North by Northwest. (Elementary)

Can you give directions in Chinese? If you and your Chinese friends were separated, could you tell them where to find you?

Let’s take a look at a common scenario. This is Sam’s first trip to Xi’an and his friend Li Ming is waiting for him at the train station. Can Li Ming find Sam in the crowds?

             Sam,  nǐ zài nǎli? Wǒ zhǎo bú dào nǐ…
Li Ming: Sam,你在 哪里?我   找    不  到  你… …

             Sam, where are you? I can’t find you…

           Wǒ zài huǒchēzhàn de běi xī bian.
     Sam: 我   在     火车站      的  北 西  边。

            I’m at the northwest end of the train station.

Li Ming: 哪里?


Although “north” is 北 (běi) and “west” is 西 (xī), and the literal meaning of “northwest” is 北西 (běi xī), Li Ming, a native Chinese speaker, can’t understand Sam’s directions. Why not? Where did Sam go wrong?

Actually, in Chinese, the order in which you say the points of the compass in Chinese is different from English. Instead of northwest, Chinese people say “west-north,” or “西北 (xīběi).” Similarly, southwest in Chinese isn’t 南西 (nán xī) but 西南 (xīnán), or “west-south.”

Keep reading to find out why directions are given in this order.

东 (dōng)

东 (dōng) means “east” in English. We all know that the sun rises in the East, so, in the minds of Chinese people, east is the symbol of life. It is warm, bright and brings about spring and vitality. So, Chinese people have a deep respect for the East, and this is reflected in certain words. For example, “东家 (dōngjiā)” means “host;” “房东 (fángdōng)” means “landlord,” and, if you have ever lived or traveled in China, you know that some Chinese prefer a house with a gate facing east.

西 (xī)

西 (xī) means “west.” West is where the sun sets, so it symbolizes unlucky things, such as darkness, coldness, terror, death and so on. “西 (xī)” can be combined with other words, usually giving the phrase a negative meaning. For example, instead of saying “死 (sǐ)” which means “to die,” Chinese people say “西去 (xīqù),” meaning “go west,” or “归西 (guīxī)” which means “pass away.”

After the above explanation, it should be easier to understand why Chinese put “东 (dōng)” before “西 (xī)” with directions. It is the custom to put the more positive word in the first position. To help you remember this order, just think of the Chinese word for “thing,” which is “东西 (dōngxi).”


Wǒ qù mǎi diǎnr dōngxi
我   去  买   点儿  东西。

I’m going to buy some things.

南 (nán)

南 (nán) means “south.” A long time ago, Chinese people observed that trees and grass on the southern slope of a mountain would grow very lush due to more time in the sun. For this reason, the south symbolizes life and luck in Chinese culture. For example, if a house doesn’t have doors facing the south or the east, Chinese people will try their best to have windows opened towards the south.

北 (běi)

北 (běi) means “north.” Just as the ancient people observed how well plants grow on the southern side of a mountain, so too did they observe that the northern side was dark and barren. So, when putting south and north together, the Chinese will always put south in the first position.


Wǒ jiā ménqián yǒu yìtiáo nánběi lù.
我   家    门前     有   一条    南北  路。

There is a south-north running road in front of my house.

You may also wonder that why one would say “西南 (xīnán)” instead of “南西 (nán xī)” although west symbolizes unlucky things. The reason for this is “东 (dōng)” and “西 (xī)” are the directions of the sun rises and sets. So, we always put “东 (dōng)” and “西 (xī)” in front.

Through the above explanation, do you know why we say 西北 (xīběi) instead of 北西 (běixī), and 西南 (xīnán) instead of 南西 (nán xī)?

Here is a list to help you:

东北 (dōngběi) — northeast

西南 (xīnán) — southwest

西北 (xīběi) — northwest

东南 (dōngnán) — southeast

Please do these exercises and show me if you can put 东(dōng), 南(nán), 西(xī) and 北(běi ) in their proper place.
1. Zhōngguó zài Yìndù de ______ bian.
        中国      在   印度  的 ______   边。

    China is to the______ of India. 

A. 东 (dōng)

B. 南 (nán)

C. 西 (xī)

D. 北 (běi)

2. What’s the translation of the sentence “I am in the Northwest of the school.”

A. 我在学校北西边。(Wǒ zài xuéxiào běi xī bian.)

B. 我在学校西北边。(Wǒ zài xuéxiào xīběi bian.)

C. 我在学习北东边。(Wǒ zài xuéxiào běi dōng bian.)

D. 我在学校东北边。(Wǒ zài xuéxiào dōngběi bian.)


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