If you're planning on having a Chinese character tattooed, make sure that you are positive of the meaning.

Some years ago I got a tat of a chinese character for Dragon over my birthdate. The design came from off of a piece of flash on the wall at the shop I was having the tat done at."Yes," the artist assured me, "That is the character for Dragon."

Tonight we felt like having chinese for dinner. I went to pick it up, brought it back to the Jeep and found myself wondering "I wonder if it really does denote "dragon". Being that we had just finished doing some gardening I was in shorts and sneakers so it would be no problem showing my tat, which is on my ankle, to Lee, The proprietor of the restaurant. I went in and asked if he read pictographs and he said "Sure, let's see it."

I think he knew what was coming already.

As I knelt down to show him a couple of guys working in the back came up to look too. Neither of these guys spoke english and when they saw the tat they started talking back and forth along with Lee.The next thing I know the three of them are drawing for each other on the stainless steel wall.Crossing this line out, adding one here, erasing another one. One of the guys looked at me and started pointing to the ceiling lights, putting both fore fingers and thumbs together, then pulling them apart in an explosion~like fashion. It didn't take me but two guesses to figure out what he was trying to get across. "Electricity?" I asked. Lee stood and said "Yes,not Dragon, but Electricity"..

I was crestfallen, after all these years thinking I had the character for my birth year! I figured that it wasn't a total loss since it is a pretty piece and well done.And electricity, That's not such a bad concept.

That's when Lee dropped the other shoe."They drew Electricity wrong too." DOH!
I promised him that I would come in to see him first before I got any more Chinese characters added to myself.

And now I have another reason to get yet another tattoo.

For future reference:
Japanese script:


Traditional Chinese script of Hong Kong:


And the less-sexy Simplified Chinese of the PRC:


Mandarin in Pinyin:
Dragon: lóng
Electricity: diàn
Japanese in Romanji:
Dragon: ryū (or ryuu)
Electricity: den

Caveat: As always, you will need a modern browser and Chinese and Japanese fonts to view this writeup properly

My English/Chinese bilingual dictionary
My English/Japanese bilingual dictionary
My English/Korean bilingual dictionary
/msg's from Shro0m

You need a unicode-enabled browser with chinese fonts installed to see the Chinese in this write-up.
Mandarin Chinese is romanised as pinyin.

黥 Branding Criminals

Qíng (黥) means 'to tattoo' in Chinese: In feudal China, tattooing was a form of punishment; criminals had their crimes tattooed on their faces for all to see. Qíng miàn qiú tú (黥面囚徒) is the expression for a branded criminal.

The story is told of the Song Dynasty General, Yuè Fēi (岳飛). While serving in the Song army, fighting the invading Jurchens, the Field Marshal he served under defected to the enemy. In disgust, he left the army and returned to his home town to look after his aging mother. Upon his return, his mother did not welcome him, but instead admonished him, saying that his first duty was to his country and not to her. To remind him of this, she tattooed this phrase on his back: 盡忠報國 'The greatest loyalty is to serve one's country'.

天地會 Triads

Tatoos have been proudly worn by members of the triads since Qing Dynasty times. The tattoos are often elaborate, covering much of the body, and feature Chinese characters mixed with mythical animals such as dragons and phoenixes.

There are probably two reasons for the use of tattoos by the triads. The first reflects their origins as organised resistance against the Manchu conquerors. Branded criminals were probably proud of their status as people marked as being outside the Manchu establishment.

The second reason is probably that in modern times, joining a triad usually means forsaking your own family and taking them as your new family. The tattoos would therefore mark you as belonging to a particular triad gang; but also, because of the aversion mainstream Chinese society has to tattoos, mark you as something separate from society.

刺靑 Modern Chinese tattoos

Cì qīng (刺靑) is the modern Chinese expression for tattoos. It is a purely descriptive term, meaning 'pricking black', and does not carry the same negative connotations that 黥 does. There is even a more poetic expression, wén shēn (紋身), that literally means 'body patterns' and actually sounds quite nice.

預告 Caveat

Requests for Chinese phrases or translations for tattoos will meet with a frown from most Chinese. It is simply not the "done thing". Tattoos are seen to defile and not to beautify the body; Chinese brought up in Western societies often have a more open-minded attitude to it, but will often not know enough Chinese to give proper advice about suitable phrases! See http://hanzismatter.com/ for examples of disasters (thanks BlackPawn).

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