Thursday, March 31, 2005

Only the Ones Asking for Tattoo

I get many emails daily asking for translation help. Some of them are very specific questions that deal with Asian history/language and usually are very in depth. Even though, they would take me hours to do background research and eventually come up with concise results, they are very intellectually enriching for me.

On the other end of the spectrum are the tattoo questions. Most of them email me because they don’t want to be ridiculed later on when their mistakes have been exposed. I try to help them as much as possible only to provide them with linguistic information. I am also very curious about why would someone choose to tattoo themselves with a language that they obviously do not understand.

Once the question of “why?” is presented to them, they would usually come to the realization that it might not be such great idea.

Recently my email exchange with one of the tattoo seekers did not go so well. All emails are in their original format (including spelling errors), except the recipient’s address has been blocked out.

Date: Sun, 27 Mar 2005
From: **********
To: tian
Subject: chinese tatoos

I was guided by a friend to your site, and I was wondering if you could help us out?...With so many mistakes going on, I am seeking your expertise with a family project. My Mom, who has been fasinated with the Chinese & Japanese culture for many years, has agreed to have a family tatoo that my mom, sister, and myself can share and wear with respect to both cultures whenever seen. We weren't sure which characters to use because we like both Hanzi (Chinese Traditional), and Kanzi (Japanese Traditional) characters. Can you write both versions for us so we can choose from the following: God, Mother, Father, Love, Respect, Courage, Loyalty, Self- Respect, Family, Children, Peace, Judgement, Wisdom, Strength, Versatility, Life, Death, Resilience. Also, the following caption: No one saves us but ourselves. No one can, no one may. For we ourselves must walk the path. Please help!!!!! My mom is worried they won't be in the correct form and context, and we'll walk around" looking like freaking idiots",LOL. You can email me @ *********** so we're able to print them. Your help will be SOOOOOOOOO GREATLY APPRECIATED;-) Thanks.

Date: Sun, 27 Mar 2005
From: Tian
To: **********
Subject: Re: chinese tatoos

I am very curious why you and your family members want tattoos in a language that you obviously don't understand?

Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2005
From: **********
To: tian
Subject: Re: chinese tatoos

Because I have always felt it to be a beautiful, interesting, and exotic culture, and expression of words. No disrespect intended by the following remark.......But obviously others have sought out your knowledge and expertise on the matter concerning tatoos they have for a reason- that reason being they want to know if their tatoos are in the correct context, that is why I wrote you. I want to make sure I don't end up with the same mistake riddled tatoos as some of the unfortunate others.

Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2005
From: Tian
To: **********
Subject: Re: chinese tatoos

What about your own culture [get tattoos in English instead], aren't you proud of your heritage? Why use a foreign culture to represent your own?

Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2005
From: **********
To: tian
Subject: Re: chinese tatoos

I AM PROUD OF MY OWN CULTURE!!!!!!! What does that have to do with anything? You can be open-minded enough to love your own culture, and still embrace that of others, can you not?????! If you didn't want to assist in the matter, all you had to do was say so. The fact is, I can very well find someone with the same knowledge, if not more, as you to assist in the matter. THANKS FOR ALL OF YOUR HELP!!!! I'm just wondering........Do you question and try to offend ALL of you readers that try to seek your help? I thought your web site was for the purpose of helping others. I'm sure the the pics of the people you've showcased on your site wasn't of Chinese or Japanese people or desent..........WERE THEY???????? Don't bother replying, because it will remain unread, and immediately deleted!!!!! Enjoy your day!

Fortunately I am not the only one that is "close minded"., one of the largest Chinese-English consulting firm, had the following to say:

"Because we love the Chinese language, we don't wish to contribute to the language's misuse for the sake of a fad. For people who don't know Chinese, flaring the characters across an arm may appear elegant, exotic, or intriguing. Yet what looks mystical and intelligent often has a nonsensical or embarrassing meaning. Probably neither the wearer nor the tattoo artist understand what the characters actually mean.

NBA player Marcus Camby is a popular example of the rave of tattooing Chinese characters. Neither Chinese nor Japanese people could understand his tattoos, however, until Camby gained millions of dollar's worth of publicity "explaining" what his tattoos are suppose to mean. Of course, the average Joe doesn't have this kind of opportunity.

"But I'm not Chinese or Japanese. It just looks cool to me." (more)

In conclusion: 天下本無事,庸人自擾之。

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Wrong Country, Avril Lavigne

My pal Randall from Hong Kong emails me:

"Hey Tian! Avril Lavigne was recently promoting in Hong Kong for an one-night show. She obviously had help from someone with a magic marker. Thought you'd be interested to see it. Cheers."

I don't know whether it was the newspaper's mistake or Ms. Lavigne's PR people's carelessness, the phrase 日本最高 on Ms. Lavigne was correctly written, but for a WRONG country.

= Japan
most, extremely, exceedingly
= high, tall; lofty, elevated

日本 【にほん】 (n) Japan
最高 【さいこう】 (adj-na,n) highest; supreme; the most

It is translated as "Japan is the best".

This also reminds me singer Alanis Morissette has blamed the effects of alcohol for telling an audience at the end of a show in Peru "thank you Brazil".

Update: Randall emails:


"That image must have been taken in Japan, which means the "tattoo" made sense. However using it in a paper which Chinese might read (the paper is mostly geared towards English speakers), to promote a Hong Kong concert, still leads me to wonder whether it was such a great idea."

Source: HK Magazine, March 25, 2005.

Flash Errors at Local Shop

does not really mean "attractive", it only means "eye; item".

價目 = (marked) price
刺目刺眼 = irritating to the eye

does sometime represent "1st in order", it also means "shell". If there is no secondary character to provide contextual information, it could be translated either way.

甲蟲 = beetle, insect with shell
指甲 = finger nail

Monday, March 28, 2005

"Speeding is not Safe"

Reader Callum sent me this photo of his friend's t-shirt.

At first glance, I thought the shirt had on it, which means "high speed press", something that is used in a dry cleaning shop.

Then I realized that the phrase is actually 高速ネ安, but I had no idea what that meant. I then forward the photo to my associates to see if they would recognize what the shirt meant.

So far the consensus is that the third character is actually a miswritten . Therefore the phrase is 高速不安, which means "speeding is not safe" or "high speed anxiety".

= high, tall; lofty, elevated
= quick, prompt, speedy
= no, not; un-; negative prefix
= peaceful, tranquil, quiet

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pointless Longevity


This is another example of carelessness by the tattoo artist or/and the client. The top character 寿, simplified version of , is missing a dot in the partial.

寿 = old age, long life; lifespan
= loyalty, devotion, fidelity
= power, capability, influence
= petal, flower, leaf; brave, a hero; England, English

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I Forever You

This tattoo posted in BMEzine's gallery did not have a translation caption.

The characters 我永你, "I forever you" reminded me of those "I heart NY" t-shirts and "I heart Huckbees" posters.

= our, us, i, me, my, we
= long, perpetual, eternal, forever
= you, second person pronoun

This is not even pidgin Chinese, at least pidgin is functional. (thanks Brendan)

Chestnut Whiskers

While I was reading through, I came across a website called "Adult Engrish", which documents the comical misfortunes of an English teacher's life in Japan. As far as I can tell, the website is not associated with

The website's logo [seen above] has a hanko (traditional Japanese stamp, also known as in Chinese) with in red. One of my Japanese associates, Aaron, recognized the characters as "kuri-su, which might be a kind of crappy kanji for the name 'Chris'."

But if the characters are read individually:

= chestnut tree, chestnuts; surname
= must, have to, necessary; moment; whiskers

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Foreign Frog

Reader Erin Delgado emails:

"I used to wear this shirt quite a bit. I always assumed that the characters translated to 'dolls' because that is the brand name - 'dawls'. However I once wore it to Chinese restaurant and the waitress seemed a bit shocked by the shirt and now I only wear it in the privacy of my own home. However I am extremely curious as to what it actually says. Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks, Erin Delgado"

The phrase on the shirt does not say "dolls", but "foreign frog".

= ocean, sea; foreign; western
= frog

The correct "dolls" is 娃娃.

I don't know why the waitress was shocked by the miswritten shirt, unless it means something else in sexual slang.

Update: From, here are some alternative definitions for "frog":

5. A promiscuous girl who "jumps" from bed to bed (like a frog).
6. Slang for a females genitalia since the clit can look like a frog's tongue jumping out to grab a fly.

Friday, March 18, 2005

RTFM Shirt featuring Chairman Mao

A week ago I have featured a trendy purse with pro-communism slogan here. Yesterday, reader Ben Ostrowsky has sent me a link to a RTFM t-shirt [shown above] at

I really enjoyed the clever reference between Mao's red book and RTFM, which is a geek slang for "read the f*cking manual".

I am start to wonder if it is trendy to be a commie these days...


translated as "closely following Chairman Mao through strong wind big waves and advance forward".

= tense, tight, taut; firm, secure
= heel; to follow, accompany; with
= Chairman Mao
= be at, in, on; consist in, rest
= strong wind big waves; turmoil
= central; center, middle; in the midst of; hit (target); attain
= to go forward; to forge ahead; to advance; onward

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Lusty Misfortune

Reader Ben Watson emails:

"Hi Tian, I got this tattoo and I don't have a clue what it means. In fact, I can't even remember getting this tattoo. So if you are able to enlighten me I would appreciate it. I like your site, its very entertaining. Ben"

色 【いろ】
(n) (1) colour; color; (2) sensuality; lust; (P); EP
凶 【きょう】 (n) evil; bad luck; disaster; bad harvest; ED


Reader anonymous emails:

"Good afternoon, Tian. I have been visiting Hanzi Smatter for some time now. Quite hilarious really. Anyway, an acquaintance recently got a tattoo of, what they think to be, the word "strength". Now, I have usually seen being the kanji for those duties, but that is not the case here. I have looked up several kanji that could mean strength (thinking was the better option), but I have not seen the kanji in the attached photo before, and can't find the true meaning of it anywhere. Any help?

I am sure she thought, whole-heartedly, that it meant 'strength' at the time she got it done. I am also sure she intended it to impress someone who was "into" Japanese or the like. Aside from the tattoo not meaning exactly what they intended - at least it isn't horrible (like explosive poo, or something). The muddiness of the calligraphy itself, however, lends me to think she didn't take much care in picking, at the very least, a good tattoo artist."

The character means "brave, heroic, chivalrous" and "person with outstanding talent". In Japanese it would also mean "fine feathers/writing brush/a little", as well as phonetically used to represent "Austrilia" as in 豪州. 自豪 means "[self] pride". I am still curious about why this person got a tattoo in a language that she does not understand.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

HOWTO: Display Hanzi and Kanji

Recently I have received many emails from readers asking how to properly display Hanzi and Kanji on their computers. Since most PCs with Microsoft Windows operating system are English without East Asian language package(s) installed, the Hanzi and Kanji would show up as “????” and “□□□□”.

Solution 1. Usually in Microsoft Windows 2000 and XP, there is a setting under “Regional and Language Options” in the “Control Panel”, that would install additional components for East Asian languages.

Control Panel > Regional and Language Options > Language (tab) > Install files for East Asian Languages (checkbox)

Solution 2. Download and install the language pack(s) directly from Microsoft’s website.

Office XP Tool: Global IME (Simplified Chinese)

Use the Microsoft Global Input Method Editor for Office XP (Simplified Chinese) to input Simplified Chinese text in your documents, worksheets, presentations, mail messages, publications, and Web pages.

Office XP Tool: Global IME (Traditional Chinese)

Use the Microsoft Global Input Method Editor for Office XP (Traditional Chinese) to input Traditional Chinese text in your documents, worksheets, presentations, mail messages, publications, and Web pages.

Office XP Tool: Traditional Chinese Language Pack

The Traditional Chinese Language Pack installs Traditional Chinese language support files for the operating system.

Office XP Tool: Simplified Chinese Language Pack

The Simplified Chinese Language Pack installs Simplified Chinese language support files for the operating system.

Failed to Recognize

The character shown in this tattoo supposed to be , which means "to know" or "recognize". Unfortunately, both the tattoo artist and the client failed to "recognize" the error, no pun intended. The tattooed character is missing a dot.

= recognize, understand, know

Monday, March 14, 2005

Peaceful Flat Mousepad

Angela emails:

"Tian, My sister has found this mouse pad on sale on My understanding is that 和平 means 'peace'. But alone means 'even' level; flat'! Cheers, Angela"

Even though is commonly translated as "peace", but technically it only means "flat" or "balanced".

The phrase for "peace" is ; and sometimes in Japanese, .

= flat; level; equal; to make the same score; to tie; to draw; calm; peaceful
【ひら】 (n) the broad; the flat; palm; ED

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Trendy Pro-Communism Purses

Reader Chris Port emails:

"I saw this site offering purses with (in addition to skulls) 'cool Asian script that no one knows the meaning of!' This looked like a job for Hanzi Smatter. Here's a closeup pic of the purses [shown above]. Thanks for any enlightenment you can grant, Chris"

= great effort; strive; try hard
= complete, finish, settle; whole
= orderly, neat, tidy; whole
(simplified version ) = political party, gang, faction

Professor David Porter of University of Michigan has a collection of original pro-Communism Chinese slogans. The original quote was:


which translates as "It is our great duty for the [communist] party to complete recognize itself and keep the spirit positive."

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Light, Literature, Catches Dragon

The first character could be , but I doubt it. The second character is . I have no idea what the third character is. The last one could be .

= light, brilliant, shine; only
= literature, culture, writing
= catch, arrest; shoot with bow

I have no idea what the phrase means, anyone else?

Monday, March 7, 2005

Soccer Player's Tattoo

Christian Vieri

Does anyone recognize who this person is? I originally found this photo in Yahoo Fifa's website, but then lost the link. I think he is a professional soccer player. His arm tattoo appears to be a serie of random characters.

= constant, regular, persistent
= thunder
= clan, family; mister
= heart; mind, intelligence; soul
= harmony, peace; peaceful, calm

Update: Andy has identified this player to be Christian Vieri, an Italian soccer (or football) player.

Zhwj has forward an interview Mr. Vieri has done with Titan Sports in 2003. When asked about his tattoo, Vieri mentioned "I went to a tattoo parlor, but they did not tell me the characters' meanings. I picked these because I liked their look." Also, Vieri was pleasently surprised when the interviewer told him the meanings of the characters.

Thursday, March 3, 2005

"Knowledge is Power"

Reader Aylwin Lo from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada has sent in these photos of a painting displayed in a framing store called "Images on Bank":

"Tian, I look forward to seeing your analysis. My goodness, those are some hideously-written characters... Thanks for keeping up the site. Very valuable stuff!"

Hideous? Indeed!

For the longest time, I could not figure out what the last two characters were due to the "artist"'s very poor hand writting. Eventually with help from Ken L, Brendan, and Rex, we finally figured out it says:


The quote was originally by 王充. It is the equivalent of 知識就是力量 or "knowledge is power".

Wang Ch'ung (or Wang Chong) (27–97 C.E.) was a Chinese philosopher during the Han Dynasty who developed a rational, secular, naturalistic, and mechanistic account of the world and of human beings. His main work was the Lun-Heng (first translated in 1911 as Balanced Enquiries, and since as Fair Discussions, or Critical Essays). (wikipedia)

百聞不如一見 (or in Japanese 百聞は一見に如かず)

It is translated as "Hearing it a hundred time is not equivaluent to seeing it once" or "A picture is worth a thousand words".

The giant character in the middle is , which means "good fortune".

I wonder how much this painting is priced at.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

"It is harsh attack hardness"

Reader Matthew Gonzales writes:

"Hi, I ran into your sight while browsing. I was wondering if you can tell me what my Kanji means. Thanks a million. Although I do not understand the language [but] I consider Kanji to be a form of art. Sure you can use the pics for your web. So what do they mean?"

The top character looks like an upside-down ; which means "bitter; toilsome, laborious; 8th heavenly stem". Or, it could be with missing stroke at the bottom. (thanks Rikoshi)

= cut down, subjugate, attack
= hard, tough, rigid, strong

The phrase does not have any significant meaning in Chinese. I have also consulted with my Japanese publisher friend in Tokyo, Mr. Ken Nishimura, to see if the phrase had any meaning in Japanese, and here is what he said:

"No, I don't think it makes any sense in Japanese, either. It seems like a name (辛伐, 剛), but I have never heard of such a family name 辛伐. I have no clue how it should be read even if the name existed."

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Washington Post Express "Lost in Translation"

Chris Mincher of Washington Post has written an article about me and Hanzi Smatter in today's paper (pg. 28).

I especially enjoyed the upper right corner insert "Hanzi Goes Hollywood" and it talked about Britney Spears's tattoo. Apparently in 2002, she got a Kanji tattoo that she thought meant "mysterious", but actually meant "strange" (The Mirror UK).

Thanks to everyone for your support and help!


tiangotlost at gmail dot com

"Lost In Translation" (Adobe PDF)

Article Only:

(260 KB at

Full Paper:

EXPRESS_03012005.pdf (8.02 MB at
washingtonpostexpress_03012005.pdf (8.02 MB at