One of the innovations for this year's city two sessions, the Shanghai People's Congress and the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was the use of sign language. Two experienced signers, Zhang Lijun and Ge Yuhong, had the responsibility of being the first to translate these key events for the more than 250,000 deaf people that live in the city.
Zhang Lijun used to work at the Shanghai No.1 School for the Deaf and has been a sign language translator for 16 years. She now works at the Putuo District Disabled Persons' Federation and signs for the Shanghai Television Station's news program once a week.
The two sessions live television broadcast was a huge challenge for Zhang. "I was given the job on January 20, just a week before the meeting opened. I started to practice using President Hu Jintao's report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China because I had no idea what the local officials would say."
The biggest challenge
Zhang said the biggest challenge was how to deliver abstract words, like "fields" and many of the four-character political phrases like "transforming the drive." "I tried to understand the meaning behind the lines and practiced these gestures on a deaf person from our think tank. If he found this hard to understand, I would show him the written material or explain it so that he could read my lips. Together we worked to find precise translations."
But no practice could ever have prepared her for the actual task when she had to sign the entire 27-page report. Zhang had to perform more than 10,000 gestures to translate the report. "The preparation and the meeting lasted almost two hours. It was very much harder than the longest translation I had done beforehand which was just 20 minutes. I was exhausted mentally and physically. My back ached. I was worried that the smile on my face would be frozen there because I had to smile all the time."
Ge Yuhong is an official with the Shanghai Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center for the Disabled and has had 20 years of experience signing. When the meeting ended she said she felt as if she was a robot. "I was concentrating hard to catch each word and my brain and fingers just seemed to be working by themselves."
Despite the stress with the time and the importance of the occasion, these signers always strived to find the right gesture for every word. "Although deaf people can now communicate more easily with people by writing or with text messages, signing is a vivid language that not only translates information for them but shows that society cares for them as well," Ge said.
For some being signers takes them to a wonderful world where they introduce the world of voices to the deaf.
Tang Wenyan has been signing and teaching signing part time for nine years and she has found that the world of the deaf people she deals with is a world of tranquility and love. "At the first meeting where I was signing I was stressed and didn't do a very good job. But after the meeting, the deaf people came up to me and thanked me saying: 'It is wonderful that you do this work. Thank you for learning sign language and helping us communicate better. Go home and rest.' I was really moved and felt I would never want to stop signing."
Signing appeared in China in the 1880s - the first school for the deaf that taught Chinese sign language was opened in Shandong Province by an American couple in 1887, and a second opened in Shanghai in 1892.
As with other sign languages, Chinese signing is reliant on facial expressions as well as gestures. But it also has geographical variations - local sign languages thrive in the same way that dialects thrive alongside Putonghua. Ge said the city government had taken the opportunity of the two sessions to promote sign language.
The Shanghai Dongfang International Sign Language Education School, sponsored by the Shanghai Disabled Persons' Federation, opened in 2004. In 2006 the Shanghai Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau presented certificates to 50 graduates, the first batch of professional signers. Since then anyone wanting to become a signer has to take the course and pass an examination set by the bureau.
But Ge, who is also a registered examiner, said that many of those who held certificates were not proper signers. "Most are university students who are either interested in signing or just want to add the qualification to their resumes for extra marks. In fact because they don't work constantly with deaf people and practice, they cannot really sign."
Tang Wenyan was a part-time teacher at the Shanghai Dongfang International Sign Language Education School and the 28-year-old told the Global Times that among the 300 students trained at her school each year, only two or three are qualified and proficient as signers.
She said there were two groups who could sign - the first were those whose parents were deaf although they themselves had normal hearing. The second group included people like herself who studied signing out of interest. "The first group's signing is fluent and their parents understand them easily but usually they are using local dialects and not the national-standard gestures so they cannot qualify as official signers. Many of the second group also are not officially qualified because they have little or no practical experience."
Gaining practical experience in signing is a problem. Signers like Zhang and Ge, who work in government departments that serve deaf people, have the opportunity to practice signing every day. But Tang found when she opened her own private signing company along with two partners, that there was little obvious demand for the work. Her company shut down after one year.
"For days on end we had no inquiries or business. The busiest time was when we had eight assignments one week. We offered signing for legal consultations, tourism, lectures and exhibitions. But even though the authority recommended we charge 200 yuan ($32) per hour, we were paid just between 50 and 100 yuan for half a day's work. Many of the clients told us our services should be very cheap or for free because we were dealing with deaf people and it should be not for profit. My two partners and I made 1,000 yuan a month and we agreed that this was not the time to run a business like this in China," Tang said.
She now works as an office manager but does signing part time. "I sign for deaf people in need for free but I hope to have another chance at becoming a full-time signer sometime in the future." She said it was frustrating to see many of her colleagues losing their skills. "There used to be 30 or 40 of us attending annual meetings but now there are just a dozen. The Shanghai Dongfang International Sign Language Education School was closed after Expo 2010."
Some city institutions are trialing sign programs. In 2006, 15 doctors from the Shanghai Xinhua Hospital were trained in signing and last August the Shanghai Deaf Association and the Shanghai East Hospital worked together to provide a signer at the hospital to help deaf patients every Friday afternoon. Deaf patients who register with the association are given a signer and a social worker when they visit a doctor.
Seventy-two-year-old Chen Bifang told the Global Times in sign language that she had been helped a lot with this program. "I used to suffer from a bladder disease for years and was not cured because I couldn't explain the problem precisely to doctors."
Chen said she had tried writing explanations for the doctors but the doctors were too busy to give her the time to write down copious notes. "Some doctors and other patients were upset because I was taking so long. Although my daughter can understand my gestures, she didn't have the time or the medical terminology to help. The signers at the Shanghai East Hospital have really helped me," she said.
Fang Fang is a 50-year-old Shanghai signer who has been working at the hospital on Fridays for six months. She enjoys helping patients communicate with the doctors. Recently one of her deaf patients was diagnosed with a tumor and was treated at a specialist hospital - something that might have been missed were it not for the signing services. "We help about 20 deaf patients every Friday. Many of them have been suffering for years. It makes me happy to be able to help them."
A push for signing
The Shanghai East Hospital has been pushing its doctors, nurses and social workers to learn sign language. The head of the Shanghai Municipal Health Bureau, Xu Jianguang, has said the authority might encourage more hospitals to adopt the program. Signers are also needed in courts, police stations and other government departments.
As deaf people are given more career opportunities, there will be a growing demand for signers, noted Richard R. Lytle, a former US professor of education and now the president of a hearing-aid company, which employs and trains deaf people to be technicians.
"Years ago, deaf people in the US also had few choices in the job market and lived in a restricted world. But now they are active in several professions working as engineers, doctors and teachers. My wife is deaf and she is a doctor and my daughter, also a signer, works for companies and government departments and earns more than the average salary," Lytle said. "The more deaf people interact with normal people, the bigger the demand there will be for signers. I believe the situation will change in China."