Making Themselves Heard: Chinese Sign Language & Deaf China Online

Chinese is widely known as one of the world’s most difficult languages, but what about Chinese Sign Language? Cat Hanson looks into the issue of sign language and Deaf Culture in China for What’s on Weibo, and explores their place in China’s online environment.

February 21st marked the United Nations International Mother Language Day, so-named for its recognition of mother tongues across the world. It was also the day that sign language interpreter and performer Xiaoshu Alice Hu (Austria/China) called attention to the inclusion of sign languages, Chinese Sign Language in particular, in the celebration of international mother languages.

Hu, who speaks Chinese, Austrian and English sign language, posted a picture of herself holding a sign, saying: “Please don’t ignore our Deaf’s Mother Language-Chinese Sign Language!” with the hashtag #中国手语 (ChineseSignLanguage).

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Spoken Chinese is commonly perceived as one of the world’s hardest languages to master. Aside from the hours spent deciphering thousands of characters, learners are also confronted with four subtly differing tones that are at first almost indistinguishable to the foreign ear. In day-to-day conversation, a perfect combination of light inflexions and stresses on each syllable can make-or-break a sentence from native fluency into complete nonsense.

With this in mind, it is rare to find discussions on what it is like to master Chinese without hearing the sounds and tones that so famously characterise it, yet for the Chinese Deaf community, this is a daily means of communication.

The Facebook post by Xiaoshu Alice Hu, that garnered hundreds of likes, raises an important question: Just how widespread is knowledge of sign language and Deaf culture within China, and are online spheres providing an arena for discussion?

Chinese Sign Language

Sign language is a method of communication often considered to be an important part of Deaf culture. In the UK, although knowledge of British Sign Language (BSL) is still far from widespread, people may occasionally see a BSL narrator next to television programmes, or recognise basic signs such as ‘thank you’ (moving a hand towards and away from the lips).

China also has its own sign language (CSL/ZSL), known as 中国手语 zhōngguó shǒuyǔ (lit: ‘China hand language’). Similarly to BSL, it combines a series of hand and finger signals with emotional expressions in order to convey individual words, letters, and overall meaning.

Sign language as a replacement for spoken Chinese is not a new phenomenon. In the book Sign Bilingualism, Jun Hui Yang notes that historical records show that sign language was used as early as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-959). There are also historical examples of sign language being used by deaf people in China throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), such as in Xuan Ding’s biography of a deaf man:

Xuan describes how this deaf individual communicated with his hearing mother through a system of home-signs that expressed the concepts for ‘bread’, ‘fish’, ‘meat’, and ‘mother’, and that he would use facial expressions and gestures to inform neighbours about how well his mother was or was not eating” (Jun 2008: 299).

From these early beginnings, sign language developed and spread throughout China up to the point of warranting standardisation. During the political upheaval of the mid-20th century, the newly-established People’s Republic of China took steps to simultaneously standardise CSL and Deaf school curriculum. In Deaf Children in China, Alison Callaway describes the process of collecting, creating, and standardising signs:

“(…) in 1958, a Sign Language Reform Committee was established (Piao 1984)…Because these signs were based on the spoken language, many two-syllable words were represented by two signs rather than one to express the concept in question” (Callaway 2000, 82).

Online Spaces for Sign Language

CSL has come a long way since the early half of the 20th century. Although the development of Chinese Sign Language might have been slow, a standardised book has been released for independent study, and numerous organisations, schools and societies now exist throughout China’s cities and metropolitan areas.

CSL is also slowly gaining ground in the online community, with social networking sites and blogging platforms being used to share materials and spread awareness of basic sign language. Online media is also acting as a space for deaf people to interact with CSL and use CSL in new ways, such as in online videos and music.


Video by Sign Language Spirit of China about the memory of goldfish: ‘Do goldfish really only have 7 seconds of memory?’ [Youtube]

A big challenge for sign language in China is that there are many regional variations of CSL; even in neighboring cities, sign language can differ.

Weibo user Zhang tells about a situation where she could not communicate with a man who used Shanghainese sign language, as she “could not understand it”, and preferred to use CSL. “We use Shanghai Sign Language more often,” one netizen responds: “because it gives the overall meaning, whereas Chinese Sign Language is somewhat annoying because you have to sign every single character.” Other users react with surprise: “Chinese Sign Language also has dialects?!” and: “I never even knew sign language could have dialects.”

China’s online spaces naturally encourage a rise in the general interest in CSL. On Weibo, a user called ‘Literature Good-for-Nothing’ (@文艺吃货青年) shares some CSL information and pleads for people to learn a bit of sign language. “By knowing a few signs, you can change their life!” he writes: “Let love have no barriers.”

Weibo is also used as a platform to reach out to both deaf and hearing people, with user ‘PureWhite Meets HeavenBlue’ (@纯白遇上天空蓝) advertising a “CSL corner” for hearing people to practise CSL with Deaf teachers, and for deaf people to meet hearing friends.

tumblr_o3odwpa02P1umh6nfo1_400The word ‘to know’ (认识) in CSL, a gif that is shared on Weibo by the volunteer organization for sign language.

Users can also follow the hashtag of ‘Everyday Sign Language’ (#每日手语#) to learn a new word in CSL every day.

The CSL and Deaf community is also active on WeChat, where account such as ‘Sign Language Standpoint’ (手语观点) share the latest news about CSL and sign language education.

Creating Awareness

In this manner, Chinese social media platforms are being used by Deaf organisations to spread awareness on their work, CSL and various events. Numerous nationwide and citywide societies and organisations are a click away for most users, and there appears to be an appetite for doing more to expand participation in Deaf culture.

In one post, user @Meda01 lists several societies stating: “They only have one goal, and that’s to help Deaf culture and CSL culture make better developments and take a stride forward.”

Overall evidence suggests that Deaf culture is setting the foundations for its own place in China’s social media sphere. Aside from numerous materials and videos, Chinese netizens express positivity, intrigue and pride in Deaf culture.

Following the current patterns of social media usage, awareness and appreciation of CSL and Deaf culture is likely to only increase, with further opportunities to reach out to both Deaf and hearing communities. The question that remains for the future is to how much these online spaces will transpose into real-world action and recognition.

By Cat Hanson

References

Callaway, Alison. 2000. Deaf Children in China.Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Jun Hui Yang. 2008. “Sign language and oral/written language in Deaf education in China.” In:Sign Bilingualism: Language development, interaction, and maintenance in sign language contact situations, Carolina Plaza-Pust and Esperanza Morales-López (eds), 297–331. John Benjamins Publishing: Amsterdam.

Featured image by ‘Sign Language Moon’ Weibo page, explaining sign language for 纳入 (‘bring into’).

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