You Don’t Even Know Chinese!

It's too bad that stupidity isn't painful.

Tattooing is a reflection of the basic human desire to decorate the body, and tattoos have held many different meanings by different societies and cultures throughout history.Many attribute the ancient Egyptians to be the first practicing tattooists, and tattoos continue to be a popular way for people of all ages to express themselves in our contemporary society (Rio 20).  In years gone by, tattoos were strictly for the specific sections of the socio-economic working class demographic, the domain of sailor and criminal subcultures.

Many people try to make the case that tattoos have been accepted by mainstream culture and are seeping into the wider community.  I’ve seen figures that estimate anywhere between 1 in 4 young Americans 18-25 years of age have a tattoo, although personal experience leads me to believe this might be a conservative estimate (did the study count “secret” tattoos?)  Shows like “LA Ink,”  “Tattoo Highway,” and whatever other “true-life” tattoo docu-drama cable television is airing this season would have us believe that tattooing is a normal, everyday occurrence that is part of most Americans lives.

However, I would argue that this is not so, and if tattooing has indeed become “acceptable” in mainstream society, it is only in America and certainly not in Chinese culture. An article in “China Daily” estimated that, as of 2009, approximately thirty-five percent of NBA stars have some kind of Chinese-themed tattoo.  The figures for the number of Chinese sports stars or entertainers with tattoos, however, continue to remain much more conservative.

Nick Carter, of 1990’s boy-band fame, has an eclectic mix of body art, including a shark on his left bicep, accompanied by the characters “hai shen” for Poseidon. Carter is hardy the forerunner of this trend, and many celebrities (as well as ordinary body modification enthusiasts) choose to mix languages, cultural symbols and traditional artwork in their tattoos, even if it doesn’t really signify anything. Nevertheless, I find Carter’s bastardized take on Greek mythology both grotesquely slanderous and exhilarating at the same time, which would be considered by some in the tattooing circuit to be the mark of a great tattoo, but I digress.

Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.

Many people who I personally know who have Chinese characters tattooed on them cite the “mystery” of the symbol as one of their main reasons for getting it inked.  The logic goes that you can be “(insert generic personality trait here)”and that in Chinese it would be even more enigmatic.  Empirical evidence confirms this to be true, as the majority of these individuals have never spoken a word of Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) in their life beyond ordering the Moo Goo Gai Pan at General Zhou’s Buffet.  To such individuals these characters are, indeed, a mystery.  I find Western fascination with Chinese motifs all the more amusing due to the connotations that tattoos carry in Chinese culture. Tattooing has existed in China for centuries but is traditionally been associated with criminals.  According the “Global Times,” tattooing in China has largely been taboo since 1949, however in the past five years, more and more shops have sprung up.  In China, there is a reversal of the trend seen in the West, with students and professionals alike increasingly choosing to be adorned with English phrases.

I like to believe that, unlike their Western counterparts, most Chinese have a better sense of what their English tattoo means, although things are bound to get lost in translation both ways, as is the risk one takes with any tattooing transaction. However, after reviewing the portfolio of an artist based in Hong Kong at the Detroit Motor City Tattoo Convention this year, I was dismayed (albeit not surprised) to see the same type of errors can occur in English to Mandarin as I flipped through photos that included proud declarations of “Loves Brotherhood For Lives,” and “Mis Behaven” (although the last one may have been intentional; I was unclear on that but didn’t want the artist to lose face by asking, as it would have drawn attention to other errors in his portfolio-a tattoo industry no-no.)

As would behoove an art form traditionally dominated by sailors and criminals, tattoo parlors in China operate in a gray zone of legality, and I find it doubtful that autoclave sterilization (key to the prevention of blood borne pathogen related diseases such as hepatitis and HIV) is taking place in Chinese tattoo parlors, an issue which I would be interested in further exploring upon my own impending visit to China this summer.

While I was volunteering at the China Quiz Bowl, one of the judges and I were having a conversation about tattooing, so I took the opportunity to ask what the general consensus on tattoos was in present-day Chinese society.  He told me that most Chinese do not have tattoos, as they are traditionally the mark of criminals, and that tattooing is viewed as a “desecration” of the body.  This supported prior research I had done on the subject, and seemed to be keeping with Confucius thought, in which one’s body is viewed as a gift from the parents, so it made total sense to me why even in an increasingly “modernized/westernized” China, tattoos are still not commonplace.  As a person with tattoos, and who grew up around the art form (my first “job” was as the floor-girl at the neighborhood shop) I am well aware of the stigma that tattoos carry in American, mid-west society, therefore I tend to err on the side of caution when dealing with other cultures, particularly the Near, Middle or Far East.

As I became more involved with the Chinese Learning Community this semester I was interested to see the reaction of native Chinese to American tattooing, which I found to not only be quaint, but more importantly, universal.  My Chinese peers react to my tattoos the same way that my friends back in Alpena do: with a mix of awe and admiration, quickly followed by the statement “I could never get something like that because my parents would kill me” (or the appropriate Mandarin sentiment.)   It just goes to show that people are people, and children in every culture fear the wrath and disapproval of their parents.


Author’s Note:

For interesting side reading on reverse culture roles, check this out.

Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.

Works Cited

“Chinese Tattoos Popular with Western Celebrities (English_Xinhua).” Web.

01 May 2010. <;.

“Global Times – Chinese Craze for English Tattoos.” China

Newspaper, China English Newspaper, Global Times. 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 01 May 2010. <;.

Rio, Dale, and Eva Bianchini. Tattoo. Philadelphia: Courage, 2004. Print.


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