Beauty or the Beast: Getting Your Chinese Language Tattoo (Asian Fortune, November 21, 2014)

Beauty or the Beast: Getting Your Chinese Language Tattoo

By Tamara Treichel

Many tattoos are carriers of tiny tales and conveyers of messages. The tales and messages can be expressed as images, phrases, or words. Tattoos can be easy to read – a person’s name enclosed in a heart obviously means the wearer has (or had) affection for a certain person, so one’s heart can literally be worn – well, not on, but under one’s sleeve.

Or tattoos can be enigmatic and symbolic. This applies to foreign language tattoos, and especially Chinese language tattoos.

Angelina Jolie is a good example – the actress sports tattoos in different languages that relate to important events and people in her life. One tattoo is in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, and is an incantation to protect her and her adopted son Maddox, who comes from Cambodia, from bad luck. Where the Khmer tattoo now sits, Jolie used to have the Chinese character (kanji or hanzi) tattoo for “death” (si, 死) on her shoulder blade.


Whereas in China it is still not really part of mainstream culture to get a tattoo (certain ethnic minorities excepted, and members of organized crime or the underworld, or, as another expat bluntly told me while I was living in China, “gangsters and hookers”), Western celebrities have made it chic to get Chinese character tattoos. Take David Beckham, who has a saying from Confucius’ Analects running down his side, which reads in Chinese, “Life and death are decided by fate, wealth and honor are from heaven.” Meanwhile, Cher has the Chinese character 力 (li) inked on her right arm (“strength, power”). Continue reading