Why Are There So Few Lefties in China?

Only 1 percent of people in China are left-handed, while the global average is 10-12 percent.

In 2/3 of the world it's still unlucky to be born a leftie, says a researcher who has taken a new look at attitudes about left-handed people worldwide.

In China, in particular, less than 1 percent of students are reportedly left-handed, despite a global average of 10 to 12 percent of humans preferring their left hand, reports Howard Kushner, a researcher and Professor of Science and Society at Emory University in Atlanta. It's not that there are fewer people born left-handed in China or necessarily that there are negative attitudes about lefties there. It's just that being left-handed is especially impractical.

"If you have to cater a huge society, you can't cater to the other side," Kushner said. And with 88 to 90 percent of the population right-handed, and some written characters requiring a right hand, that's what wins out, at least when it comes to writing. Kushner summarized the situation for Chinese southpaws in an article in the June edition of the journal Endeavour.

So is left-handedness going extinct in China? Probably not, says Kushner, because there doesn't seem to be a simple genetic basis for handedness.

What's more, studies on Chinese-Americans in California show a similar rate of left-handers as the rest of the U.S. population -- so there is nothing about being Chinese or Asian that makes a person less prone to being left-handed. But being born in China does mean you will likely be forced to function as a right-hander, Kushner concludes.

But China is hardly alone in this. Elsewhere in the world there are still very strong cultural stigmas against left-handedness. In many Muslim parts of the world, in parts of Africa as well as in India, the left hand is considered the dirty hand and it's considered offensive to offer that hand to anyone, even to help. The discrimination against lefties goes back thousands of years in many cultures, including those of the West.

The languages reveal the bias.

"There's not a language in the world where this isn't so," said Kushner. Even in English where the word sinister comes from the Latin sinistra, for left and left itself comes from the word ‘lyft' which means broken, Kushner reports.

In German ‘linkisch' is associated with awkwardness. In Russian being called left-handed, or levja is a synonym for being untrustworthy. In Mandarin the character for left can also means weird, wrong, incorrect, different, contrary or opposite, he explains.

But it's not all bad news for lefties. Studies also show that as a population ages, it gets more right-handed. This was taken by some to mean that left-handed people live shorter lives, said Kushner, but it seems more likely that as lefties grow older and more experienced in a right-handed world, they simply get better at using the right hand.

And all that switching of hands could make left-handers' brains more flexible than their right-handed siblings, says psychologist Clare Porac of Penn State University.

"It could be an advantage," Porac told Discovery News. Left-handers have much less trouble using their right hands for tasks than right-handers do using their lefts, she said, because lefties are forced to learn to work opposite handed. This has implications for what parts of the brain are being used for every task, she explained.

In China, there are even signs that lefties are being cut some slack, said Kushner. In recent years left-handed Chinese ping pong players have been widely recognized as superior to others, providing at least one very visible positive role for lefties.