this link suggests that there are limited signs in English at the stations, but perhaps you will get a better answer from someone who has been there recently
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We had 24 days in China May 2011, Beijing, Chengdu, Xian, Yangtze river , Shanghai etc, with several days pre tour in Beijing and the same in Shanghai post tour by ourselves. In Shanghai we took the metro regularly, no problem English signs everywhere, ticket machines have English, when we had a problem changeing lines there are Station Info people in uniform on hand who speak good English.
See my Shanghai page where I have tips on the metro etc. We felt safe walking the streets etc and walked the old town by ourselves, we were the only white people there, tips on my page.
In Beijing you can find signs in English including metro, but I am not sure about the whole China.
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The major centres, like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, you will find some-many English signs. Tourists areas like Guilin, Xi'an, Kunming, there will also be some English. However, the more remote or small you get, the less English you will find.
The good news is, many cities are only 2 characters. And guidebooks usually show the Chinese character for the cities. So, i becomes a bit of a word search on the boards :)
I agree with Fluffy.. It really depend where you go. If you are away from cities, it is possible that you won't see any English at all.
They have different signboard and operation in railway stations throughout China. I was in Yongding Railway Station, Fujian in Dec last year. I was totally confused with their operation , even though I speak and read Chinese. The station is closed or nor operating when there is no train crossing the station. They only operate at specific times each day. Don't be surprise other things could happen in railway stations in China. But don't worry, China is safe and there are always someone is willing to help even they don't speak English.
You're biggest issues will relate to late changes to trains which tend only to be in Chinese. It's the same at internal airports. We saw hand written notices go up that we were told related to our transport.
The other thing is that at busy times the number of people is just overwhelming. Trying to concentrate on what's going on in a steamning railway station surrounded by litterally 1000s of people pushing dashing is quite intimidating - even when you've got a guide who knows what's going on.
My wife and I spent 6 months in China last year taking trains and buses to many areas. We found there was enough English signage to get by, some places better than others. We found most trains have numbers associated with the location, these numbers are posted for all to use ( Chinese and others) We had a few challenges buying long distant tickets but somehow figured it out ( iPad translator) or someone with English was glad to assist. July and Aug was very busy, getting train tickets was difficult. The tickets go on sale 10 days before departure date ..we lined up early a few times to get tickets.
I would suggest you get a phrase book that has pinyin in it. Some have a different way to show you how to pronounce words which is very helpful but will not help you with signs as the signs for city/town names are in pinyin (Shanghai for instance is pinyin but the other books will show it as Shang-hi).
I would become familiar with the characters for North ( 北 Bei as in Biejing),South ( 南 Nan as in NanJing).East ( 东 Dong as in GuangDong province) West ( 西 Xi as in GuangXi Province) and Central/Middle (中 Zhong as in ZhongGuo which is the China is Chineseas lots of cities/towns have this as part of their name. I have included the Chinese characters in but it didn't work in the old site so I am hoping it does now.
Yeah!!!! - the Chinese characters did work. This will help in explaining some things. It has always been a bit frustrating trying to explain some things without them.