Why Maps in Shanghai are Upside Down?

Received an interesting email. I could not help laughing. This is another typical daily stuff that I didn’t pay attention but my readers did.

The question for Shanghai today is, why maps in Shanghai are upside down?

Hi Jianshuo,

Always read your blog, keep it up.

Here’s an interesting thing you might like to comment on. It concerns

Chinese map reading.

When in Shanghai recently (third time!) I went to the Century Park to check

out the metro station and the park entrance before

the big firework show on September 30 (spectacular!) the exits to use and

to also check out a concert at the Oriental Concert Hall across the road

from the Metro station.

The Metro station has a very convenient map on the wall showing the exits

etc and NORTH is clearly shown. However, I already had some idea about the

correct direction from Google Earth and was puzzled by the map. It soon

became clear that it was UPSIDE down! OK, a mistake, just reorientate and

get on with it.

However on the way back I stopped off at another Metro stop and noted also

on a map the road I wanted. North was marked also and I noted the way East

which is where I wanted to go. But uh uh, part was “east” i noted the road

numbers were going the wrong way. This map was also UPSIDE DOWN! with

North actually pointing south so I had to waste time retracing my steps.

What is going on??

Now, while in China I learned Mahjong (a little) and when returning home

checked out an old Hong Kong Mahjong rules book.

This notes that the seating position in order of the 4 winds is actually

opposite to reality. EAST is the main wind with North to its LEFT etc.

The reality is that NORTH is actually to the RIGHT of east on any map (in

reality). On internet checking I note that this is not a mistake but a real

part of Mahjong rules.

So here is a though about the upside down maps in the Metro stations? Are

they related to Chinese peoples’ thoughts about direction related to

Mahjong? :-) Why the strange Mahjong winds? Hmmmm….

There are different reasons to the different scenarios. Let me explain it one by one.

Maps in Metro

You are right. Many metro stations don’t use the “North” as the top in their maps. They position the maps just for the convinience of reader. Which ever direction the reader is facing, they use that direction as top. So it gives the reader clear idea about how they can use an exit.

For example, if you are facing east, and north should be on left, and south on right. Just check the map and see it from where you stand, then you understand whether you should turn left (to north) or south (to right) without understanding which direction you are facing.

This is very typical diagram you see in China. The map that works!

I remember there must be similar maps in other places. This should be the easiest way for readers to find their way.

Maps in China

Currently China uses the “North on top” map system, as most places in the world. But do you know that in history, Chinese map is always south on top?

I believe that is because of the same reason of the maps in Metro. People in China like to stand facing the South (where the Sun is), and with his/her back to north. This is how the architect of China was designed.

If people live this way, it makes sense to draw the maps with South on top – exactly the way people see their world.

Most people don’t know about this. I checked some ancient maps, and it WAS upside down from current point of view.

Look at the Forbidden City.

Although currently it is upside down (with north on the top), the names of the gates still give you some hint about how they were designed.

The gates on the left side of the palace was called “RIGHT gate”, and the gates on the right was called “LEFT gate”. The maps changes, but the names were not.

For the Mahjong, Hmm… I don’t play Mahjong, so have no comment on it. Anyone want to help?

12 thoughts on “Why Maps in Shanghai are Upside Down?

  1. @Karp, I don’t know Fengshui, but I suspect that many things from traditional Chinese culture put South on top of a map.

    My question is, what is the reason behind “putting North on top”?

  2. JianShou,

    Great info about the map. I remember coming out of a PVG Metro station once assuming North was at the top of the map. It wasn’t long before I figured it out. I also liked your explaination about the gate names. It’s all a matter of persepctive.

    A couple of thoughts. Your reader stated the map was “upside down”. Not really. North was just not at the top. As I said, it’s all a matter of perspective. Many of us are used to North being at the top, which is not always good. Ever look at a fire evacuation “map” in a hotel room? It should be orientated for the direction you are looking at it. If the “map” shows the closest exit is on the right then when you exit your door you should turn right. In an emergency one shouldn’t have to think about interpreting the “map” because it is oriented North.

    How about this: When driving a car or flying a plane it is not unusual to orient the map/chart in the direction you are driving/flying so the perspective is correct for what you see. If you see mountains on your right then some people find it easier to look for them on the right of your path on the map/chart. However, some folks just keep the map/chart with north on the top and orientate themselves mentally. Whatever works.

    Concerning the Mahjong map and winds. Here’s a fact: An east wind blows west. When we navigate using a compass we describe the direction we are going TO. When we describe winds, we describe where they are blowing FROM. So… on a compass, an easterly wind would be blowing from the east and toward the west. Again, just a matter of perspective.


  3. @George, your comment about Mahjong may well explain the strange situation. This may also because of the location of China. In China, warm and fresh wind often comes from the east (the sea), and wind from north or west is always cold and dry.

    We call something with good luck “Driven by the East Wind”, and call nothing in the pocket “There is only Northwest Wind left”. This may not necessarily true for people living in other places, for example, California.

  4. Great to get such a quick response Jian Shuo.

    Now to answer George. The map actually has a marker at the top pointing to NORTH and with the Bei character , BUT it was where South should have been:-). Not simply a matter of the map being upside down on the wall, it was simply incorrect no matter how you view it.

    The second map was also not correct in the sense that viewing it and turning right would get you in the correct direction, you had to turn left because it was wrong in sense and position.

    Not fully convinced about the winds bit (yet). In Mahjong the set up initially makes the Great Wall in a square and the relative position of the walls is also with East wall at the dealer and North wall to his left etc.

    And George’s explanantion should then cause Jian Shuo’s East wind to become a West wind!

    Incidentally Chinese diesel railway locomotives are all Dong Fengs (east winds). So the east wind must certainly have a strong emotional meaning.

    On my trips to China I have been known as “Map Man” to my friends. Next time I’ll be even more interested in the maps!

  5. The problem with Shanghai’s metro map is not that it is upside down or down side up. It is just not consistent. Sometimes it is north side up, sometimes it is east or south side up. I have made some serious mistakes reading the metro map.

    This could be unique to Shanghai. I couldn’t imaging it happen in Beijing or Xi’an, where when talking about directions, people always use north, south, east or west. But here in Shanghai, people use left and right. N/S/E/W is just not important to people here and they can be put any direction that’s convenient. This may also explain why Shanghai’s highway entrance sign always only show the highway number but with no direction. It is very easy for a driver to entry the correct highway but in a wrong direction. Maybe N/S/E/W just make not sense to local Shanghainess.

  6. Jian Shuo, look here for a part answer to why North at the top.


    I suspect the Polar Star had a major role.

    Also, if George is correct about the 4 winds then we reverse east and west north and south and we are back where we started from but upside

    down :-).

    Mahjong only reverses the east and west so we have a true mirror image!

  7. I think may be one of the reason people in Shanghai has so bad sense of direction… maybe because map always change direction.

    As a foreigner living since a few years here, I am still very surprise of how Chinese people has low sense of direction.


  8. People in Beijing and other northern city turn to take direction more seriously, since most of the roads are strictly north-south, or east-west. Cities like Shanghai, Chengdu, and Tianjin do not follow the rule, and many roads (if not all) are winding, and it is very hard for people to understand the direction. I personally don’t think map is a factor to confuse people.

  9. I would disagree about chinese people having low sense of direction, i used to have those problems, but not my studies or colleagues, they always gave me directions pointing to the N,S, E or W.

    Maybe in some other cities they are not the same, but in nantong, guangzhou and beijing, it was always this way and also its easy to follow since the roads are named like that..

  10. I am a couple of days behind on this and I will catch up later. There are a lot of interesting points but I’ve got to go paint the garage doors. In the meantime I just want make a point that the Chinese pilots always find their way to SFO so their sense of direction must be OK. Their 747 is there everytime I am:)



  11. One comment about the locals and their sense of direction etc… Being directionally challenged is different than not knowing how to get places. many locals know at their home which direction in East/south/West North, but once on the road trying to get places, many take public transit and may just be better at telling you which bus to take. thats said though, my own mom points randomly to indicate direction all the time. So maybe I am just used to finding my own way. ;)

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