Chinese Tattoo Meanings

Considering getting a Chinese tattoo?

小心 – xiǎo xīn – Be careful

Written Chinese can be quite beautiful. In fact, Chinese calligraphy is one of the four great arts that were required anciently of accomplished Chinese scholar-gentlemen.

Usually spoken of together they are:

琴棋書畫 – qín qí shū huà

qínqín is a stringed musical instrument. Anciently it referred to the guqin古琴
qí is a board game, sometimes referred to as Chinese chess.
shūshū refers to Chinese calligraphy.
huàhuà refers to Chinese painting

Anciently, and still to this day, these four great arts were and are highly regarded. Personally, my dream is to one day learn to play the gu qin, but for now I just play the ukulele.

Cai Lun, the inventor of paper.

In 105 AD paper was invented by Cai Lun. Chinese writing however dates back to around 1200 BC.  With paper not yet available ancient Chinese wrote on bone, turtle shells, and metals. One place they didn’t put writing on was their bodies. To this day tattoos (文身 – wén shēn) are still not very popular in China, and can be somewhat frowned upon.

Chinese consider Chinese calligraphy to be one of China’s primary contributions to civilization. Many westerners also admire the beauty of Chinese writing, some so much so that they have taken to getting Chinese tattoos.  Before you do it I would just say again: 小心 – xiǎo xīn – Be careful.

Famous sports figures and celebrities are getting Chinese character tattoos.

David Beckham’s tattoo is really calligraphic and has a positive message, it reads:

生死有命,富贵在天shēng sǐ yǒu mìng, fù guì zài tiānLife and death are predestined, wealth and honor are decreed by heaven.
Allen Iverson 忠 (Zhōng) which means loyal or faithful

Pretty cool. However, unless you have a trusted Chinese friend with you when you go, or have a very good understanding of the language, you may end up with tattoo remorse. Britney Spears for example wanted a tattoo that meant mysterious. 神秘 shén mì. What she got was 奇 qí meaning strange or weird.


Mike Tyson played it safe and got a Chinese tattoo of a different sort..A picture of Mao with pinyin.

There are plenty of images of tattoo fails on the internet. In one instance a young lady wanted to get the character for free; 自由 zì yóu (able to do as she wishes) what she got was free 免費 miǎn fèi (no cost).

The case of Cody Williams is well known. He is known on facebook (脸书 – liǎn shū) as GuyWithTheFunnyTattoo.

我不知道, 我不会说中国话Wǒ bù zhī dào, Wǒ bù huì shuō zhōng guó huàI don’t know, I don’t speak Chinese

In China when spoken to he could point to his arm and they would know he couldn’t speak Chinese. Back home when people ask him what it says he tells them and they think he doesn’t know what it says. Pretty funny.

My advice: Never get a tattoo that you are not sure of. Instead, I suggest that you try one out. A safe bet is to go online and get a temporary tattoo. Below is shown one example:

Chinese characters are cool. But if you’ve spent any time at all studying languages you realize that some ideas and concepts are hard to translate. Get a tattoo if you want to, just 小心.

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