To many of the people who get tattoos of Chinese characters, Chinese is a completely foreign language. Likewise, tattoo artists who give Chinese symbol tattoos generally do not understand Chinese. And although both parties rarely seem to realize it, the potential for creating inaccurate Chinese tattoos in this situation is enormous.
Without an understanding of the grammar, lexicon, and writing system of Chinese, it is very easy to create Chinese character tattoos that are badly composed, illegible, and erroneous in fundamental ways. What kinds of mistakes can be made when inking Chinese writing into one’s skin?
Bad Composition of Chinese Characters
The Chinese writing system is very complex. There is no alphabet, and although there are rules and patterns governing how characters are written, each character is composed in a unique way. Not having an understanding of the composition of Chinese characters can result in incorrectly written characters. This means that tattoos can have oddly placed strokes, extra strokes, missing strokes, ill-shaped strokes, incorrect shape, and can even be written inaccurately to point of incomprehensibility.
Backwards Chinese Character Tattoos
Not understanding the Chinese writing system can result in even more severe and embarrassing cases of badly composed characters. In extreme situations, Chinese symbols can be tattooed onto bodies backwards. As an example, this would be like writing the English word “Hope” as “Epoh.” Unfortunately, these reversed Chinese character tattoos can only look good when being reflected in a mirror.
Confusion Between Chinese and Japanese
For people who are not familiar with Chinese and Japanese, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between their respective writing systems. This is because the Japanese writing system uses many Chinese characters. The main difference between these two writing systems is that Japanese uses two other scripts (hiragana, and katakana) in addition to Chinese characters.
Poor research, miscommunication, and a lack of familiarity with Chinese and Japanese can, in some cases, mean the difference between purposely getting a Chinese tattoo and accidentally getting a Japanese tattoo. This might not be considered a terrible mistake by some people, but it is certainly nice to know exactly which language one is getting inked into their skin.
Good Chinese Calligraphy and Fonts
Not understanding the Chinese written language generally means not understanding what constitutes aesthetically valuable Chinese calligraphy. As a result, tattoo artists and clients often settle on Chinese characters that look like they have been typed in Times New Roman and printed off a computer.
A better option is to choose characters that have been written in a more attractive and interesting calligraphy style. There are several styles of Chinese scripts—such as cursive and semi-cursive scripts—which can add value to Chinese character tattoos. Researching different calligraphy styles for tattooing purposes is often overlooked.
Tattooing Traditional or Simplified Chinese Characters
There are two standard sets of Chinese characters: traditional characters and simplified characters. Traditional characters have existed for hundreds of years, and are currently used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and by many overseas Chinese communities.
Simplified characters were adopted by the People’s Republic of China government in the 1950s to help increase literacy. They are based on the traditional characters set, but some of the more complicated traditional characters have been altered by decreasing the amount of strokes used in character composition.
Like discerning the difference between Chinese and Japanese, it can be hard for untrained eyes to tell the difference between traditional and simplified characters. While the chances of using both scripts in an inconsistent way may not be common when designing tattoos, the possibility of this happening needs to be considered. Likewise, tattoo artists and clients should view both traditional and simplified versions of characters to decide which style is more appealing to them.
Mistaken Meaning and Bad Translation of Chinese Characters
Using English-Chinese dictionaries, online translation services, or choosing pre-created tattoo designs can be potentially disastrous without the guidance of someone with knowledge of both Chinese and English. This is because Chinese words and characters can have nuanced and multiple meanings.
For example, inputting the word “beautiful” in a good online Chinese dictionary can result in scores of entries, including a fair amount of idiomatic phrases. Which is the most suitable translation? What are the nuanced differences in meanings and connotations? Without an understanding of the Chinese language, there is no reason to expect a tattoo artist or client to know the answers to these questions. As a result, unsuitable characters can be selected for tattoos.
Chinese symbol tattoos are popular, but unfortunately they can also be badly composed, written in unsuitable scripts, and confused in meaning. Tattoo clients interested in inking Chinese script into their skin should be wary of these common mistakes.
Readers might be interested in learning how to create strategies for avoiding bad Chinese symbol tattoos and for creating good Chinese character tattoo designs