Which way does the compass point? – Anne Henochowicz
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.