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In many Indo-European ancient languages, there used to be a strong connection between the words for right and left on one side and the words for south and north1 (respectively) on the other side.
This suggests that the sacred orientation used to be facing eastwards - in the direction of the rising sun2.

In Chinese instead the character (zuǒ) means both left and east (an older version than 東/东) while instead (yòu) means both right and west (an older character than 西). In this case, this seems to suggest a preferred orientation towards the south.

I have, in light of this preamble, the following questions.

  • Are there any evidence for ひだり (hidari) or みぎ (migi) being used in the sense of east and west respectively?
  • If not, are there any older words for left and right that would be used in the sense of cardinal directions (whether in the Chinese way or in the Indo European way)?

Note 1:
For instance:

  • Celtic languages: Gaelic : deas (south and right); Gaulish dexsiuo (south and right); Old Irish desse (south and right); Welsh de (south and right); Breton *dehou
  • Sanskit daksinah (south and right), Avestan dashina (south and right)
  • Ancient Latin scaevus and Archaic Greek σκαιὀς (meaning both "left" the side of the shadow).

Note 2:
Other indications include:

  • European Bronze Age tombs generally orientated towards the east.
  • The word orientate itself.
  • Orientation of ancient maps towards the east.
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Interesting question: I often wondered on variations of that... Namely, how universal/old is the "modern western" way to lay out maps (north up)? From what I remember finding, "north up" (and therefore "east right" etc) is a) not that old at all b) not universal at all. From an anecdotal standpoint, Japan thoroughly ignores the idea of a universal "north up" in daily life (streetmaps are still commonly oriented arbitrarily). –  Dave Sep 8 '11 at 16:44
@Dave: We say 北上 (ほくじょう; go up north) and 南下 (なんか; go down south) in Japanese. If you watch the weather forecast, they probably say something like 台風が[place]を北上しています. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 8 '11 at 17:08
@Tsuyoshi: but did you use that word before the age of television and animated maps? –  Axioplase Sep 9 '11 at 2:24
@Axioplase: I do not feel that 北上 and 南下 have any connotation with television (it sounds more like they are related to maps), although I do not know when they were first used. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 9 '11 at 4:30
@Tsuyoshi: yes, but precisely, most (if not all) the older maps of Japan I have seen, had a resolutely non north-up orientation (they typically seemed to go for an orientation that made Honshu stretch out horizontally). Could it be that the use of 北上 appeared with the generalisation of "western-style oriented" maps, itself tied to TV? –  Dave Sep 9 '11 at 21:53
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1 Answer

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In Kyoto, 左 as in 左京区 means east, whereas 右 as in 右京区 means west. This is due to the fact that the emperor's palace was built on the center of the north edge of the city at the time (Heian period), and to observe the whole city from the emperor's perspective would mean facing south, and left will mean east, and right will mean west. Kyoto was influenced by the ancient city 長安 of China. I suspect the reason left and right are connected to east and west in China is the same, and I suspect that connection holds only when you are in the context of 長安, but if you think you are sure about your information, I do not particularly intend to claim against it.

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Now that you mention the orientation of the Imperial palace in Kyoto, Beijing's forbidden city comes to mind as well. And the same holds true as you mention for antic 长安. I would however be inclined to believe that the orientation of houses and palaces is dictated by feng shui, which I remind you means literally wind/water (風水) because it's probably a better idea to have your entrance opened towards the south if the north wind brings rain inside. Which is possibly a reasonable (albeit practical rather than sacred) explanation for my question. Thanks for your help. –  Alain Pannetier Sep 8 '11 at 18:14
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