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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Why China's left-handers are standing up for their rights

After years of acceptance, parents are resisting demands that children use their right hands

Tu Tu, who is 4 years old, is using his left hand, combating long-held bias in China. Photo: Li Ke 
Tu Tu, who is 4 years old, is using his left hand, combating long-held bias in China. Photo: Li Ke 

Like several relatives before them, Li Ke and his son are left-handed. But four-year old Tu Tu will be the first in his family to write with the hand he prefers.

That is because 35-year-old Mr Li is resisting pressure from his parents to "correct" his son's "abnormal" tendency.

"During my childhood I was severely criticised for being left-handed," Mr Li, a Beijing-based online editor told The National. "I want my son to be free."

China is estimated to have 140 million left-handed citizens, based on the global occurrence rate of about one in 10.

But in reality, their numbers are much smaller because of huge social pressure to conform as right-handed.

One piece of research based on official statistics going back to the 1980s found only 1 per cent of Chinese schoolchildren wrote with their left hand. State media often says the country has 80 million left-handed citizens – although they do not say how they define left-handed or how they arrive at the figure.

It has led to a bizarre divide that places teachers in the middle of child and parent.

On International Left-handers Day on Monday, the Chinese media was filled with articles trying to educate people.

Left-handers are normal, they said. Forcing a left-handed child to use the right hand can lead to emotional and developmental issues, they warned. And there is no evidence that lefties have a higher IQ, they added – countering a common myth that lefties are somehow smarter.

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Yet at least one newspaper stuck to the old narrative, advising that parents who want to change their child's dominant hand should "start early" and "praise them every time they use their right to reach for things".

For Lin Pan, the head of China’s only left-handed association, this is a concern. Like Mr Li, he was also stopped from using his left hand growing up and believes this is why he has a stammer today.

Ideally he would like to see the government issue guidelines advising against the forced correction of left-handed children, but in the meantime he works one-on-one with concerned families that seek him and his four-man team out.

"The main thing they are concerned about is their child's education," he said.

To help them get over that fear he sends them videos of left-handed children doing beautiful Chinese calligraphy.

Much early education focuses on learning how to write Chinese characters, which always follow the same stroke order of right to left, top to bottom. If a left-handed child reverses that stroke order, as they are prone to do, the character is wrong, even if the final result looks as it should.

In fact teachers are often the ones to tell parents that their child’s left-handedness needs correcting, said Mr Lin.

Thus even among the small number of educated, better-off parents who reach out to Mr Lin, around 10 per cent ultimately still choose to get their children to change hands in the hopes it will help them to do better at school.

And while Mr Lin believes the harm ultimately outweighs the good, there is some logic.

Several universities including Beijing's Capital Medical University refuse to accept left-handers on to the dentistry course on the grounds that the equipment is designed for right-handed people, and in crowded canteens lefties frequently get into "chopstick battles" because they are the only ones with their left elbow sticking out.

"Conformity is common in China. If the majority do it one way you have to follow them," said Mr Lin.

Things may be changing, albeit slowly. His association has 30,000 members and in recent years some sports stars have achieved success precisely by being left-handed.

Yet unlike the West which has long list of famous lefties – Albert Einstein, Barack Obama, Leonardo da Vinci – China's role models are few and far between.

Former prime minister Wen Jiabao, who writes with his right hand, made the newspapers in 2007 when he pitched a baseball with his other hand while on a trip to Japan, suggesting to suppressed lefties that he was one of them.

And as in other languages the word for left in Chinese – "zuo" – has additional negative meanings such as unorthodox or wrong. The English word "left" comes from the Germanic word "lyft", meaning weak or broken. And "sinister" means both left-handed and evil.

Mr Li and his wife are convinced they are making the right choice by allowing Tu Tu to use his left hand. They and other parents who belong to Mr Lin's association explained the decision to their children's teachers and have had a good reaction.

"I feel that Chinese society is changing and that there is rooms for different ideas. At least teachers let you write with your left hand now," he said hopefully.