Chinese characters and left-handers

I came across an article earlier on myths about left-handedness. The section labeled “oppressing the left” notes that “lefties have long suffered.” One of the statements made in support of this, however, is that “Chinese characters prove extremely difficult to write with the left hand.” I’ve heard this assertion about Chinese characters before, many times.

Certainly there’s been a great deal of discrimination against left-handed people in China and Taiwan, where they are often forced to switch. This happens even more frequently in those two countries than in the West, where it almost certainly continues to occur. (When I was in second grade my teacher tried to force me to use my right hand. Fortunately for me, my left-handed father came to school to set her straight on this. )

Oddly enough, people in Taiwan and China have often remarked to me that left-handed people are especially smart.

I have none-too-beautiful handwriting when it comes to Chinese characters. My handwriting in the Roman alphabet, however, is pretty good when I’m writing for someone other than myself. But I doubt the difference has anything to do with me being left-handed. I didn’t grow up endlessly practicing how to write Chinese characters; also, I simply don’t care.

I’d like to note a few things.

  • For thousands of years, until well into the twentieth century, the standard order for Chinese texts was top to bottom and right to left, which, if it benefits anyone, would seem to benefit left-handed people.
  • Throughout most of their history, Chinese characters have most often been written with a calligraphy brush (maobi). And in calligraphy the brush is held perpendicular to the paper, so there’s no slant beneficial to people writing with one hand or the other.
  • Most writing with a brush is still done top to bottom and right to left.
  • Since pencils and pens produce lines of even thickness, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently different in writing Chinese characters with these than writing the Roman alphabet, something left-handed people can do just fine.

So what, other than prejudice, is the source of the contention that left-handed people are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to writing Chinese characters?

Before anyone mentions stroke order, however, I’d like to note that is also largely a convention, not something inherent in the final appearance of the character. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be variations in stroke order, even today, especially between China and Japan.

I’m inclined to believe that this is just another of the many erroneous claims about Chinese characters, but I’d certainly be interested in hearing any evidence to the contrary.

source: What Makes a Lefty: Myths and Mysteries Persist, Live Science, March 21, 2006

10 thoughts on “Chinese characters and left-handers

  1. The conventional stroke order _does_ greatly affect appearance when characters are written rapidly so that the strokes run together. Perhaps that is the source of the alleged difficulty.

    I would have thought that the direction in which a brush is being pulled would also affect the appearance of individual strokes in brush calligraphy, even when the strokes are painted slowly.

    If teachers throughout history had allowed lefties to get on with it, perhaps separate southpaw styles of cursive and calligraphic writing would have emerged, with their own conventional stroke order rules? I daresay these would have been just as legible for the general populace as the right-handed versions, as they would have been common enough for everyone to get used to, assuming that the proportion of left-handers among the Chinese is much the same as elsewhere.

  2. I think it’d be more of motion issues than anything with slant or thickness – for me as a right hander, I notice that it’s much easier to draw lines along the NE-SW axis than the NW-SE axis, for example, and I can draw straighter lines left-right than right-left (pulling toward rather than pushing away). I’d like to see a structured study, though, of whether this relates to the direction of hooks and turns.

    (disclosure: my English handwriting is abysmal, though that wasn’t always the case)

  3. It’d be nice to study native Chinese left-handers, but I’ve yet to see one. My father, who wrote left-handed as a child, was “set right” and hasn’t since used his left hand for writing. Indeed the Taiwanese word for “right hand” is chià?-chhiú (??) and for left, tò-chhiú (??). Clearly the language encodes the idea that the right hand is, well, right, and the left is merely “the opposite hand”.

  4. Btw, I think “Chinese characters prove extremely difficult to write with the left hand” because left-handers were (and still are) taught to write as if they were right-handed. This is particularly the case with modern instruments, which are held at an angle. With conventional stroke orders, a right-hander would wield the pen with a lot of left-to-right dragging motion (e.g. in writing ?). A left-hander, on the other hand, would be forced to push the pen from left to right.

  5. I came across this post after googling “chinese calligraphy lefties.” I’ve been taking Chinese calligraphy classes and I can attest to the fact that being a lefty makes it more difficult for one to make brush strokes that are consistently good looking. From my experience, one reason is that a lefty has to make the opposite brush stroke movement that a righty makes. So whereas a righty would make a stroke that pulls the hand inwards towards the body, a lefty has to pull the hand away from the body. Another reason is that holding the maobi, or brush, with the left hand positions the brush in a way that is different from the natural starting position of a stroke! So the hairs of the brush are not aligned correctly, and it’s harder to make the front and ends of your strokes look “pretty.” Finally, your line of sight is blocked by your own hand as you write a single character from its upper-leftmost radical to its lower-rightmost radical. Very frustrating indeed. However, I do know that people have mastered ambidextrous calligraphy, (go to a park in China to witness old people practice calligraphy by writing on the ground with a sponge brush and water) so it may be harder, but not impossible!

  6. I am American born Chinese and a lefty. People have complimented my character writing, despite writing left handed. By the way, only a few people have noticed or asked me if I write with my left hand. This includes people from native China or foreign students in China and my Chinese teachers.

    It’s just bad that we as lefties have been severely persecuted to the point that we are forced to use our right hand.

    However, I don’t think writing Chinese Characters are that big of a deal. It just takes practice. It will come and it can be done. Trust me!Good luck!

    Note: I first learned how to write Chinese characters using my right hand. That’s because I was forced to in order to keep good “face”. Later on, I learned this using my left hand. Many people have told me to use left hand to write tham since this is my dominant hand. Essentially, I am ambidextrous in writing Chinese characters, although I am better at it using my left hand.

  7. I am teaching here in China and have noticed that none of my children write with their left hands. I do have some children with severe printing difficulties; their mothers report that they have difficulty with Chinese characters,too. When I hand these children a kaleidoscope, they put it to their left eye. So here we have a lateral cross-dominance issue.

    How do you think Chinese parents would react if I suggested they allow their kids to use their left hand? I really could use some guidance here.

  8. I’m an american born chinese lefty, and I used my left hand to write chinese until 3rd grade, when my mom told me to write with my right. And even though chinese is said to be designed for righties, I find it much more frustrating to use my right.

  9. I know this is an old post,but I am happy to find it. I am a 50yr old American Lefty Artist I love all mediums, and have for the past 2 years been using Sumi paints. Recently I am learning Chinese calligraphy. I have a hard time following the instructions and getting my horizontal lines to end correctly. I just spent time doing it right handed and it worked perfectly like book…. Didn’t realize that left made such a difference.

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