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A Guide to Chinese Tattoos

Updated: Jan 2

Chinese character tattoo on woman

Interested in getting tattooed in Chinese characters? Chinese is without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful written languages and can be an elegant way of symbolizing something special to you. However, it’s not uncommon for non-Chinese people to botch the quality of their tattoo by copying-and-pasting something from Google Translate, so we’ve written this article to help answer some important questions when considering getting marked with Chinese characters. This is our comprehensive guide to Chinese tattoos.

Are Cantonese and Mandarin characters different?

Though the two major forms of Chinese language, Cantonese and Mandarin, are vastly different in pronunciation, they share the same characters. So, when a Cantonese speaker pronounces your tattoo differently than a Mandarin speaker, don’t be alarmed. The characters carry the same meaning in most cases.

Cantonese is generally spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong (the southern province of mainland China sharing a border with Hong Kong). Mandarin is the official language of mainland China and Taiwan.

Should I use simplified or traditional Chinese characters for my tattoo?

Traditional characters are generally used in Hong Kong and Taiwan while simplified characters are used in mainland China. However, Chinese speakers from each of these regions can often recognize characters in both their traditional and simplified forms, though they may struggle to recognize some.

Also, many Chinese characters are the exact same in both simplified and traditional writing. In 1949, mainland China simplified many of the more complex Chinese characters to encourage literacy, but many characters that were already simple stayed the same.

For example:

The word for “this” is 這個 in traditional characters and 这个 in simplified characters. They are quite different visually.

In contrast, the word for “peace” is 平安 in traditional characters and 平安 in simplified characters. There’s no difference.

Traditional Chinese characters typically contain more strokes than their simplified counterpart, making them visually more crowded. When getting a larger tattoo, this usually isn’t a problem, but when getting the characters tattooed in a smaller size, the strokes of that tattoo can appear very crowded, and the tattoo designer may also be limited in how much creativity they can put into each character due to spacing issues. So, when getting a smaller tattoo, it is generally advised to use simplified characters. Also, if you are concerned with the majority of Chinese speakers being able to easily read your tattoo, simplified characters will be the way to go.

Can I use one Chinese character to represent a word?

Although in ancient China individual characters were developed to represent individual words, modern Chinese words usually consist of two or more characters.

For an example let’s look at the character 系 (xì). While in ancient China, this character may have had an individual meaning on its own, it now needs to be put in context with other characters to know what is meant by it. On its own, a dictionary could translate this character to mean system, series, department, to fasten, to bind, to take into custody, or to feel anxious.

To know what is meant by it, it needs to be paired with other characters:

关系 - relationship

系统 - system

系列 - series

With that being said, there are a few characters that can still hold one individual meaning on their own in modern times. For example:

爱 - love

家 - family/home

心 - heart

So, can you use an individual character in your tattoo to represent one word or concept? Technically speaking, it depends on the character. Sometimes it makes sense and other times it doesn’t. You should consult a native speaker to confirm and not rely on online translation tools.

Nevertheless, individual characters can always be used in a poetic sense, even if a native speaker wouldn’t understand the meaning just from reading it. Think of English poetry that someone might have tattooed on them: “Sifted flower finding solace.” A native English speaker wouldn’t immediately understand this combination of words and would have to ask the meaning. Similarly, individual Chinese characters can be used in a poetic sense to poetically symbolize a meaning. A native Chinese speaker needing to ask the meaning doesn’t necessarily denote a misuse of the language.

Should the characters be aligned vertically or horizontally?

Chinese characters can be aligned vertically from top to bottom or horizontally from left to right. However, you should keep in mind that when aligning characters in this way, a Chinese speaker will try to read them together as one word or phrase.

For example, let's say you choose to tattoo individual characters to represent “Faith, Peace, Love:”

信 - Faith

安 - Peace

爱 - Love

You would need to provide significant separation between these characters. Otherwise, someone would read it as 信安爱, as if it were one word. To present them as individual concepts, you may consider large spaces or simple artistic elements to separate them, such as 信 | 安 | 爱.

Or alternatively, you could choose to arrange the characters in a less conventional way, such as in the image below.

earth, water, wind, fire Chinese tattoo
"Earth, Water, Wind, Fire" Tattoo Design

But if your Chinese characters all belong to one word or phrase, aligning them vertically or horizontally will usually be the best choice.

Can an English name be translated into Chinese characters?

Chinese characters are not part of an alphabet, so you can’t transcribe the letters of a name directly into Chinese characters. In other words, you can’t write M-A-R-Y with four characters. However, there are similar-sounding (and sometimes not so similar-sounding) translations of common English names. Here are a few:

Mary - 玛丽 (mǎ lì)

David - 大卫 (dà wèi)

John - 约翰 (yuē hàn)

If you have a common English name, you should be able to search online for how it is commonly translated into Chinese. You can reference our guide for Chinese translations for 193 common English names. If your name is rare, you may need someone to come up with a reasonable translation for you.

Should I copy and paste Chinese characters from online for my tattoo stencil?

Even if a native speaker has already helped you confirm the translation, it isn’t advised to simply copy or type the characters and use that as a stencil. While, as a non-Chinese person, standard Chinese font may seem quite elegant, a Chinese person would see your tattoo the same way you see an English tattoo done in Times New Roman font. It isn’t bad, per se, but you would certainly think it lacks artistic expression.

Hand-written Chinese is full of potential for artistic expression. A Chinese calligraphy artist or designer can create a truly exquisite and unique stencil for your Chinese tattoo.

Can a tattoo artist who doesn’t know Chinese do a Chinese tattoo?

Any skilled tattoo artist can certainly use a stencil to tattoo you in Chinese, but only someone skilled in the language can help you confirm the validity of the Chinese characters and help you correctly customize the design. If you don’t have a Chinese tattoo artist, you can certainly get help online creating a stencil and bring it into your artist.

Sen Chinese Tattoo Design helps individuals bring their Chinese tattoo dream to life. We work with you choose the perfect language to use for your design and then draw your tattoo stencil by hand for you to bring to your artist. Check out the available styles on our website or contact us to get started.


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