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I am referring to the fact that in English, we say "northeast", whereas in Chinese, the equivalent direction is called 东北, which literally translates to "east-north". One could say the same about "northwest" => 西北 (west-north), "southeast" => 东南 (east-south), and "southwest" => 西南 (west-south).

It seems that in Chinese, the principal directions are east-west, with north-south being the secondary. This is in contrast to English. Is there a reason why?

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Different countries and cultures adopt their own conventions. Although this is an interesting question, but what has this got to do with Chinese language? –  Question Overflow Jul 19 '13 at 16:54
I think you're absolutely right that 东西 is the primary axis and 南北 the secondary one, although you missed that north-south is also reversed. :) –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 19 '13 at 17:03
@TomAu This paper 甲骨文四方风与古代宇宙观 provides comprehensive information for your question. Brief conclusion: that's because the ancient Chinese people knew the directions by observing the sun first. –  Stan Jul 19 '13 at 17:41
@TomAu, the only language-related reason I can think of is in the pronunciation. 东 and 西 are pronounced using the first tone ¯, 南 is pronounced with the second tone ˊ, and 北 is pronounced with the third tone ˇ. Compound words are usually arranged in the order of increasing tone if there is no other meaningful order since it is easier to pronounce them this way. Example 大喊大叫, 好言好语, 难分难舍, 左思右想, etc. As for what Stan has pointed out regarding the sunrise, I think it applies to not just the Chinese. –  Question Overflow Jul 20 '13 at 7:41
Without further research into the topic, I feel that the English directions are more phonetic than anything. Try saying eastsouth. Yep, I think so too. –  deutschZuid Jul 23 '13 at 3:03

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

In Chinese,

East/West comes before North/South: e.g. the phrase 东西南北

East comes before West

South comes before North: e.g. 南北朝, 南拳北腿

In asking why these particular orders, we're begging the question of why the Western cardinal directions are in their order? That is:

North/South comes before East/West

East comes before West

North comes before South

After examining reasons for both, hopefully it will become clear why the orders are the way they are.

There are two differences to consider:

  • whether the East/West axis comes before the North/South, and
  • whether North comes before South

Warning: there's a lot of guesswork here; if anyone has better reasons or evidence please contribute, which is why I'm making this a CW answer

Why is East/West more important than North/South?

If you were a prehistoric human and observed your world, the sun would be one of the most notable features of your world. It would be easy to notice that every day, it moves from one side of the sky to the other: East to West.

So it should be easy to see why East/West is so important, and why East comes before West. There is evidence that in Western cultures, East once had primacy too, especially in the Medieval period, where most maps were East-oriented. It was also related to the phrase "to orient", where orient also means East.

T-O map, Isidore of Seville's tripartite world map,1472

Why did North/South become more important than East/West?

This leads to the question of why did North/South become more important. The answer is simple:


The compass's influence cannot be understated - it isn't one of the four great inventions of ancient China for no reason - as it was immensely useful for navigation and seafaring. North/South became more important in China too, at least for navigation and cartography, as evidenced in this map dating from the Ming dynasty:

enter image description here

Why is North more important than South, and vice versa?

Which leads to the final question, why North is before South for the West, and South before North at least in the Chinese language. This may be the hardest question to answer, so let's go back to first principles, look at the reasons why North became important in the West, and see if those same reasons or different ones are at play for China:

  • Compasses point North (but they also point South!)
  • The North Star, Polaris, is visible in the Northern Hemisphere; no stars pointing South would be visible
  • Egocentricity: people associate up with good, so naturally they'd orient themselves at the top of maps relative to their neighbours. In Medieval times, the greatest enemy to Europeans were various Islamic sultanates, generally located to their South.
  • Ptolemy oriented his maps North; in his time the most interesting places were in the North which may have influenced his decision.

What about China then?

  • For most of China's history, their greatest external threats were various nomadic cultures to their North. Look no further than the walls they built for evidence of this.

These reasons are not that convincing, but hopefully they are a start. It's interesting to see that Chinese maps were once South oriented, but eventually they became North oriented too, leaving the word ordering as a legacy of ancient times.

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+1 Great! But why did you put your answer as "community wiki"? –  Stan Oct 4 '13 at 7:11
@Stan two reasons: 1. I'm making a lot of guesses; if anyone has better reasons or evidence then please add them. 2. This answer risks being offtopic, as it's more about history than the language. –  congusbongus Oct 4 '13 at 7:13

It just common use. But if you insist, here may be a reason. You know in Chinese, there are four tones. If in a word, the characters' meaning are similar, like 东北, 天地, 危险. We always put the third and forth tone in the end. How ever, there are similar phenomenon in ancient poems, we call that 平仄. Be careful we don't usually implement 平仄 in short words, but poems and 对联. But since we always say poems and 对联, then we may have some habit trends to arrange the order of characters for our comfortable to say it.

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Yang gives the correct explaination。 –  Eden Harder Aug 13 '13 at 4:25
that's all well and good, but these idiomatic expressions go back long before Mandarin and its four tones... –  simon Aug 27 '13 at 8:08
@simon I think someone could do more research on this and come up with a better answer or an edit. 平仄 is defined in terms of Middle Chinese tones, not Modern Mandarin ones, so this could be right. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Sep 3 '13 at 7:14
As to words of form XY, where X and Y have similar meanings, I suppose that both XY and YX existed in the past, that's why many words of the form XY in modern Chinese are YX (in reversed order) in Cantonese and Japanese. –  user58955 Sep 18 '13 at 7:06
Interesting theory, but to me it seems more likely that the causation is the reverse - that there was some other reason for the character order, and the matching tones came after. –  congusbongus Oct 1 '13 at 8:00

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