When studying Chinese, it is interesting to investigate how directions play a role in the Chinese language. In English, we tend to refer to the directions in the order of "North – South – East – West".
In Chinese, it is referred to as "East – South – West – North" or dong nan xi bei. The order of the directions is significant in understanding some of the Chinese history and mentality.
One of the words for China, zhong guo, literally translates to the "center kingdom". If we look at the history of how China came about, much of the development was along the eastern shores. Thus this area takes precedence and significance within the nation. In addition, the east is where the sun rises in the morning, an important celestial body for an agricultural society. For a sea-faring or exploratory society, whom contribute to the English understanding of directions, the north is significant because of its navigational contributions.
The order that follows somewhat reflects the directions in which the Chinese people migrated, first south and then west. The north is always last as this is where much of the barbarism and influx of invasions normally came from.
dong. East is made up of the symbol of the sun rising over a tree. The sun, the rectangular part with a line through the middle, is just starting to peak over the roots, the three prongs out the bottom. It has yet to come above the branches on top.
nan. South brings to us the image of a plant on top attacking the earth. This is the fertile land, dense with forests and jungles that have seen many conflicts as the civilization became established and wars strung out to claim this rich earth.
xi. West brings with it a bird that rests for the night in his square next. It is the setting of the sun and the end of the day.
bei. North is the symbol of two people facing back to back in disagreement. There is an impasse and difficulties from the north, much like the mountains that loom in that direction.
Understanding the directions leads to some interesting associations with other aspects of this culture and the world. For instance, to say a term like "stuff" or multiple non-descriptive items, you would use the word dong xi. It literally is a combination of the characters east and west, signifying "everything between the start and end [of a day]". Many stories often have demons or evil creatures coming from the mountains to the north.
As society became more versed in understanding magnetism and the Earth, we have discovered that truly the north and south as we know it regularly flip over hundreds of thousands of years. Thus, east and west are truly the only stable directions. Furthermore, if you understand magnets even further, what we consider the "geographic north" is so because it is "magnetically south" – agreeing with the Chinese orientation of the directions which normally places south on top.
Directs play a part in everything from martial arts to feng shui and astrology to games like mahjongg. It is a subtle part of much of the Chinese culture and a great topic to explore and discover.