Mongolia, the Tangut country, and the solitudes of northern Tibet/Volume 1/Mongol Orientation


P. 64.

It seems likely that Colonel Prejevalsky has made some mistake about this right-hand and left-hand matter, from the want of good interpreters. Even if the fact were, as he says, that the Mongols never say 'to the right' or 'to the left,' but only 'to the east' or 'to the west,' this would be exactly what used to be alleged of North Britons, among whom, in former days, when a bench in church was crowded, you might have heard a request for a neighbour 'to sit wast a bit.'

If Colonel Prejevalsky will try to define the points of the compass to himself, he will find that right and left, with respect either to the rising or to the midday sun, are the ideas on which the meaning of those points ultimately depends.

Hence, in various languages we can trace that the words implying either North and South or East and West, are actually words properly meaning right and left. E.g. in Sanskrit we have Dakshina = 'dexter,' but applied to the south (whence Deccan), though the corresponding sinister with the meaning of 'north' is lost. Klaproth (Asia Polyglotta) quotes the following explanation from a Mongol vocabulary:—'Dzägun (Dzun); the quarter in which the sun rises is called Dzun, i.e. the Left hand. It is also called Dorona.' And it is easy to understand how the Mongols, whose tents always faced the south,[1] should make the east left and the west right. Tibet Proper was called by the Mongols Baron-tala, the Right, i.e. West quarter, whilst Mongolia was Dzun-tala, the Left, i.e. East quarter.[2] It is not so easy to understand how Dzungaria (Dzun-gar = Left-hand) got its name, for that region is the most westerly part of Mongolia.[3]

The foregoing remarks indicate a probability that the Mongols of whom our author speaks were using the words right and left in their proper sense when he supposed them to be using the words east and west.

What Colonel Prejevalsky means by the Mongol north being our south I do not understand. In Chinese maps, as in our own medieval maps, I believe the south is generally at the top; and in the Chinese compass the needle is regarded as pointing south. To these circumstances perhaps he refers.—[Y.]

  1. Marco Polo, bk. i. ch. lii.
  2. Ibid., 2nd ed., i. 216.
  3. The fact stated in the following extract of a letter from Mr. Ney Elias may be involved in the explanation: 'throughout the Altai I noticed that Khalkas, Kirghis, and Kalmucks all pitched their tents facing East. The prevailing wind there, in winter, is from the westward.' (Dated Aug. 2, 1873.) In such a region left would mean north, and Kovalefsky does give Baron as signifying côté droite, midi, ou Occident.