Chinese Corner

East South West North3 min read

Which way does the compass point? – Anne Henochowicz


Back in 2013, Sam Duncan posed an etymological question on an old collective, the Anthill, that turns out to be a scientific and cultural question:

When I first learned the word for compass, “south-pointing needle” (zhǐnánzhēn 指南针), I thought: That’s weird, why isn’t it “north-pointing needle” (zhǐběizhēn 指北针)? I read somewhere that the reason the needle points south is because the ocean is generally to the south in ancient China. Does anyone know if this is true?
When I looked it up the other night, I discovered that people also say zhibeizhen. There don’t seem to be any obvious usage differences between the two. Baidu gives me 29,300,000 hits for zhinanzhen, and 2,720,000 for zhibeizhen, so I guess the latter isn’t used that often.

You’ll find “north-pointing needle” in the dictionary, but not really anywhere else. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with the Earth’s magnetic field in China. (Or with Chinese compasses – they invented them, after all.) And of course, all compasses point both north and south – each end of the needle is pulled toward one pole or the other. But there’s more to the “south-pointing needle” than arbitrary choice.

Traditionally in China, south is the direction whence good fortune comes, and so to face south is to face forward. Accordingly, ancient Chinese rulers sat on south-facing thrones in south-facing palaces. To rule is to “face south and be king” (nánmiàn’érwáng 南面而王). These kings made use of the south-pointing chariot (zhǐnánchē 指南车), which uses mechanics, not magnets, to indicate south. Perhaps the southerly direction was favored because, as any real estate agent will tell you, it is the source of warmth and light if you’re north of the equator. As Victor Mair has pointed out, this is particularly true for the Yellow River Valley, where Chinese civilization began. Even Neolithic Chinese built their houses with southerly entrances, according to John Perlin, author of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.

Other directions have their own histories. A landlord is literally a “house-east” (fángdōng 房东) and a host may be called the “master of the eastern path” (dōngdàozhǔ 东道主). That’s because, in the old days, a host would stand to the east and their guest to the west. If you are hosting, you may be said to “be east” (zuòdōng 作东). Apparently, back in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), the weaker kingdom of Zheng cut a deal to preserve its sovereignty and serve as a rest stop for Qin envoys journeying east.

Then there’s “thing”: literally “east-west” (dōngxī), the Mandarin word for “thingamajig.” Mandarin has a number of compound words combining opposites to indicate a general category – here, the two directions are a shorthand for anything coming from any direction.

If you rattle off the four cardinal directions in American English, you probably say, “north, south, east, west,” in that order, listing the two pairs of opposing directions. In Mandarin, it’s “east, south, west, north,” going clockwise around an imaginary compass. But Endymion Wilkinson, famed for his authoritative reference Chinese History: A Manual, notes that the clockwise order only dates to the 20th century. Before then, it was “east, west, south, north,” similar in logic to the English.

Here in the States, we have regions like the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, while China has the “East-North” (Dōngběi 东北) and the “West-South” (Xī’nán 西南). Why “west-south” and not “southwest” in English, or visa versa in Mandarin? It most likely demonstrates a prefered tone order. But also, why not? ∎


Header image: “Rose Compass” by Enrico Strocchi, used under Creative Commons license.