Did You Know About Chinese Sign Language? A Guide to 中国手语

All About Chinese Sign Language

So, I just found out that the International Day of Sign Languages is coming up and is set every year on the 23rd of September.

I have always been interested in learning sign language and just never really had the time to settle down and sign up to a course, but that’s another story!

While doing some research I discovered that each country actually has its own version of sign language!

I don’t know why I always thought sign language was a universal language, but I was WRONG.

Then I thought, is there a Chinese sign language? If so, where to learn it?

There are so many interesting questions that I will try to bring some answers to in this blog, according to my research from the fantastic source of information that is the internet.

DISCLAIMER – I am not in any way an expert on the subject, so if you spot any incorrect information please let us know in the comments section.

Chinese Sign LanguageWhat is a sign language?

Chinese Sign Language What is the Chinese Sign Language?

Chinese Sign LanguageWhere to learn?

Chinese Sign LanguageThe International Day of Sign Languages

Chinese Sign LanguageFAQ’s

What is a Sign Language?

There is no better way than to start with an official definition, so here you go from the Cambridge Dictionary:

[Sign language is] a system of hand and body movements representing words, used by and to people who cannot hear or talk

As a matter of fact, there is more than 300 different sign languages in the world.

Yes, you read that correctly, it is not a typo!

Every country had a different sign language, just like it has its own spoken language.

You might already be familiar with the term ASL (American Sign Language) or BSL (British Sign Language).

The Chinese Sign Language is referred to as CSL.

Someone practicing CSL might not understand ASL.

Just as French, Spanish and Italian have Latin roots, German, Dutch and English have Germanic roots, sign language have similar roots which evolved with time, based on each country’s culture, body expressions and spoken language.

Quick history lesson!

The very first person credited with the invention of the sign language was Pedro Ponce de León, a Spanish monk from the 16th century.

However, it is known that Native Americans used sign language as well before that to better communicate with other tribes and facilitate business with Europeans.

Building on León’s work, another Spanish cleric, Juan Pablo Bonet, created a manual method to learn the alphabet, one shape representing one letter, which work was published in 1620.

In 1755, a French priest Charles-Michel de l’Épée invented an even more comprehensive method, even creating a signing dictionary.

His work was recognised by many, and he established the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris as well as 20 other schools.

In 1814, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an American minister, came to France to train and learn all about this technique. When he came back to the US three years later, he founded the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut.

That is why today, even though the sign language evolved through time, ASL is close to the French Sign Language.


Is there a Universal Sign Language?

Yes there is! Well… sort of.

Known under the name of International Sign (IS) or International Gesture (IG), is not considered a full language, but rather a form of communication used between two signers lacking a common sign language.

Early on, the need for a universal sign language arose, and people would use a specific sign system for international events or cultural events.

In 1973, the Commission of Unification of Signs from the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) published a standardised vocabulary.

With many developments and improvements over the years, the International Sign is now used during international meetings or events such as the Deaflympics.

The IS uses a simplified lexicon, with signs that can be understood by the largest audience possible.

However, as IS is mostly based on ASL, people from Asia or Africa have more difficulties to understand it, which is why the term “International Sign” is not approved by the linguists.


What is the Chinese Sign Language?

The Chinese Sign Language (CSL) is known in Mandarin as 中国手语 (zhōngguó shǒuyǔ).

CSL has two dialects! More details below.

NOTE – CSL is not related to the Taiwanese Sign Language (文法手語 – wénfǎ shǒuyǔ).

Just like the ASL or BSL are based on English letters, CSL draws its reference on Chinese characters.

Check out this videos to have a quick look at how different are ASL and CSL:

Jun Hui Yang, an expert on the history of deaf education in China, states that “The first historical record of the use of signs for communication dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-959 CE) in which the Chinese word 手语 (shouyu) for ‘sign language’ appears in classical literature.”


The very first deaf school in China was established in 1887 near Qingdao by an American missionary, Annetta Thompson Mills.

A second school was established in 1897 in Shanghai by a French Catholic organisation.

These two schools developed CSL as we know it today and created its two dialects:

  • Northern CSL, influenced by American Sign Language.
  • Southern CSL, influenced by the French Sign Language.

Like most other sign languages, CSL use the combination of hand gestures and facial expression to convey a message.

CSL also has an alphabetic spelling system close to pinyin.

Check out how to sign Chinese alphabet and numbers in this video:

The standardisation of CSL began in the 1950’s, and the first manual phonetic for Modern Chinese was published in 1959.

And in 1990 the term 中国手语 was officially chosen for the Chinese Sign Language.

In 2019, The National List of Common Words for Universal Sign Language was released, a first of its kind in China, with 5,000 words for daily usage, with more to come in the following years, according to the State Language Commission.

Actually, you might already know some Chinese Sign Language!

Ever learned how to count in Chinese with your hand?

Where to Learn Chinese Sign Language?

It is possible to learn a sign language, and you’ll have a better chance to find resources or a course in your home country, teaching the local sign language.

However, if you wish to learn online, there is a lot of resources on the internet.

Be aware though, most of them teach the American Sign Language (ASL).

You will find videos on YouTube and image tutorials on Pinterest, and a lot of online programs to learn ASL.

For example, Signlanguage101 offers complete programs, and Gallaudet University offers free ASL lessons.

If you want to learn the Chinese Sign Language though, there is unfortunately very few online resources in English.

You can find some videos on YouTube or some websites, but you’ll have a better chance to find useful resources on Baidu, if you can understand some Chinese.

The International Day of Sign Languages

And to finish this blog, let’s talk a bit about the International Day of Sign Languages.

The International Day of Sign Languages is celebrated every year on the 23rd of September.

“[This date] is a unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users”

According to the United Nations

The day was first celebrated in 2018, making it a very recent event!

It happens during the International Week of the Deaf that was established in 1958.

The 23rd of September was specifically chosen because it is also the date when the World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951.

According to the China’s Disabled Person’s Federation there are 20.54 million deaf people in China.


Although the standardisation of a Chinese sign language is fairly new, the country is working hard on making sign language education more accessible.

Did you know there was a Chinese Sign Language? Let us know in the comments!

chinese sign language


Is there a Chinese Sign Language?

Yes, there is.

The Chinese Sign Language is referred to as CSL, and in Mandarin 中国手语 (zhōngguó shǒuyǔ).

Is the sign language in mainland China same as in Taiwan?

No it is not the same.

Mainland China has CSL 中国手语 (zhōngguó shǒuyǔ), Taiwan has TSL 文法手語 (wénfǎ shǒuyǔ).

There are actually more than 300 sign languages in the world.

Is it possible to learn Chinese Sign Language?

Yes it is possible to learn the Chinese Sign Language.

Keep in mind though that there is very few online resources in English, however you can find lots of teaching videos on Baidu.

How to say Sign Language in Chinese?

Sign language in Chinese is 手语 (shǒu yǔ).

shǒu means “hand”; means “language”.

Pretty easy to remember isn’t it?

When is the International Day of Sign Languages?

The International Day of Sign Languages is celebrated on the 23rd September of each year.

This date specifically was chosen because it is also the day when the World Federation of the Deaf was established in 1951.

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  1. Taiwanese Sign Language has a strong influence from Japanese Sign Language as Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese during the first part of the 20th century until the end of WWII. Chinese Mainland sign languages developed separately but as teachers of the CSL started moving to Taiwan, TSL started to adopt some of the CSL signs as well. It appears that TSL also has slight regional differences that can roughly be divided into the North, Central, and South TSL.
    Due to South Korea also having been occupied by the Japanese, Korean Sign Language has many signs in common with JSL and hence, TSL. I don’t know much about North Korean sign language or how widespread a standardized sign language is, but it also seems to share many similarities with South Korea’s KSL.
    Thanks for the interesting summary!

    1. Max Hobbs

      Thanks for your comment John, some really interesting points there and we are happy you found the blog of use!

  2. Maggie

    Had genuinely no idea!!

    1. Max Hobbs

      Glad we could enlighten you!

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  10. Therese S.

    Disappointing that it’s not available for English and ASL users to learn online.

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