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Not sure if text reads left to right, right to left, or up to down Not sure if text reads left to right, right to left, or up to down

  1. Not sure if text reads left to right, right to left, or up to down

 

Traditionally, or at least how I was taught to read and write Chinese text, it read up to down and started from right to left.  Thus, Chinese books also started from the so-called “back cover” of an English book.  It was a 180 degree philosophy on how to approach reading a book from a westerners’ perspective. But when I went to China in 2000, it seemed the teachers were not as picky about this format, and actually accepted writing from left to right and then up to down, exactly how English is written.  Did a definite right or wrong exist for the method of Chinese writing?  Not necessarily, but it now required the reader to consider two methods of reading:  up-to-down, right-to-left OR left-to-right, up-to-down which also leaves the reader guessing if the book’s front cover was traditional Chinese-style or English-style.  To make it more confusing, there is one exception for horizontal text.  If the horizontal text is one line, it is possible and occasionally written right-to-left for stylistic or historical effect, contrary to the usual left-to-right for horizontal text.  Take notice when watching old kung-fu films or visiting temples, the horizontal sign or plaque of the temple is often written “backwards” (right-to-left).  When I moved to Taiwan in 2002, I noticed on certain signs Chinese written right to left.  (show photos – Photo #1).  So what is a foreigner to do when reading Chinese?  To be honest, it’s not easy.   But for some clues, start with the age of the text.  If it’s fairly old, it is most likely written in the traditional style: up to down, left to right.  If it is modern, it is likely to be written like English.  And in most cases, right to left horizontal reading is mainly encountered in Taiwan and HK.  I have seen it on buses and food stands.  The main point about Chinese is there is no definite “head” (tou2) or “tail” (wei2), each character is independent spaced apart from each other visually and thus it is only after you attempt to read left to right or right to left or up to down do you get it.  Don’t get frustrated by it, just accept this fact and be more flexible when reading signs and text.  If it doesn’t make sense it’s most likely due to the method you’re reading it.  However, to a beginner and possibly an intermediate-level student, reading the words in all three methods may not make sense   Hopefully you run into a sentence that reads the same starting from the left or right such as:

上海自来水来自海上

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