English in Beijing

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China has long had a love-hate relationship with the English language.  Since the late 19th century up till the mid-20th century, things were mostly peachy-creamy.  Then China fell under the tutelage of the Soviet Union and Russian linguistic influence, and English was largely shunned.  After the Sino-American love-fest initiated by Richard Nixon and Deng Xiaoping, English flourished once again as long as Deng was around and his successor Jiang Zemin, who actually knew some English, maintained a benign policy toward the language of Shakespeare.  But as increasingly hardline communist leaders rose to power, English came under attack until now, with the puritanical Marxist-Maoist Xi Jinping assuming full-blown dictatorial status, English is under the gun.

RFA: Beijing Removing English from Road Signs

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), dual-language road signs in Beijing are being replaced with Chinese-only road signs. Previously, many road signs had both Chinese and English. Authorities in Beijing said the updating will enhance the “overall city image,” give citizens a sense of belonging, and improve road safety and traffic efficiency. The change comes not long after directional signs on highways across China were changed from Chinese-language-only to dual Chinese-and-English signs.

The move  triggered a nationwide online discussion. Some speculated that Beijing may feel that its relationship with the West is completely hopeless, citing the recent meeting between Biden and Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in the US. Some netizens expressed worry that the all-Chinese road signs may cause inconvenience to foreign tourists. Others stated that many government officials send their kids to foreign countries [in the West] even as Western languages are at home in China. Meanwhile, some supporters of the new policy expressed the view that the transportation department’s signage update is a manifestation of cultural confidence and of China’s international status.

Both the Traffic Management Bureau of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau and Beijing’s Municipal Traffic Service Hotline were unavailable for comment.

Source: RFA, December 1, 2023


The government may try to minimalize the learning of English, but parents and students themselves are overwhelmingly in favor of it, starting from kindergarten through primary, middle and high school, to college and university education.  In many cases, at their own family expense, they go to additional pre-school English sessions, camps, and bǔxí bān 补习班 ("cram schools"), on top of an already heavy load of regular public school classes and extracurricular activities.  So far as the students and their families are concerned, it seems as though they can't get enough of English.


Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 2:02 pm

    Do I support the policy ? No. But I nonetheless believe that the country/party is entirely within its rights to formulate such a policy. Of course it is convenient for me to be able to find my way around without satellite navigation or other artificial aids, but I do not believe that it is my right so to do. Is Britain likely to enact legislation to require all road signage to be in both English and Chinese ? Not a cat’s in hell’s chance. So I have no right whatsoever to expect the Chinese government to make my life easier by requiring all road signage to be in both Chinese and English.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 2:44 pm

    There's some overlap and muddle between having or desiring bilingual signage versus just having or desiring biscriptal signage, i.e. hanzi plus pinyin. You would think the latter would generally be sufficient accommodation for foreign visitors, in places where there might be a material number of them, especially (although I don't know to what extent this is the case) road signage uses non-language-specific glyphs and symbols and icons and whatnot that are in wide international use. If there's a sign that's a red octagon with a character I don't know on it I can easily conclude that it translates to STOP without needing to learn the character.

    I do recall as a boy in Tokyo rapidly learning the recurring signage kanji that were particularly relevant to getting around inside e.g. train stations, e.g. those denoting entrance v. exit, stairs going up v. stairs going down, men's bathroom v. women's bathroom. I think I knew the kanji when I still didn't know many of the actual words they stood for, such that signage with a romaji transliteration of the words would actually have been of less practical use. OTOH, romaji transliteraton of the toponyms that were names of subway and train stations was very helpful, since the set of kanji you'd need to know to be able to read that pretty vast inventory of proper names would be quite large. It was novel/unusual when I found myself passing through a train station I didn't regularly frequent where the non-romaji full name on the sign consisted at first glance of kanji I already knew. (I have a fairly clear memory of 立川 / Tachikawa, being one such instance.)

  3. CD said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 4:02 pm

    I remember chatting in Shanghai with a Spanish tourist who *really* felt left out, as he had neither English nor Chinese.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 4:57 pm

    road signage

    is pretty much international outside the US. Lots of things that are spelled out (in comparatively tiny letters) in the US have signs elsewhere.

    …and while stop signs do all have the Latin letters STOP on them, there is no other octogonal sign. That's deliberate; it and the "you don't have the right of way" sign (triangular with a point down) are the only signs you need to be able to recognize it from behind.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 5:08 pm

    I think that that is exactly the point, CN. There is no reason (other than statistics) for assuming that if a visitor does not speak Chinese (more accurately, cannot both read and understand Hanzi) then he will benefit from an English translation. Yes, bilingual (Chinese + English) signage will benefit more than monolingual (Chinese) signage, but it will still exclude a substantial number of visitors who speak/read neither. The real answer, of course, is to ensure that if one is planning to visit a country, one should make some attempt to learn its language(s).

    If Great Britain, for example, were to require a skilled immigrant’s dependants to pass an internationally accepted examination in the English (or Scots Gaelic, or Irish Gaeilge, or Manx, or Welsh) language before they could join their sponsor in the UK, rather than raise the minimum income requirement for the sponsor from £18,600 to to a totally unrealistic £38,700, then I might believe that the present government was showing not only a little intelligence but also — and far more importantly — a tiny vestige of humanity.

  6. Chester Draws said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 5:56 pm

    You don't need to be able to read English to find English signs very useful.

    When I was young I found my way round Italy and Germany fine without a word of either language. Moscow was a different matter, because I couldn't read the alphabet, so I couldn't find anything on a map — which made the subway a tricky experience.

    Now that I am comfortable with the Cyrillic alphabet I find travelling in places like Bulgaria much less stressful, despite not knowing a word of Bulgarian. (And after two weeks there, my wife and I were quickly recognising the words for station, bridge, north, south etc.)

    But travelling Jordan was still a nightmare, even when just trying to work out which bus goes to which city.

    English signs are going to be helpful to anyone who is comfortable with the Latin alphabet. That's most of the world now.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 6:18 pm

    Re: which condition (bilingual vs. Hanzi-only signage) is objectively better… I mean, from an aesthetic standpoint, gotta say Hanzi-only, and given that the English was kinda crap anyway and visitors can camera-translate stuff now, probably not much of value is lost.

    But the question isn't really condition A vs. B but why the decision to make the change, i.e., what is the real perceived great benefit outweighing the considerable cost and trouble involved? Safety, efficiency? Dubious. In the end it's a national pride thing I guess. Certainly nothing to do with what international travelers might or might not think.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    December 8, 2023 @ 6:50 pm

    In my travels all over the world, I find people from all over the world who do not speak English as their native language talking to each other in English. Not surprising, since it is the de facto international language. Fact of life.

  9. Mark S. said,

    December 9, 2023 @ 7:40 am

    Notable also in this is that Pinyin is getting removed as well as English. In fact, most of what is getting taken off of road signs is Pinyin. A lot of people are unclear about the line between the two.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 9, 2023 @ 9:04 am

    A related story from almost two years ago: https://sg.news.yahoo.com/beijing-replaces-english-words-subway-111836674.html

  11. Anthony said,

    December 9, 2023 @ 9:33 am

    And "Chinese" in the New York Times (print edition December 9th, online version curiously from November):

    And in a week in May, Chinese coast guard ships, together with maritime militia boats, churned through waters off the coast of Vietnam in the exact same, curious routing. The paths the vessels took created the character 中, which is the first character in the Chinese word for “China.” The character was sprawled over a 350-mile stretch, equivalent to the distance from New York City to Canada.


  12. Thomas said,

    December 12, 2023 @ 1:03 am

    I think it is really nice that Asian countries provide Latin script road signages to the foreigners. However, we should not take this as a given. Also, are latinized road signs conflated with English signs in this article? After all, there's internationally recognised pictograms for most places of interest such as train stations and airports. This of course does not hold for more difficult content and place names. But then again, try and read some complex parking sign or speed limit in Central Europe without knowing the local language.

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