 龙 has a it of a history of being borrowed as a phonetic element. It looks like the favorite, in this case.

    • John,
      I might go near Hong Kong china. I’m learning ASL and want to learn csl and Chinese. I’m hearing. How is ASL and CSL different? Thank you.,

  6. Hi John,

    Suppose spoken languse is followed by written language in this case, can you figure out why the corresponding character to “deaf” should be necessarily pronounced “long”. or to say, suppose you were the very person in ancient China who were creating a character to express the meaning of “deaf”, how come the pronounciation of “long”struck you?
    however, if the story do exists and dragon was believed to be deaf by ancient people, it might be very likely for them to make accosication with “龙(writtne language)”or “Long(spoken language)”when making this character. I think both the two language might have a chance to come first. For “耳”, it was easily to be related to in terms of heiroglyph. That’s why I think the story of dragon can explain a lot in the origin of this charactor. Sorry for the confusing example of “牛”,kind of misleading.

  7. About “龙” in “聋“,opinion from a chinese person: just trust John, there’s no stories about dragons being deaf, period. Hope this clears things a bit.
    And about ” 聋哑人“ :I don’t feel any negative meanings in this term as a native speaker. In fact, ”聋哑人“ is a neutral word created to avoid any negative meanings may be carried by “聋子” and “哑巴“. “聋” and “哑“ alone are just stating facts so they can’t be derogatory. If deaf people don’t want to be called ”聋哑人“ since they can speak. No problem. However, I just can’t find the term ”聋哑人“ itself in any way not respectful to the people it refers to. Just feelings, but you got to trust your feelings when it’s about language, right?

  8. Chen1,

    Thanks for the info.

    Actually, in the video, Alice is referring to the sign for 聋哑人 that Chinese Deaf people use rather than the word 聋哑人 that hearing people use. I really don’t know, but it’s possible that the sign is much more derogatory than the word. It’s also possible that the Deaf community has an entirely different taken on the word 聋哑人 than hearing people do.

  9. If we accept that the conventional Chinese sign for deaf has the implication of “mouth bad, ears bad”, then I think it’s worth comparing it to the English expression “hearing-impaired”. Both imply a deficiency, unlike the word “deaf” which is simply a label.

  10. Mad energy. I’d like to see her do that same presentation after the sushi dinner and a couple 22s of Sapporo.

  11. Hi John,

    The character “龙” of course means “Chinese dragon”, which has a giant snaky body. And therefore this character later acquired a derivative meaning “not so clear”, i.e. something is TOO big and snaky to recognize its entire picture.

    Let me take “胧and 曨” as examples. Both Chinese characters have “moonlight is not clear, hazy” and “sunlight is not clear, hazy” respectively. And in a similar way, you can easily understand why “聋” means “deaf” in Chinese.

    The original meaning of “亚 (亞)” is a cross-shaped trench dug as the basement of a house, and later it was extended to something like “get stuck, choked”. For example, “恶” literally means “mind gets stuck”, and it means “feel sick” now.

    Then, “哑” means “choked mouth”. Anyway, there are usually a few etymologies for one word or character, and every interpretation is very plausible. The point is NOT which one is correct, but is the fact that even 声符 implies a meaning.

  12. Taiwan has a tv show for the deaf, with deaf hosts, and mostly ‘spoken’ in sign language. But the best part is: it’s not only subtitled, it’s dubbed! Not sure if you can say dubbed when the original ‘speaker’ isn’t actually speaking, but there is a matching voice-over for every sign-language speaker (and a signing lady next to every speaking speaker). It makes the show much more interesting to watch for hearing people who don’t know sign language and get bored quickly when they can only read subtitles.

    The show has feel-good stories, of deaf people who made it despite their handicap, like a deaf restaurant owner in Singapore, and a deaf 牧師 here in Taiwan, and it’s fun to watch.

    Maybe Alice can consider a voice-over for her videos to accomodate her hearing audience, if that doesn’t go against her ideas for a Deaf community.

  13. I was really impressed with her performance. A great orator is always worth seeing and listening to in “any language.” But at the same time, I felt somewhat uncomfortable with her following statement.

    记住, 聋人不是残疾人,

    I understand well that she said that just because of her strong pride in deaf people’s “own culture and language.” But if I were a handicapped person, I would have slightly gotten offended at her remark.

    Anyway, a nice video clip, but why at a sushi bar….?

  14. Interesting insight into sign language. I’m having a difficult enough time learning Chinese, I doubt I’d be able to learn Chinese sign language as well. But it’s cool to know a little more about how it’s used.

  15. changye,

    Interesting points about the character 龙, and character etymology is certainly a bottomless pit of intellectual goodness for those that want it. Still, I tend to be wary of reading too much into certain characters and meanings. There is most often no way to distinguish real etymologies from traditional rationalizations, and sometimes the exceptions outnumber the “rule.”

    Regarding Alice’s comment about Deaf culture, I was thinking about it, and it’s really quite an interesting question. To use a really simple example, just take the five senses and look at what happens when you deprive someone of one of them.

    • no sight = blind
    • no hearing = deaf
    • no sense of taste = ??
    • no sense of smell = ??
    • no sense of touch = ??

    Now, for the last three, I’m sure there are names for these conditions, but we don’t think of them as we do being deaf or blind. Furthermore, a blind person can communicate in the spoken language just like anyone else. Deaf people really are a special case, for very fundamental social reasons, and as a result they have a special sense of community and culture. As with many things in life, simple generalizations like “handicapped” just don’t really work. It’s messy.

  16. Gerald Hales Says: April 29, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Hi Alice,
    I am gald about your act. I believe it . But i hard write china langauge. i can’t know how . i feel part of shame; because i have girlfriend . she is hearing . yes truth hard understand togther and pretty talk. why, i learn read lip for log time.
    this night i read china sign langauge. i argee what you say not dumb like me . i am gald with your act.
    i ask you be favorite ” How i talk with girlfriend hearing before teach sign langauge “. it is important? 🙂

  17. On a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by the deaf community in China because their facial expressions and body language contrast so sharply with a society that, generally speaking, downplays those elements as communicative tools.

  18. […] got several comments on the Deaf, Not Dumb post (one comment actually on the site) relating to Alice’s facial expressions. The […]

  19. As a Deaf American who practices ASL, she certainly signs very eloquently. After watching it the 2nd time, I was able to figure out where and when she was making these points, especially when she was referring to the dragon.

    Thanks for this post; it was a pleasure to read your thoughts on the language.

  20. Hello you all,

    Thanks for sharing this video and your opinions to which I very much agree. I have been studying Croatian sign language for 3 years and what fascinates me most is the expression that is filled with energy which you can rarely find with hearing people. When you are for the first time in the presence of deaf people communicating it takes a few moments for the brain to connect why there is so much vividness and no sound… It came to me as a surprise and a fascination as well that finally brought me to study the sign language and the deaf community culture.

    About the term “deaf-mute”, I completely agree that it needs to be changed. Two years ago I went to Italy and saw a group of deaf people protesting on the main square in Trieste about this very issue. So it seems that Italy is something like China in that matter…
    Deaf communities in Croatia are also fighting to change this expression in the local language. And what I noticed is that they are doing a great job. Slowly the Croatian language is getting accustomed to use the new term, although now and then I hear someone say “deaf-mute” when talking about deaf people. This issue may seem like a small and not so important thing, but what it actually does, it changes the collective awareness of how deaf communities are seen, presented and talked about between hearing population.

    We should take care of each other and this is one of the ways to put it in practice. Thanks again.

  21. Kate,

    the word long existed before the character. The Chinese spoke in Chinese, not in english. So they didn’t look for a character for “deaf” they look for a character for “long” which existed and has variated from a long long long time ago. Chinese was not created in one day by the way.

  22. dumb 哑的,愚笨的。。deaf 聋的,听不见的,充耳不闻的。John 中国已经7.9 years了。应该知道这么翻译不够准确。 dumb 贬义,但在中文里哑没有贬义,是中性词。英语说“deaf”,但中文说“聋哑”(=deaf)。中文说聋哑、聋、哑,这是三类人。我们说这三类人(尤其哑人)不能说话,不是不能交流!这是不一样的!中国没有歧视的!这个娘们据说会n们外语,可能中文却忘了,这么简单的东西都区分不清……

  23. Amazing! I watched the video and I cannot understand CSL, but it would be easier to learn CSL than the actual Chinese language itself. For me, anyway.

  24. John Warren Says: April 13, 2010 at 5:47 am


    Your message about the handshape ‘Deaf’ is powerful. At my show in Hong Kong, I emphasized that the use of the pinky finger handshape “Deaf” was negative. I had explained to them that they do have their own cultural value. You may want to join my facebook for the photos that I performed there two years ago. My email address is

    John Warren, Vancouver, Canada

  25. susan margaret Says: January 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

    i am a student of chinese, and was an asl/english interpreter before i retired. my asl instructor told us that asl structure and grammar was closer to mandarin than any other language. can anyone comment on this?

  26. B.BarNavi Says: May 1, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    The thing is, using the index finger is really no different. The etymology of the sign in French sign is clearly “Can’t hear, can’t speak”, especially when contrasted with the sign for hearing people, which is the index finger looping around the mouth to indicate SPEAKING people. Now, in modern SLs like LSF and ASL, the two signs have simply adopted the respective definitions of Deaf (can’t hear well, nothing more) and hearing (DB levels OK) and the cultures that they refer to. That doesn’t erase the etymology though, regardless of whether you use the index, pinky, or even your whole palm.

    The international (Gestuno) sign for Deaf is just the index and middle fingers tapping the ear. There is another sign for mute, as it is another disability category altogether.

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