Monday, 22 November 2010

east is east

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West.
If I could point to one thing that I’ve learned after so many years of living among Chinese people, it is that if there’s more than one way to look at a situation or to perform a simple task, the Chinese invariably opt for the alternative to what I’d previously been used to. Take the turning of a key in a lock, for example. You may not realize it, but you probably turn it in the same direction every time. Of course you would, because you know which way works. In my case, having grown up in Britain, I turn the key towards the locking mechanism to lock a door. However, I’ve yet to find a door in Hong Kong that doesn’t require you to turn the key away from the locking mechanism in order to lock it.

Talking of doors, it is common practice in Chinese homes to leave the bathroom door open when the bathroom is not in use. However, Westerners tend to leave the door closed. I’m bound to say that the Chinese practice makes more sense: if the door is closed, then there is someone inside and you will have to wait.

It’s the same with long multiplication, a term that younger readers may not be too well acquainted with. In the UK, we were taught to start at the units column and work progressively through the tens, hundreds, thousands, etc. The Chinese, at least in Hong Kong, were taught to begin the process by tackling the largest denomination first and then to work towards the units. I have used the past tense because it seems that the electronic calculator has supplanted pen and paper, and even the abacus, which in skilled hands is faster than a calculator but requires an understanding of how numbers actually work.

In contrast to the Western model, in which applause for achievement often verges on sycophancy, Chinese men are reluctant to praise anything, even their wives. It can be unsettling for a Western woman to hear her Chinese husband describe her as “an okay wife”, which to Western ears sounds suspiciously like damning with faint praise. However, that same man, who may have reached his present position in an organization by dint of hard work, will attribute his success to luck, as likely as not.

My own experience of this tendency came in the 1980s, when for several years I was enrolled in a wing chun school. Although it is customary to address a teacher of kung fu as sifu, my teacher expected his students to address him as Hong Kor (‘Brother Hong’); however, in all other respects he was a traditional teacher, which meant that he never praised his students. I found this regime tough to take, given how hard we were expected to work, but I did find a way around the problem: the teacher always assigned a senior student to show someone the next move, and whenever it happened to me I reasoned that if I was being shown a new move, the teacher must think that I’d mastered the previous one.

And we all know about Chinese writing: it starts at what we would call the back of the book and reads in columns from right to left, finishing at what we are pleased to call the front. However, you may not know that the strokes in each individual character are drawn in sequence from top left to bottom right, the way we would instinctively read a page of writing. But this is a purely practical consideration, at least if you’re right-handed, because your hand moves away from what’s already been written, which explains why so many left-handers have trouble writing. A particularly egregious example of this is shown by President Barack Obama: as a fellow southpaw, I have an instinctively negative reaction towards people who write in such a cack-handed fashion, having myself been taught to write ‘properly’ at the point of a cane, which means that I can see what I’m writing without my hand getting in the way and without looking like an amateur contortionist.

On the other hand, my Chinese calligraphy is crap, because I’m often pushing the brush where a right-hander would be pulling it, which means that the shape of the stroke comes out wrong. I’ve been told that I need to learn to write right-handed. The point to note here is that Western books follow the instinctive left-to-right pattern throughout, while the Chinese option appears to be completely arbitrary. It is generally believed that the Chinese write in columns because the earliest characters were inscribed on bamboo, but this assumes that there is only one way to write on a long, narrow surface. An alphabetic language would have to be written along the long axis, but because Chinese characters are equivalent to discrete ideas, they can be written in sequence either horizontally or vertically. Starting on the right does seem to be an irrational choice though, because the hand tends to smudge the previous column when the writer moves to start a new one. So I’m left wondering whether there is a subtle practical reason for this counterintuitive choice, given that everything I encounter in Hong Kong seems to work very well, even if it doesn’t always work the way I expect.

However, this choice may be entirely arbitrary after all, given the next point of difference: when a group of Westerners sit down to play a card game, they deal the cards in a clockwise direction. This also applies when those same Westerners sit down to play a board game involving more than two players: the turn passes clockwise around the table. By contrast, Chinese players always deal cards in an anticlockwise direction, and when playing mah jong or dominoes the turn passes around the table anticlockwise.

Superficially, both options appear to be arbitrary, but it is at least possible that the European method is based on solar observation—in the northern hemisphere, the sun moves across the sky in a clockwise direction, and this would have been most easily seen in the shadow cast by the gnomon of a sundial. This movement would then have served as a model for certain types of behaviour, such as dealing cards. Yet the Chinese opted for the contrarian alternative, but then I’ve become accustomed to such differences, and turning a key the correct way has become instinctive. What is more, I never assume there is only one way to do something. Whether the alternative is better than my long-established procedure is another question, and one that I shall leave unanswered.


  1. Very interesting! When left to their own devices, it's amazing how many different ways people find to do the same tasks...

  2. What might this tell us about left to right thinking vs. right to left thinking?

  3. You've got me thinking there Bruce, although I hope it was intended as a rhetorical question, because I can't really answer it.

  4. Very incisive and well reasoned! It is interesting to see the limited extent to which two distinct societies can develop similar customs and the slight variances that we see. What is also interesting to consider is the reaction of each to the other and how outlandish these things seem to both!


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