Is Chinese read vertically or horizontally? Is it right to left or left to right? The answer is not as simple as most speakers of European languages might expect. In fact, not only are there various reading directions used in Chinese today, but reading direction has undergone significant changes in recent centuries.
How is it even possible to have different writing orientations?
For people who grew up only surrounded by European languages, it can sometimes seem incomprehensible that a single language could have more than one reading direction, especially for texts that are longer than one or two words. While English speakers might be used to seeing “SALE” written vertically on a banner outside a store, it’s hard to imagine anyone writing a full sentence like “We are having our ten-year anniversary sale this week, please come take a look!” The hyphen and comma would be especially difficult to make vertical. How does Chinese do it?
The key is in the nature of Chinese characters. Chinese characters all take up the same amount of space in a line. All characters are the same width and height. (A fact that causes some people to claim, bewilderingly, that the characters are “square-shaped.” A better way to say it would be that each character occupies a square of space on a page.) And, while characters are composed of various components, it isn’t necessary to “read” one component before another; readers just look at the whole character all at one time.
These are big differences when compared to a word like “poke.” The four letters have three different heights and because most of them represent sounds, the reader needs to see them in the right order. Compare this to 戳 (chuo1), which takes up exactly the same space as all other characters and doesn’t have any reading order.
All of this means that there’s no particular reason why Chinese couldn’t be written vertically or horizontally. And, it also allows a person two write left to right or right to left. All of this is impossible in English and similar languages.
From the earliest time of Chinese writing, characters have been written and read vertically, from top to bottom. The ancient oracle bone script was written this way. Before the invention of paper, documents were often written on bamboo or wooden slats which were bound together in a kind of scroll. Characters were written vertically, first on the rightmost slat. This reading direction, vertical from right to left, would be the standard direction for most Chinese writing for thousands of years.
But even in ancient times, there were exceptions. For instance, a sign above a door might not have enough space to accommodate vertical text. So, text might run horizontally from right to left in some situations.
In the 20th century, Chinese writers began to sometimes incorporate words from European languages in their writing. Scientific and mathematical texts in particular used terms and mathematical notations borrowed from the West. In order to avoid confusion, some publications chose to print entirely in left to right, top to bottom orientation.
After the People’s Republic of China was established, many linguistic reforms were put into practice, such as the simplification of Chinese characters and the standardization of official Mandarin pronunciation. Another reform was making the left to right, top to bottom orientation the universal standard of writing in mainland China. Today, the overwhelming majority of writing in China follows the same direction familiar to readers of European languages.
Where can vertical writing be seen today?
There are many places where one might see vertical Chinese writing today. For one thing, although the People’s Republic of China officially adopted horizontal writing, many Chinese-speaking places were unaffected by this decision. Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinatowns all commonly use the traditional vertical direction. Although, thanks to the influence of mainland China, Western languages, and the computer, all of these also frequently use horizontal writing.
Of course, you are also likely to see vertical writing on anything that is more than a hundred years old. Anyone interested in Chinese history will need to get used to vertical reading, as they’ll see it everywhere.
And then, sometimes people use it just because it fits what they want to do. Advertisements designed to fit in your vertical phone screen will often feature vertical writing. The couplets that people hang by their doors must be vertical due to the shape of the door. Congratulatory banners meant to hang on the wall of a business or institution might use this orientation as well. Or, some people might just think it looks cool or old fashioned. So, even in today’s mainland China you’ll still see vertical writing fairly often.
The story of the panda
The fact that Chinese can be read right to left or left to right has given rise to a few stories. One involves the Chinese word for “panda.” Though the story is probably fictional, it’s still a fun example of the confusion that can come from orientation ambiguity.
The story goes that when a zoo in Chongqing opened a new panda exhibit, they had a sign with the animal’s name, 猫熊 (mao1xiong2), written right to left. However, because people had started reading from left to right and were unfamiliar with this animal, and since there wasn’t any linguistic context to indicate which way the sign was meant to be read, people thought that the name of the animal was 熊猫 (xiong2mao1). Enough people had this misunderstanding that the name stuck, and today the animal is called 熊猫, rather than the original 猫熊。