Left behind

Why China’s lefties are under pressure to change hands


The English word “sinister” has two meanings – “left-handed” and “evil”. Likewise the Chinese word for left – “zuo” – denotes unorthodox and incorrect.

That, in part, explains why there are so many missing lefties in China.

On average one in 10 people favours their left hand, which means there should be about 140 million left-handed residents in the Chinese mainland. But centuries of ‘correcting’ this ‘abnormality’ means that the real number of left-handers is much lower.

The local media often uses the figure of 80 million but doesn’t say whether these people actually use their left hands to write and a survey by an American academic using government data found that only 1% of schoolchildren have written with their left hand since the 1980s.

“I never met another left-hander growing up,” says Lin Pan, the head of China’s only left-handed association. Like many of his generation, 30 year-old Lin was forced to write with his right hand as a child, something he blames for crushing his confidence and giving him the stammer he still suffers.

Lin’s ultimate goal is to get China’s ministries of health and education to issue guidelines banning “forced correction” in schools.

Last week on International Left-handers Day, Chinese media again ran articles explaining that being left-handed was normal; that forcing a child to use their right hand can lead to emotional and developmental issues, and that lefties aren’t the weirdos they are sometimes portrayed by in Chinese culture.

But among this sage advice there were still tips for parents determined to get rid of their child’s “sinistrality” – the medical term for left-handedness “Start early and praise them every time they use their right hand,” the Nanjing Daily quoted a doctor as saying.

Of course Chinese society isn’t alone when it comes to forcing lefties to change. In parts of the Middle East, Africa and India, the left hand is considered unclean and cannot be used for eating or accepting money.

In China the issue is more about the overarching need to conform and to be the same as others.

“The only correct way is to follow what everyone else is doing,” says Maggie Yin, a natural left-hander told WiC, recalling how she was forced to convert to writing with her right hand as a child.

Today the main reason that parents push their children to change hands is the fear that they will do badly at a school if they write with their left hand – an idea that teachers have often propagated.

It comes from the fact that a large part of early schooling is about learning how to write Chinese characters properly. Writing them correctly not only involves replicating the required results but also by following the correct order for brushstrokes – right to left, and top to bottom. Lefties are said to be more prone to reversing the sequence or starting from the opposite side.

To help counter fears that a lefthander won’t be able to write as well, Lin sends parents videos of leftie kids doing beautiful calligraphy.

In rural areas where old ways of thinking persist, and kids are often raised by their grandparents, the percentage of forced conversion is much higher, he says.

And while Lin believes the negatives of changing hands outweigh the positives there is some logic to these families’ decisions.

Some Chinese universities won’t accept left-handers onto courses such as dentistry, for instance, because the tools are made for right handers.

Social and cultural barriers like these have forced generations of left-handers to overcome their natural instincts. Even some Chinese leaders have shown signs that they are converted lefties. When former prime minister Wen Jiabao visited Japan in 2007 he was pictured pitching a baseball with his left hand, despite the fact he writes with his right.

In other cases left-handed athletes like badminton player Lin Dan have excelled precisely because of their sinistrality, which makes them unusual in their sport.

While the West has a long list of successful lefties like Leonardo Da Vinci and Bill Gates, China has none because until recently every person wanting to be literate was required to use their right hand

“Historically it wasn’t possible to have a famous left-hander,” says Lin.

But things are changing. Schools in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are less likely to interfere if they learn that a child is left-handed and some even allow their pupils to write characters with the stroke order that suits them best.

Indeed some parents even encourage their right-handed kids to dabble with left-handedness, with the view that it encourages right-side brain development.

“People in the cities are now more concerned with creativity. They want their kids to be individual, to stand out,” Maggie Yin told WiC, predicting that what she went through as a left-handed child may soon be less common. n

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