Chinese Tattoos are all the rage. From NBA players to goatied hippies, the exotic elegance of the mysterious Orient has proven irresistible. While it is undeniable that classic Chinese characters have a universal beauty which can easily be appreciated regardless of whether one can understand the often subtle meanings conveyed by the ancient designs, some Westerners have permanently embossed their bodies with symbols that are at times oddly nonsensical and at other times are bizarrely meaningless.
The aesthetic appeal of flowing Chinese calligraphy is easy to understand. "Mom" in Chinese undoubtedly adds a certain intellectualism to this archetypically simple tattoo. Chinese tattoos are a more clever way to express your message.
And while tattoos have always been conversation pieces, a Chinese tattoo adds another element, since the typical viewer will need to ask you the meaning, which allows the wearer to not only translate the characters, but to explain the story behind the decision to make such a lasting statement. The adoption of this fad by the rich, famous and beautiful has certainly made this a more popular trend.
Meaning is an interesting question however. Just what do these tattoos mean? Often it is not quite what the wearer was told by the Learn'd Chinese Scholar at the tattoo shop. In the best case scenario, the tattooee has done her research and consulted with a native Chinese speaker about all of the denotations and connotations of the specific characters chosen, verified that the characters are genuinely Chinese and perhaps even asked about the aesthetics of the font used. I have never met anyone with a Chinese tattoo that has done this. Most people have done very little research beyond the supposed English meaning. Some have been lucky and have gotten very nice tattoos. Some have gotten Chinese tattoos that are actually Japanese, in strange rainbow-colored fonts with meanings that can only be guessed at by Chinese speakers.
The most common tattoos are ones that are supposed to represent ideas and qualities like love or strength. This often works out well for the wearer, as it does for Marcus Camby of the New York Knicks. A friend of mine has "peace, love, happiness" on his back, all with the correct characters and very nicely done. Keep in mind that this is a Chinese tattoo aimed at a Western audience, and on that level "peace, love and happiness" is a clearly understandable concept.
While the meaning may be clear in Chinese, it is still a transliteration of an English idiom into Chinese and the three characters together actual don't sound right to Chinese ears. It is a widespread myth that Chinese characters convey metaphysical concepts: written Chinese is largely a phonetic script that, strangely enough, is meant to represent spoken Chinese.
Reversing the process and transliterating Chinese idioms into English might give you an idea of what a Chinese tattoo sounds like to a native speaker. Pictured to the right is a Chinese idiom (in a lovely font) that might be transliterated as "spilled water difficult collect" (Pronunciation: fu shui nan shou) that would be better translated as No use crying over spilled milk, meaning what's done is done and cannot be undone, an appropriate sentiment for a tattoo.
If you saw a Chinese tough in Hong Kong with "spilled water difficult collect" (in English) on his arm, you might understand the meaning, but it would definitely seem odd. Countless examples of mangled English can be found on products and in advertising in the Far East. (e.g. All your base are belong to us.) Sometimes this is the result of non-native speakers transliterating phrases into English. More often, the English is created by non-native English speakers for non-native English speakers. In this case, the actual meaning of the English to an English speaker is not at all important. Instead, English is used by marketing departments to sell products to a population that probably speaks a little English, but not much. Simple words that convey broad concepts, like "friend" or "love," are more important than proper English. And English is chosen because it is hip, cool and foreign. Sound familiar?
With Chinese tattoos, the wearer has an even greater advantage in that it is unlikely that anyone will know the meaning of the characters. If you want to get a Chinese tattoo, here's a bit of advice:
- Don't transliterate your name. Bob Smith does not sound good in Chinese as "BaBu SaMiTa." If you want your name in Chinese, do what the Chinese often do and adopt a real Chinese name. Do you think "Michele Yeoh" is a straight translation of her real Chinese name into English? And make sure it is a real name, unlike the Chinese people I've met named Dolphin, Florida and Moon.
- Consult a native speaker. This will obviously be necessary to get a Chinese name, but should be a required step in getting a Chinese tattoo no matter what. Most universities should have an international population and it should be possible to find a native speaker. Don't be stupid: fifth-generation Chinese Americans speak Chinese about as well as you speak Norwegian or Gaelic.
- Get a real Chinese idiom. Chinese is full of four-character idioms that very beautifully/humorously/cleverly convey just about any concept. Some (many?) Chinese idioms are awkward in English, but they sound great in Chinese. This can be challenging since it would be best to know the translation, the transliteration and the pronunciation in Chinese. Native Chinese speakers will be impressed. Pictured at right is "dao yi you dao" a real Chinese idiom that means "honor among thieves." This font also looks like very elegant ink brush strokes.
- Ask a native Chinese speaker about the font of the characters. Does it use simplified characters? Is it really Japanese? Like handwriting, some Chinese fonts are ugly and some are beautiful.
Ultimately, this is your tattoo and it primarily has meaning for you. Since it is intended for a Western audience, the Chinese meaning is not critical. Chinese tattoos are great conversation pieces and allow you to express yourself in an interesting and exotic way. Aesthetics should be the first consideration and Chinese characters are very well suited to that purpose.