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Are Chinese Tattoos on Non-Chinese People Cultural Appropriation?

Updated: Aug 23, 2023


chinese tattoos and cultural appropriation

According to Oxford Languages, the term “cultural appropriation” refers to the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. Sometimes elements of another culture can capture our interest due to their fascination or beauty, and for good reason. But being fascinated by a component of another culture doesn’t necessarily justify us adopting it for personal use. However, with some careful analysis, there are cases where it is reasonable to adopt pieces of other cultures in honorable ways. In this article, we will utilize a “culture appropriation checklist” of five important questions as a tool to help us answer the question “Are Chinese tattoos on non-Chinese people cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?”

Cultural Appropriation Checklist

  1. Did my culture once oppress this culture in a way that still affects individuals today?

  2. Is this cultural element meant to be used under exclusive circumstances? (I.e., temples, rites, rituals, achievements, ceremonies)

  3. Do members of this culture take offense to outsiders utilizing this cultural element?

  4. Does my use of this cultural element reinforce a stereotype of that culture?

  5. Could my use of this cultural element contribute to it losing its original meaning?

Within this analysis, we will compare Chinese tattoos with another potential suspect of cultural appropriation: Native American Halloween costumes. In doing so, it may be easier to spot some key distinctions.


1. Did my culture once oppress this culture in a way that still affects individuals today?

Native American costumes:

European colonizers and their offspring oppressed, enslaved, and marginalized the indigenous people of America for hundreds of years. Today, those with indigenous heritage now live as a small minority in a land where their culture is on the brink of extinction as a result, and many choose to live with a mission to keep their heritage alive in what ways they can.

Chinese tattoos:

Throughout the 1800s, European powers (especially Britain) vigorously sought for China to open their borders for trade but were met with resistance. In retaliation, Britain took to military measures to force China’s hand and began trading opium with the Chinese people with the intent to get them addicted. This sparked the Opium Wars which resulted in Britain colonizing Hong Kong and opening ports for international trade. The effects of these wars, opium addiction, and colonization resulted in a significantly weakened military and economy in China, and in the early 1900s, Japan invaded a weakened China and committed unspeakable atrocities on civilians. The crimes of the Japanese are still a bitter subject among many Chinese people today. The crimes of Britain, however, are mostly relevant today only in the complexity created surrounding Hong Kong. Outside of this issue, the oppression from Britain fortunately did not ultimately result in the Chinese people being displaced from their land or having their culture taken from them. Though much Western influence has come to China, Chinese population and culture have not ultimately been flushed out by foreign influence, and the average Chinese person today doesn’t view westerners with sentiments of victimization.


2. Is this cultural element meant to be used under exclusive circumstances? (I.e., temples, rites, rituals, achievements, ceremonies)


Native American costumes:

Though each tribe is different, many tribes bestowed feathers to members for victories in war, acts of bravery, as well as other achievements and milestones. Feathers worn on the head or body held deep spiritual meaning to most indigenous tribes. In general, the wearing of a Native American headdress as a Halloween costume by a non-indigenous person surpasses the boundaries of these exclusive circumstances.

Chinese tattoos:

Chinese characters are an element of Chinese language and a necessary means of domestic and international communication, and therefore not reserved only for certain people to use. Tattooing a Chinese character on one’s body was also not a common practice in China’s history, so there are no sacred meanings associated with this practice.


foreigners learning Chinese


3. Do members of this culture take offense to outsiders utilizing this cultural element?

Native American costumes:

If you ask them yourself, you may get different answers. However, many Native Americans have publicly voiced their opposition to Native American Halloween costumes and have even protested companies and stores that sell such outfits.


Chinese tattoos:

Asking Chinese people this question would be a wonderful exercise. In my Chinese wife and I’s experience of asking other Chinese people this question, they are on a spectrum between being indifferent and feeling slightly honored that foreigners find their written language beautiful enough to tattoo it on their body. An online search of this question (on Chinese and foreign search engines) also reveals a lack of any Chinese voice expressing offense at Chinese tattoos on foreigners. Results from Chinese social media and search engines mostly reveal Chinese people having a good laugh at bad tattoo translations.

4. Does my use of this cultural element reinforce a stereotype of that culture?

Native American costumes:

These costumes often include elements such as tomahawks, bows, arrows, buckskin robes, face paint, and feather headdresses. Some indigenous activists have pointed out that these depictions help feed the stereotype that Native Americans all belonged to one group and culture, when they are/were, in reality, many different independent nations of people with unique cultures and clothing. These costumes also mimic the portrayals of Native Americans by white people as “savages” or non-civilized beings and were used throughout history to wrongly justify their enslavement and marginalization. And in modern day, dressing up as Native American for Halloween can seemingly put a real group of people in a category alongside superheroes and vampires as if they are something fictitious or something other than human.

Chinese tattoos:

While there are common stereotypes of Chinese people that foreigners should be wary to avoid, the written language of Chinese has little to do with them.


5. Could my use of this cultural element contribute to it losing its original meaning?

Native American costumes:

As Native Americans work to keep their marginalized culture alive in the modern age, their cultural elements being touted as costumes and accessories can contribute to the sacred meanings being left by the wayside. Reserving the use of these cultural elements to their intended purpose helps retain their cultural meaning as time goes on.

Chinese tattoos:

As the second most spoken world language, Chinese and its characters aren’t in danger of being extinguished by non-Chinese influence any time soon. Nevertheless, it is advisable for those who wish to utilize the language for tattoo purposes to diligently and respectfully use Chinese characters within the general realm of their meaning. (Some non-Chinese people have opted to tattoo themselves with Chinese characters that slightly resemble letters of the Latin alphabet. For example, they might use the characters 下月七 to visually resemble the letters F-A-T, which completely neglects the actual meaning of those characters. While doing this might not get Chinese protestors knocking on your door, it’s still not the most honorable use of another culture’s language.)

Conclusion:

The question posed in this article is an honorable question. If you have been considering this question prior to getting a Chinese tattoo—good for you. Recognizing inappropriate secondhand adoptions of culture plays an important role in showing respect in our interconnected world. But to label all secondhand adoptions of culture as “cultural appropriation” would likely have an adverse effect: if everything is cultural appropriation, then eventually nothing is. Regarding Chinese tattoos on non-Chinese people, we believe if your intentions are admirable and you do your diligence to get a quality translation and design for your tattoo, you lean more toward the side of cultural appreciation.


If you are planning to get a tattoo involving Chinese characters, check out our Chinese tattoo guide. You can also contact us—we'd love to help!

1 comment

1 Comment


Amy Devore
Amy Devore
Oct 20, 2023

I really appreciate this article. Well done. Heritage and understanding other cultures' heritage is an important thing; and as with native Indian culture, it is taken much too lightly in most cases.

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