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Chinese tattoos and especially the Chinese characters tattoo have been very popular in the Western world the last decade or so, and they still are today. Chinese characters are beautiful little pieces of art. They are exotic and mysterious, what makes them very suitable for a tattoo design. No wonder you see so many Chinese symbol tattoos around these days.
There's more to Chinese tattoos than just the symbol tattoos, although tattoos have quite a negative connotation in traditional Chinese culture. In fact, there was a belief that the body is a sacred gift from one’s parents and should not be altered in any permanent way – which of course includes tattooing.
Ci Shen - The Chinese Tattoo
Despite the negative connotation of the Chinese tattoo, there has always been tattooing in China. The Chinese word for tattoo is Ci Shen, literally meaning puncture the body.
The first Chinese tattoos were considered a punishment – sort of a mark of disgrace. Criminals were marked with a face tattoo and forced to live in exile. This practice is called Ci Peiin Chinese.
Even in modern China today, tattoos are considered to be connected with the underworld and triads somehow, although this attitude is slowly changing. Despite the dubious attitudes towards tattooing, there is some evidence that tattooing and other body art are making inroads among Chinese youth today.
Chinese Tribal Tattoos
The Chinese tattoo doesn't have a very interesting history, but there are several ethnic minorities in China who do have a strong tattoo tradition. The most important ones are the Drung, Dai and Li tribes.
The Drung are an ethnic group that live in the Yunnan province.
The woman of the Drung tribe used to tattoo their faces when they reached the age of 12, as a symbol of maturity. The tattoos were done between the eyebrows and around the mouth, resembling a butterfly or diamond design.
About 3 centuries ago, the women of the Drung tribe were often attacked by other ethnic groups and to avoid being raped, they used tattoos to make themselves less attractive. Some of these tribal tattoos resembled moustaches.
Of course, modern tattoo equipment was not available 300 years ago, thorns were used to puncture the skin and charcoal was used instead of tattoo ink.
The Dai are also an ethnic minority living in southern Yunnan. Children as young as 5 were tattooed, and then again at the age of 14, as a symbol of sexual maturity.
Men were tattooed on strong muscles, woman between the eyebrows or on the hand or arm. Black tiger tattoos or dragon tattoos were the most popular designs.
The people of the Dai tribe used their tattoos as a talisman, to keep monsters away.
The Li are an ethnic group living in tribes on Hainan Island. Tattoos play an important role in the Li women's life (both sexes were tattooed, although it was more common for women) and their tattoo tradition can be traced back to 3000 years ago.
When girls reached the age of 12, they receive their first tattoos on the neck, face and throat. Over the next several years, the girl's arms and legs were tattooed as well. The tattoos meant that they were ready for marriage, they were a rite of passage.
Men were tattooed as well, but for medicinal purposes.
Chinese Symbol Tattoos
Chinese symbol tattoos are popular among westerners, and it’s easy to see why. The art and symbols of the traditional Chinese culture are very suitable tattoo symbols, whose graceful lines lend themselves perfectly to the art of tattooing.
A word of warning though: research the Chinese character you are interested in thoroughly, you don't want to be the subject of a story like this one:
There was an article in the newspaper a couple of years ago about a teenager who paid $180 to have his arm tattooed with Chinese characters. He wanted the Mandarin characters for "Love, honor and obey" etched on his skin, but he got quite a shock when he learned his Chinese tattoo really meant: "At the end of the day, this is an ugly boy". He found out the truth when he noticed the effect his tattoo had on a woman serving at a Chinese restaurant, who reluctantly translated the tattoo for him. Going back to the tattoo shop, he found out it had closed. He is now planning to spend over $1200 on laser tattoo removal.
If you are thinking about getting a Chinese writing tattoo, make sure you get your translation from a reliable source. Make sure your tattoo design really means what you think it does (by using our professional translating service)!
Also, make sure that the tattoo artist you select is able to reproduce the Chinese characters correctly. Find a tattoo artist who has had experience with Chinese characters tattoos and can render the characters the right way.
Hanzi and Kanji
Hanzi is the name for the traditional Chinese characters used in the official written language of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Chinese communities out of China.
There are about 47,000 Hanzi characters, but many of them are unused. To be fully literate, you need to know about 4000 of these Chinese characters. Most Chinese words are written with multiple characters, one for each syllable.
Besides traditional Chinese there is also Simplified Chinese, an attempt to increase literacy in China.
Simplified Chinese characters have less number of strokes than traditional Chinese. They are used in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore.
Here's an example, on the left (in black) is the traditional Chinese character for "Chinese", next to it (in red) is the simplified character:
Here are the most popular Chinese symbols used as a tattoo and their meaning:
|Chinese symbol for love:
||Chinese symbol for strength:
|Chinese symbol for peace:
||Chinese symbol for family:
|Chinese symbol for courage:
||Chinese symbol for dragon:
|Chinese symbol for friendship:
||Chinese symbol for faith:
|Chinese symbol for hope:
||Chinese symbol for sister:
|Chinese symbol for zen:
||Chinese symbol for water:
|Chinese symbol for happiness:
||Chinese symbol for angel:
Kanji is the Japanese word for "Han characters" and are Chinese characters that are used in the Japanese writing system. Kanji are simplified traditional Chinese characters, but most of them have different simplifications than simplified Chinese. There are about 50,000 kanji characters.
Kanji are popular tattoo designs, not in China or Japan though, only in the West.
Chinese Dragon Tattoos
Chinese characters tattoos are not the only type of Chinese tattoo that is popular today. Chinese dragon tattoos are very popular as well.
The Chinese dragon is a long snake-like creature, usually with 5 claws and without wings.
As opposed to Western beliefs, the dragon in Chinese culture is a benevolent creature that wards of evil spirits. It symbolizes good luck, fertility, happiness and immortality.
In Chinese culture there is the belief that wearing the image of a dragon on you is considered very unlucky. The Chinese symbol for dragon on the other hand is considered lucky.
Sometimes you see a person with a tattoo of a dragon combined with the Chinese dragon character. This always reminds me of these picture books that are used to teach children how to read. Imagine a tattoo of an eagle with the English word 'Eagle' below it, you wouldn't do it would you?
Chinese Tiger Tattoo
Chinese Symbol Meaning "Tiger"
Another popular Chinese tattoo is the tiger tattoo. The tiger is one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They are the 3rd animal in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.
Here are some supposed characteristics of people born in a tiger year:
- Lack of attention and care
Chinese Phoenix Tattoos
The phoenix (aka firebird) is a Chinese mythological creature (it also exists in Greek mythology). In Chinese culture the phoenix is known as Fenghuang and was used to represent the empress.
Chinese phoenix tattoos symbolize:
- High virtue and grace.
- The union of yin and yang.
- A phoenix tattoo combined with a dragon symbolizes the union between husband and wife (yin and yang).
The Yin Yang Tattoo
Yin Yang tattoo art is popular in the West and again it's easy to see why: the symbol is simple yet dramatic and can easily be combined or incorporated in other tattoo designs.
Popular yin yang tattoo combinations:
The yin yang symbol is called Taijitu in Chinese and is a Taoist symbol.
The meaning of the yin yang symbol: yin and yang are the 2 contrary elements of the universe that form a union together (unity of opposites):
- Yin: the black part, female, passive, night, water and earth.
- Yang: the white part, male, active, day, fire and air.
Yin and yang only exist in relation to each other, everything has 2 aspects. This is symbolized by the black dot in the white part and the white dot in the black part of the Taijitu.
Many people are interested in Eastern spirituality nowadays and the yin yang is a meaningful symbol of balance and harmony. The yin yang symbol can be rendered in almost any size – a small yin yang tattoo the size of a quarter or even smaller is very tasteful, while still making a strong statement.
Chinese Celebrity Tattoos
Celebrities with a Chinese tattoo:
- Britney Spears: has the character for mystery on her abdomen surrounded by a flower tattoo.
- Allen Iverson: basketball player with about 20 tattoos. He's got the Chinese character for respect on his arm.
- Mary J Blige: R&B star with the Chinese character for strength on her right hand.
- Cher: also has the Chinese character for strength, but on her right shoulder.
- Melanie Brown (Mel B): Spice Girl with a Chinese character on her belly and a dragon tattoo on her back.
- Nathalie Imbruglia: singer with a Chinese character tattoo on her left foot, meaning courage.
- Julia Roberts: has a red heart inside a Chinese character, meaning strength of heart.
- Kiefer Sutherland: has a tattoo of a Chinese character meaning undying love.
- Tila Tequila: has got 2 Chinese characters on her neck and one on her right wrist.
To summarize: Chinese writing tattoos and tattoos that incorporate other Chinese art are a great choice for a tasteful tattoo, but make sure you do your research properly!
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