Monday, June 27, 2005

Carpe Diem

Reader Johan emails:

"I recently met a girl with the tattoo on her arm. She claimed it meant something like 'Carpe Diem'. I've never seen it before and I can't find anything in dictionaries that would support this.
Any idea about it?
A picture can be found in this entry in my blog:

Thanks for a very entertaining site."

"Carpe Diem" is a Latin phrase that means "seize the day". The character shown in the photo is no where near that meaning. The only two definitions I have found are:

1. name of district in Anhui
2. capital of Yin

As mentioned on Johan's site, "carpe diem" is translated with "及时行乐":

及时 [jíshí] in time; promptly
行乐 [xínglè] seek amusement; make merry

Personally, I don't agree with that definition completely.

Interestly enough, I have seen artwork pieces and shirts designed by Paul Nicholson at Terra Tag that has captured the "carpe diem" theme:

The phrase is loosely translated as "to [rely on] wait[ing] is foolish", which is very similar to what "carpe diem" is trying to express. In my personal opinion, is the best translation so far for "carpe diem".

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Art of War

Thanks to several readers for emailing this gem in.

This "The Best Selling Translation" edition of 孫子兵法 (Sun Tzu's Art of War) on Barnes & Noble's website has all the Chinese characters mirrored on the front cover. Since, Borders, and Barnes & Noble all share the same database, similar image can be seen from all three online retailers' websites.

孫子 = Sun Tzu (also commonly written in pinyin: Sūn Zǐ) was the author of The Art of War, an immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy (for the most part not dealing directly with tactics). He is also one of the earliest realists in international relations theory.
= soldier, troops
= law, rule, regulation, statute

Sunday, June 19, 2005

"Light Painter"

Reader Gordon emails:

"Hi there,

I stumbled across your site looking for some info. I admit to having gotten a tattoo a couple of years back, and like many, I am now concerned that it might not mean what I hope it means. Am I correct in understanding that you're willing to help translate characters correctly for people in my situation? I'd love any info you might provide.
Now that I am faced with the proposition of finding out I am not sure I want to know. Having it lasered off doesn't sound too pleasant.

Admittedly this tattoo is a combination of two ideas. The top character meaning "light" or having some inference to light. (not heavenly light, but actual light, though either will work.) The bottom two characters dealing with the idea of "Artist" or "Painter" I realize when placed on atop the other the grouping may mean nothing, or something else entirely, but I've always thought of them as top and bottom both withholding their individual meanings.

Go easy on me! I hope I am not terribly disappointed here.

Although the calligraphy is bad, the characters are at least recognizable.

The top character is the simplified version of , which means "lantern" or "lamp". (or traditional version ) means "painter/artist", but in the tattoo is missing a top dot.

Ambiguous Design Element

Annoymous emails:

"Hi, I do color separations for silkscreen printing. Lately I have been getting a lot of designs with Hanzi like the one attached. Do they mean anything or are they merely used as an ambiguous design element?"

From my previous email exchange with representatives of apparel companies, these Chinese characters are used randomly as design elements or marketing tools.

= long, perpetual, eternal, forever
= forgive, excuse, show mercy
= bright, light, brilliant; clear
= air, gas, steam, vapor; spirit
= trust, believe; letter
= petal, flower, leaf; brave, a hero; England, English

Friday, June 17, 2005

Ultra Violent Skin Block

Reader Xavier emails:

"Good evening Tian! I love browsing through your site, and seeing you agree to translate non-tattoo, I'd like to know the significance (if relevant) of this one.

It's a t-shirt I have, and love. When people ask me about the meaning, I often answer that it means "please kick me" or "Asian people are lame" or "very small penis", or anything silly for that matter.

I'd like to be able to answer them correctly for once.
The writing itself, "ultra violent skin block", seems to belong to Diesel clothing line, but I could find the same kanji letters while browsing the Web (and didn't think of checking if my shirt is a Diesel, meh).

Could you let me know if there's anything interesting written on this ?
Thank you."

I am not sure if this shirt should be considered as Engrish or Hanzi Smatter because it has characteristics for both.

The phrase means "[Big] Japan Spirit" or equivalent. 大和 as a single word is "Yamato", the old word for "Japan". 大和魂 itself is a phrased used to refer to the Japanese nationalistic spirit and pride (thanks to Rikoshi). During World War II, Japanese Imperial government used it and similar theme phrases as propaganda slogans to unite the Japanese.

The apparel company Diesel does sell a line of shirts that are called "Ultra Violent Skin Block".

Update: Shirt has been featured in

An email from Engrish saying a similar version of the shirt "Yamato Damashii" shown above has already been featured in

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Sydney Morning Herald - Radar Section

Reader Sputnik emails:

"Hi Tian, love your site. I discovered it after reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Hanzi Smatter article was in the Radar section of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper June 15, page 7."

The charming article was written by Erin Biba titled "What your tattoo really says":

Tattooing meaningful words on your body in Chinese characters is hip, but it's a risky business when you don't read or speak Chinese. Just ask contributors to, a weblog dedicated to the misuse of Asian characters, most often in tattoo form.


However bad those may seem, Tian put it best when he consoled one victim of tattoo misfortune: "On the good side, it does not say donkey butt."

Thanks to Sputnik, Erin, and Sydney Morning Herald!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

July 2005 Issue of Flash Magazine

Sometimes I wonder if anyone in the tattoo community really care about the accuracy of tattoos of Chinese Hanzi and Japanese Kanji characters.

After flipping through a few pages of the July 2005 issue of FLASH magazine,

and I see this:

I don't expect every single tattoo artist to hold Degrees in Asian Language Study, but when you are a major publishing company, please have some decency and do some checking, so the same error will not continue.

Not only the image (I hope it is only the image but not the tattoo) is reversed, the character (love) is missing a middle dot on the top.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

"Talking Dragon Love"

Reader Mikael emails:

"Tian, my cousin just got this tattoo on his chest. He claims that it i’s a pure sound message, but I wanted to check with you, so that he hasn'’t screwed up or anything. He didn'’t want to tell me what the sound message was either, so if you know, please tell me. Best Regards."

Regardless what "sound message" he is trying to express via his tattoo, the last character (love) is missing a few strokes backwards. Although the top two characters are not the best in terms of calligraphy, at least they are correct.

= speak, say, talk; to explain; to illustrate; explanation; directions; caption
= dragon
= love, be fond of, like

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Lenta Smatter

Reader Konstantin has emailed me an excellent piece about Hanzi misuse in Russian media,

"You'd think that [Russian] having a long border with China would make a difference, but..."


"I don't know"


Why waste the money and effort to state the obvious?

Thursday, June 2, 2005

Anime Junkie Trash

Reader Peng Guo emails:

"Tian, Being a fan of Hanzismatter, I'd like to show you something. I entered the store, 'Hot Topic' and discovered the t-shirt with a kanji. I wonder, how does the (the simpified form of ) connect to the words, 'Anime Junkie'? The meanings of the kanji, 'discard' or 'terminate', aren't close to the words..."

The slang meaning of "junkie" is "one who has an insatiable interest or devotion".

Perhaps the designer of this t-shirt wants to tell everyone that anime fans are "waste" and they need to be labeled as "trash" and "discarded".

= abrogate, terminate, discard

"Book From The Sky"

Reader David Stone emails:

Dear Tian,

Thank you for producing your wonderful blog "Hanzismatter". I check it daily.

As someone who reads modern (simplified) Chinese, I am also annoyed and puzzled by people who chose to tattoo Chinese characters on their body without a clear understanding of what the characters mean or what they should look like. Americans like to laugh at people in China and Japan for wearing silly "Engrish" t-shirts and the like, but at least people there aren't stupid enough to tattoo the crap on their own living skin.

In order to end the ugly trend of embarrassing Chinese tattoos, I suggest that we look to Xu Bing, a graphic/fine artist from China and creator of "Tianshu" ("A Book From Heaven/Sky"). "Tianshu" is a piece of art consisting of thousands of faux "characters" that are made up of various elements of Chinese characters, but don't actually exist as part of the written language. Xu apparently created wooden block type for the characters by hand, and printed them is a manner suggesting ancient religious texts.

My proposal is that someone ask Xu Bing to make a catalogue of his fake characters available to the general western public. That way, people can just chose meaningless "characters" at random for their tattoos, allowing themselves to indulge in their stupid trend while sparing the rest of us who can read Chinese from knowing just how bad their judgment is.

I am, of course, being facetious... But it's kind of funny how this work of art relates to what appears on your blog regularly.

Here's a description of "
Tianshu" from an art dealer. Forgive me if I seem pedantic for describing something you are already familiar with.

Thanks for the amusing and interesting blog. Keep up the good work!

-David Stone

Personally I think Xu Bing's pieces are in the same realm as glossolalia (speaking in tongues). They maybe artistic and interesting for some; but to others, they are completely meaningless gibberish.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Evil Hand Bag

Reader Matthias emails:

"Hi Tian, attached you will find a picture of a hand bag that I saw in Germany. If I'm not totally wrong, the kanji means 'bad', which is the perfect kanji next to a heart symbol. :-)"

I wonder which outfit would match well with this hand bag, perhaps an "I hate myself and I want to die" sweat shirt?

= evil, wicked, bad, foul

A for Alexa

Reader Alexa emails:

My friends and I are getting tattoos. We are getting each others first initial in Chinese. After reading some of the horror stories on your web site I want to make sure I get the correct letters:

A for Alexa
C for Crissy
T for Tonya

Again we just want the letters. I am also interested in a phrase like friendship or something to that effect. I appreciate you taking time to read this and please respond, I don't want "crazy diarrhea" on me for life.

Thank you,


It may be a common misnomer that Chinese is like any other Romantic language that follows an alphabetical system.

Actually it is not so.
(example: tattoo's owner claim the characters are her son's initials)

My good friend Dr. Rick Harbaugh of has a Frequently Asked Questions section where this question has been answered in detail.

Mark Swofford of Pinyin Info is also planning to launch a new Frequently Asked Question to help out with some of these questions. The following is one of the example questions/answers, I think it is very useful for future tattoo seekers:

I want to get a tattoo with kanji / Chinese characters. What do you recommend?

This is probably not what you want to hear: Don’t get the tattoo. Most tattoos with Chinese characters are seriously flawed.

The chances of you getting something that looks good – and not just to you but also to others, including the hundreds of millions of people who can actually read Chinese characters and know how they’re supposed to look – are quite low.

Moreover, tattoos of Chinese characters are seldom written properly or represent a correct, idiomatic translation of the wearer’s desired meaning. On the other hand, the chances of you ending up looking more or less like a fool – at least to those who know Chinese characters – are uncomfortably high.

These are important considerations, given that you would need to go through pain and expense to have someone permanently stain your skin with an image that very likely will be done wrong in some important way.