That Chinese Tattoo: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Chinese characters are so much more beautiful, so much more elegant than the boring old Latin alphabet. Or at least that seems to be the train of thought behind the ubiquitous Chinese tattoos that have been popping up on the bodies of young, English-speaking Westerners over the past few years.

Granted, Chinese characters are a lot more classy than, say, a buxom half-naked lady or a dragon fighting a wizard for the Ring of Power.  The main problem is that the people requesting the tattoos can’t read Chinese. Sometimes, even the tattoo artist can’t read Chinese. So, people end up branding themselves with symbols that don’t express the meanings they were intended to.

In fact, this is such a common problem that there is actually a blog devoted to translating Chinese tattoos. Hanzi Smatter is “dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters in Western culture.” Simply send the writer a picture of your tat, and he’ll provide you with the proper translation. Reading through the entries, it’s clear that there is a lot of misbegotten Chinese skin art floating around out there. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

To a young woman who thought she had the Chinese symbol for “beauty” tattooed on her arm:
“災 means “calamity, disaster, catastrophe”, and definitely not “beauty”, which is 美.” Whoops!

To another reader who unfortunately didn’t begin to wonder if her tattoo artist knew what he was talking about until after the fact:
“Carla is another person with gibberish faux Chinese tattooed on her back.”

To a reader who tattooed himself while apprenticing at a tattoo parlor:
“First of all, the top character 苦 is upside down. Bottom characters 阿呆 means “fool, idiot”. The tattoo is very fitting & means “bitter [or suffering] idiot”.

To the friend of a gentleman who got a tattoo while drunk and woke up wondering what the symbols etched on his arm meant:
“Why would anyone be proud of tattoo that says: “to commit any imaginable evil”?”

The moral of these sad stories? Do your research before getting a tattoo and use a professional Chinese or Japanese translation, or risk being branded an idiot for life!

4 replies
  1. Sarah Spencer
    Sarah Spencer says:

    This is a great article and I have often wondered whether many people really know what their chinese and japanese symbols really say in English. Links to a great blog by Hanzi Smatter too.

    Reply

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  1. Chinglish says:

    […] least our Eastern brethren’s translation failures seem to be confined to signs and menus as opposed to permanent tattoos. You can always change a […]

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