Throughout Chinese history, there has been a debate on whether the left or the right should be respected. Netizens have expressed their opinions and there has been a lot of discussion online. Here, I would like to share my own viewpoint.
In ancient times, there were two contradictory idioms regarding whether the left or the right should be respected. These idioms are "虚左以待" (respecting the left) and "无出其右" (no one can surpass him on the right).
Netizens have cited historical records and it seems that there are two possibilities in one person. This person is Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty. The phrase "无出其右" comes from Liu Bang himself.
"虚左以待" is from the biography of Wei Gongzi in "Records of the Grand Historian": "Gongzi followed the chariot, respecting the left, and personally went to welcome Hou Ying." This story is about Wei Wuji, the Marquis of Xinling, who heard about a hermit named Hou Ying in the Wei Kingdom. Wei Wuji prepared a feast at home and personally rode in a chariot to welcome Hou Ying. To show respect, he left the seat on the left side of the chariot empty, indicating that the left side was prestigious. However, at the banquet, he reserved the seat on the right side for Hou Ying. In formal occasions, Wei Wuji's status was higher than that of Hou Ying, even though he was seated on the right, it was still more prestigious than the positions of other guests. It can be understood as Wei Wuji being the chairman and Hou Ying being the vice chairman.
"无出其右" is from the biography of Tian Shu in "Records of the Grand Historian": "He summoned all the ministers, talked with them, and no minister in the Han court could surpass him on the right." This story is about Liu Bang passing through the Zhao Kingdom and deliberately displaying the majesty of an emperor, which angered the officials of Zhao. They secretly planned to kill Liu Bang, but the plan was exposed. Zhao Wang and Guan Gao were captured and sent to Chang'an without any escorts. Liu Bang personally interrogated Guan Gao and realized that Zhao Wang was not involved in the rebellion. He strongly advised against punishing the officials and as a result, they were demoted and released. Zhao Wang expressed his gratitude and requested the release of his loyal minister, Tian Shu. Liu Bang was amazed by their loyalty and realized that his Western Han officials could not surpass them, indicating that the right side was prestigious.
However, let's take a look at another story about Liu Bang, the "Feast at Hong Gate": "Xiang Wang sat facing east; Ya Fu sat facing south; Pei Gong sat facing north; Zhang Liang stood to the west." Xiang Wang's seat was the most prestigious, the main seat. Xiang Bo sat to his right. Ya Fu sat to his left, above him. Pei Gong sat to his right, below Xiang Bo. Zhang Liang had the lowest seat and had to stand. In this story, we can see that the people in the story respected the left.
But "无出其右" also comes from Liu Bang himself. Isn't this contradictory? In fact, it is because netizens have a somewhat one-sided understanding of the meaning of "left" and "right". The term "left and right" has many meanings, not only representing direction and status, but also representing the weak and the strong, the opposite and the conforming, and so on. There is also a "middle" in terms of direction. "旁门左道" means deviating from the right path, and it is also going against the norm. "左倾机会主义" (left-leaning opportunism) and "右倾投降主义" (right-leaning surrenderism) are both deviations from the right path. "左捌子" means not using the right hand, not being convenient, it is the opposite.
In terms of ability, the right hand is naturally more capable than the left hand. The meaning of "无出其右" actually means that no one's ability (loyalty and righteousness) has surpassed his. It does not mean that no one's status has surpassed his. Status represents prestige.
Respecting the right means respecting the more capable. This has been the case since ancient times. The changes of dynasties, the rise and fall of officials, and the wealth and status of the people all reflect the fact that the strong are respected.
Respecting the right is reflected in official positions, such as Lin Xiangru being seated to the right of Lian Po. If there are left and right positions of the same level, such as left and right prime ministers, the right prime minister has more power. However, it is rare in history. In the end, it still returns to the trend of respecting the left. Therefore, in history, the left prime minister generally had more power than the right prime minister.
There is also a dispute over the Tiger Talisman. The general holds the left side, while the emperor holds the right side, which seems to indicate that the right is respected. However, this is not the case. The left is the head and the right is the tail. The reason why the Tiger Talisman of the emperor is on the right side is because the emperor has the final say. It is the emperor who has the final say. Without the emperor's final decision, everything is just empty talk. It is like during the emperor's morning court, when a proposal is made by the officials below, no matter how heated the debate is, the final decision is made by the emperor.
Speaking of the emperor's morning court, let's take a look at the positions of the monarch and ministers in the court. The emperor sits on the dragon throne (the main seat), with civil officials on the left and military officials on the right. Does this mean that civil officials are more respected than military officials? Actually, no. The left and right positions also depend on how close they are to the emperor. The closer they are, the more prestigious their position. The ranking of officials' positions (prestige) is arranged in a crisscross pattern on both sides of the main seat.
The same applies to seating arrangements in the civilian world. After the main seat, the order of prestige is arranged from left to right.
Respecting the left or the right cannot be separated from the central main seat, which is the most respected. Only when the main seat is confirmed can we talk about respecting the left or the right. In the Feast at Hong Gate, Xiang Wang's seat was the most prestigious, followed by Xiang Bo on his right.
With that being said, I want to emphasize that whether it is respecting the left or the right, it is still present in our lives. Due to the traditional belief in male superiority, there is a saying that men are on the left and women are on the right. When describing the relationship between two people of the same category, the more prestigious person is mentioned first (on the left or above). For example, the relationship between ruler and subject, father and son. It is absolutely forbidden to reverse the order. When describing the position relationship between two people, the position of the word in the compound determines the level of respect. For example, left and right, up and down, inside and outside (the person inside the hall is more respected), far and near (the person far from the main gate in the hall is more respected).
Ancient Chinese people had strict requirements for status and hierarchy, as seen in the Three Cardinal Guides and Five Constant Virtues. They also had taboos. For example, in formal occasions, it was strictly forbidden to write the name of a person of lower status to the left of a person of higher status. This rule made it necessary to start writing from the left side of the paper (the right side of the writer) and write vertically from top to bottom (respecting the higher and lower positions), then move to the right for the next line. This avoided writing the name of a person of lower status to the right of a person of higher status. This is the origin of the vertical writing style that has been passed down for thousands of years.
In conclusion, apart from the principle of the strong being respected, everything goes back to the rule of respecting the left. As mentioned earlier, Wei Wuji's status was higher than that of Hou Ying. In formal occasions, Wei Wuji's seat was on the left. However, in private (in the chariot), Wei Wuji gave up his left seat to Hou Ying as a sign of respect. This also shows that the relationship between respect and status can vary in different situations.
The Book of Changes - "Explaining Hexagrams" says: "The sage faces south and governs with clarity." Therefore, the south is in front, the north is behind, and the east and west are on the left and right.
Ancient people respected the sun and the east. The east was on the left side of the sage, so respecting the left actually meant respecting the east. The saying "东头西尾" (east head, west tail) has existed since ancient times. Respecting the left began at this time and has been passed down to the present day. In our country, the left is still respected domestically, but internationally, according to international conventions, the right is respected.
Translation by: White Bark