China: A Land Without Left-Handers

Yesterday, August 13, was International Left-Handers’ Day, and no one here even noticed. After running out to my mailbox to check for cards and gifts (I’m sure they’ll arrive soon; China Post is slow) and waiting around the apartment all day for flower deliveries (none, but I’m allergic to most flowers anyway), I finally placed a solitary candle in a cupcake, lit it, and sang “Happy Left-Handers’ Day” to myself. I didn’t have anyone to celebrate this important (and totally real) holiday with me because even though they call it “International,” it’s really not. There are no left-handers in China, the world’s largest country.

Plenty of Chinese are born left-handed—probably about 10-12 percent of the population, based on statistics from other countries—but they aren’t allowed to stay that way. Vigilant parents and strict schoolteachers work together to turn children who favor their left hands into righties: they’ll grow up never knowing the frustration of being unable to operate a can opener or squabbling with other children over the single pair of left-handed scissors in the classroom. Ink won’t smear as they move their hands across the page while writing, nor will they have to rearrange people at the dinner table so they can secure a prime spot on one of the left ends to avoid bumping elbows with dining companions. Life will be so easy.

Eliminating these irritations, of course, isn’t the reason that Chinese adults train kids here out of left-handedness. I’ve always heard that they do it because it’s easier for teachers to instruct large classes of young children in writing Chinese characters if everyone is doing the same thing with the same hand; Chinese schools aren’t known for their flexibility or tolerance of individuality. For many years, American teachers did the same thing when left-handed children appeared in their classrooms, though that ended several decades ago—my father and his two younger siblings managed to go through elementary school in the 1960s-70s and emerge with their left-handedness intact.

In China, though, forcing left-handed children to go right is an absolute. As a result, someone will almost always comment when I pick up a pen or pair of chopsticks with my left hand, and they’ll watch me carefully to see if I write or eat in an unusual manner. It is, like my red hair and freckles, just one more mark of my foreignness here, another way that people can catalogue how China differs from the rest of the world.

“China doesn’t have any left-handed people,” I inevitably hear whenever someone strikes up a conversation on the topic with me. Occasionally, the other person will go a step further and declare, “You can’t write Chinese characters with your left hand.” If I jot down a character or two to demonstrate that I do, in fact, write Chinese left-handed, my show-and-tell will often be dismissed. “Maybe you can write them, but they’re not right.” Even when my stroke order is perfect (the sequence in which you compose a character really matters in Chinese) and the character is technically correct, my left-slanting characters will never be viewed as “right.”

I’ve been told this for a decade now, since I began my first-year Chinese class in fall 2003. Once a month or so, our professor would bring in ink and brushes so we could practice our Chinese calligraphy. As Professor Liu circled the room commenting on our efforts, he would always sigh over my ink blobs and shaky strokes, then shake his head and absolve me of any guilt: “You’re left-handed, and you just can’t write Chinese characters correctly with your left hand.” He didn’t seem to agree with my assertion that the real problem was my total lack of artistic talent or ability to wield a brush. I think he half-hoped I would switch to being right-handed in Chinese—even if the results were disastrous, at least I would be doing things correctly.

I never made any attempt to turn myself ambidextrous, though, and have become accustomed to the interest that my left-handedness draws in China. In fact, many people here will often hasten to assure me that being left-handed is a positive thing: after all, they inform me, lots of brilliant and famous people are lefties. (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are the two usually mentioned first.) So I’m in good company, even if I had to celebrate International Left-Handers’ Day alone.

13 thoughts on “China: A Land Without Left-Handers

  1. Lefty in Taiwan here (Brit) only realised today there was probably not many or any lefties in china, because all the pens were welded to the right side of the table making it virtually impossible for me to sign the bank slip. 🙂 good article.

  2. The problem can be solved another way. All factories that produce one form of a tool should also produce the other form in as high a supply as demand and all stores in China that buy one form of a tool should also buy the other form. The problem of distorting Chinese characters can be solved by having teachers allow left-handed students to write backwards, then the characters won’t be distorted or smudged, an in fact would probably be indistinguishable from the mirror image of forwards writing written by a right-handed person. It doesn’t take very long for a teacher to train themself to be good at reading backwards writing.

  3. I think we should instead make everybody ambidextrous. There are probably some jobs that could be better done by ambidextrous people than people who are right handed or left handed, for example cutting every second cucumber piece into thin slices with your left hand from right to left not wasting job time switching the knife from one side to the other between pieces. In fact new kids starting school should be made ambidextrous for everything, not just the things it’s useful to be ambidextrous for because skill somewhat transfers from one task to another task. Each job should have an equal number of right-handed and left-handed versions of a tool and tell each person to take what ever version they get. Teachers should have an equal number of right-handed and left-handed scissors and tell kids they must take the pair they get and cannot trade them for another pair during that class period. Each kid should be left to develop their handedness in their own way until 8 then the school should determine their handedness and put each kid into a class of people who are required to use their opposite hand for everything. Those who are right handed should be told to mirror write with their left hand. They should be asked to copy a phrase with their nondominant hand and if they wrote it with their dominant hand, they should be asked to write it again with their nondominant hand. There should even be evolutionary pressure for ambidexterity as described in so that evolution will remove all that fighting resistance of kids to become ambidextrous.

    If we don’t make everybody ambidextrous, we should be making 50% of people left-handed, not 0%. If we make everybody right-handed, evolution will select against left-handed people then genetic drift will give people badly wired nerves in their left hand making it impossible for them to train themselves to make both hands good which would be terrible. Evolution will make it easier for right-handed people to train their left hand to be good if 50% of people are right-handed than if 87% are. Factories should still produce an equal number of right-handed and left-handed versions of a tool forcing some right handers to use a left-handed version rather than the other way around. There should be linear tables rather than round ones and everybody one one side should be ordered to eat with their right hand and everybody on the other side ordered to eat with their left hand. Those right-handers who run out of seats on the side of people eating with their right should either suck up eating with their left hand on the other side or be kicked out of the dinner. Even after evolution makes 50% of us right-handed, there will be a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less than 50% of people right handed at individual dinner tables due to random fluctuations but the last few people who only have space left on one side should still be ordered to eat with the hand they’re supposed to eat with on that side to not bump elbows whether or not it’s their dominant hand. In fact, that would create pressure for a very slight bit of ambidexterity because each person will sometimes run out of space on one side and sometimes run out of space on the other side.

  4. The problem of writing Chinese characters can be solved another way by allowing lefties to do mirror writing. That way, if you see an inverted photograph of Chinese mirror writing written by a lefty who learned how to mirror write before they learned how to write normally, you will not be able to tell that it wasn’t written normally by a righty and the characters will be written correctly. Allowing mirror writing also makes it easy for a lefty to copy the teacher’s strokes by doing the mirror image of what ever they see the teacher do.

  5. I have just co-founded with 9 other caligraphers – International Left-Handed Chinese Calligraphy Association based in Singapore. Left-handers CAN write Chinese characters well. We want to prove them wrong!

  6. I’m a left-handed, and I am a Chinese.
    So, of course, I dont believe that we have no left-handers.
    This paper maybe just a little bit old school for me.
    Anyway, it’s a good paper to read:)

  7. Pingback: Written Chinese
  8. Why would Chinese people leave a smudge writing with their left hand? They write right to left. It would actually be more efficient in some ways.

    1. Yes, traditional Chinese texts were written and read right to left, vertically. But over the 20th century that changed, and now people write left-to-right, horizontally, so left-handers in China face the same smudging issues as elsewhere.

  9. The reason teachers are so frustrated with left handed students is that THEY don’t know how to teach them (it’s their lack, not the student). As a left handed person, I’ve learned to take instruction as if I were sitting in a mirror. Face to face, I can follow a teacher’s directions movement for movement, be it something like writing, painting, assembly using tools, or playing an instrument – like a guitar.

    But I find most right handed people get confused and can’t see in this way, so they can’t receive instruction from me. If I show a right handed guitar player how to form a chord using my Left Handed Guitar, they get confused, even when I tell them, it’s just like a mirror, the top string is still the low note just like on YOUR guitar… they just can’t get it.

    So living in a right handed world, I’ve had to learn both ways of doing things. If I want speed, efficiency and accuracy, I’ll do a job left handed (I draw for a living), but if I have to use a right handed tool, or work with a right handed person, I do it “backward” (with my right hand) more to help them than to help myself. I can operate right handed power tools (like chain saws and cutters) with either hand, although I will most often use them left handed, and wear safety glasses because the wood chips will fly in my face, to make accurate cuts.

    I’ll leave those confused right handed people to deal with their own consternation, as I see it as their problem, not mine, but it’s so silly that they get so emotional about it. It’s how my body operates, and only fools diminish and weaken other people’s abilities for the simplistic and superficial requirements of conformance.

    To the left handed people in China, YOU are the only one’s in your “right” mind, so step up and be who you are. It’s a good thing.

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