Just Make a Little Turn: Directions in Chinese

When you give directions, do you use left, right, front, back, or do you use the Cardinal Directions, North, South East West? In China, people from the South usually tell you that the restaurant is to the left, right, front, or back while people from the North will guide you by the compass directions. So before you travel to Northern China, brush up on your sense of direction! Note that in English we usually say the compass directions starting with North (North, South, East, West) or in a circle (North, East, South, West) while in Chinese they're said in this order:


东 dōng East
西 xī West
南 nán South
北 běi North

Also, in English we say Northeast and Southwest but in Chinese, East and West are most important so they say dōng běi 东北 or xīnán 西南.

There's also a difference in the way people tell you to turn: Southerners use the word guǎi拐 while Northerners use the word zhuǎn 转. In Beijing, someone will tell you to turn right up ahead using zhuǎn 转: 前面左转 (qiánmiàn zuǒ zhuǎn). In Guangzhou, someone will tell you to turn right up ahead using guǎi拐: 前面左拐 (qiánmiàn zuǒ guǎi).

Shanghai is considered as Southern China so people will use guǎi拐 but drivers will change another part of the directions. Instead of using left and right, they will say "big turn" or "small turn". Can you guess which one is left and which one is right? Since a left turn in a car is across oncoming traffic, it's a "big turn" 大拐 (dà guǎi) and a right turn can be done on a red light so it's a "small turn" 小拐 (xiǎo guǎi).

Bonus: Since Chinese doesn't have letters, the phrase "u-turn" doesn't exist. Instead, the phrase is to turn your head: 掉头 (diàotóu)

This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.