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I have encountered horizontal right to left characters on signs (at the top of a gate) and on vehicles.

  • When is this used and why? Was this more common in the past?
  • Are the individuals characters ever mirrored (e.g. "b" versus "d")?
  • Is this change in direction confusing or disorienting to native speakers?
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted
  1. In the past Chinese characters were written from top to bottom and from right to left. Horizontal right to left is not that common even in ancient times. The top scroll in a couplet is one case which might be the one you see at the top of a gate. The one you see on vehicles may not be the case. I think it's just on the right side from head to tail of the vehicle which makes it right to left.

  2. Of course not, or else it would confuse the reader.

  3. Not for most adults, you just need to get used to it.

?right .either English in readers confuse won't it think I

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Oh that explains why the Chinatown neighborhood in Buenos Aires has a gate which reads town china :D –  Petruza Dec 29 '11 at 22:24
    
I think it's only confusing for ppl learning the language. I remember seeing a poorly written sign: mix of horizontal-left-right and vertical-right-left. I could make no sense out of it, but my mum read it with no problems (even with the mixed horizontal/vertical layout). –  pyko Jan 31 '12 at 13:12
    
The part about the signs being mirrored is interesting: that's exactly what happened in hieroglyphs: when written right to left they are also mirrored. This was actually not confusing, but helpful, as a quick glance enabled you to guess the direction of the script by looking where the faces of people/animals were facing. –  dda Jun 5 '12 at 4:27
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To add on to existing answers, right-to-left writing is still commonly seen in Japanese and Taiwanese comics and novels, which is how I became familiar with it. Given time it is not terribly confusing (at least not more than recognizing traditional characters).

Interestingly enough, this is not always the case for other media, if you watch Taiwanese shows, the subtitles are in left-to-right, but many years ago it used to be in right-to-left as well.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_and_vertical_writing_in_East_Asian_scripts

Vertical writing is still used in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and China, on the other hand, are using right-to-left horizontal writing.

One popular saying of the difference is countries using vertical writing are still practicing traditional Chinese. The complexity of characters strokes make it hard to read if printed in horizontal.

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