Thursday, December 23, 2004

Badges of Misknowledge

A student from Columbia University has written a term paper based on Hanzi Smatter.

Jon Brilliant is a sophomore at Columbia University where he studies Art History, Chinese and Linguistics.

He can be contacted at this email address:

jonbrilliant at gmail dot com

PDF: badgesofmisknowledge.pdf


  1. I've just read it. I think it's very good, although somewhat subjective in some parts...
    Anyway, great paper.

  2. He is as blind to his own cultural blindness as those he writes about. People who get kanji tattoos, as ignorant of Asian culture and linguistics as they may be, are striving, or at least hoping, in their own way, to attain those characteristics, "love" or "girl power" or "loyalty." The writer's "misunderestimating" of this desire as some kind of cultural imperialism, is just another form of condescending cultural imperialism. He needs to get his nose out of his college professor's rear end and do some actual research instead of ripping off this website. That way he might be able to come up with an original thought instead of replaying someone else's experience through a stultifying semiotic marxist prism.

  3. I also think the paper is a little bit subjective. But considering the fact that he is a second year student at university, I think he has written a good paper. You can't really expect him to do more than that.

    I personally think that he shouldn't have mentioned at all. Because I come out reading this paper with the question that why the Japanese can be forgetten for making all those English mistakes while the Americans can't make Chinese mistakes?!?


  4. Hi guys,

    This is Jon (the writer). If you want to e-mail me your comments my e-mail is

    Just a few notes: this is just a term paper which Tian offered to post up here. It is still subject to future edits and in no way a final thesis or something. It is certainly not my intention to replay "someone else's experience through a stultifying semiotic marxist prism," nor is it my hope to "rip-off" this website. As it stands, there is no real research on this topic and the fact that people disagree with me just proves that other contrary viewpoints should be expressed.

    It is a subjective paper because as I see it there is a problem with this trend. Given that there is no research to argue with, I have to start a dialogue. Dialogues start with statements, which need opinion! Objective studies of such issues can only take place when there is a pool of recorded opinion to draw from. I did not have such resources so I went ahead and had an opinion, which is as follows:

    Beyond being laughable (I assume that's why most people look at Hanzismatter), this trend does promote a fantasy of Asia. I don't see how that's up for debate. One of the comments said that "People who get kanji tattoos, as ignorant of Asian culture and linguistics as they may be, are striving, or at least hoping, in their own way, to attain those characteristics, "love" or "girl power" or "loyalty."" I don't understand that. And who says by tattooing a character on you you attain anything except a tattoo? Unless it /means/ something to you and changes your mentality, etc. But if your mentality is being changed by a false icon of Asia, isn't that a little confused?

  5. I have to disagree with the second anonymous comment- I think that although some people may get kanji tattoos as part of striving towards "girl power" etc, often the trendy visual graphic is what is the main focus. After all, I think this site proves that people buy plenty of products and tattoo themselves with plenty of characters without knowing what they mean before the fact.
    Secondly I think it is pretty offensive in itself to think that you can better attain an abstract status of "love" or "peace" or "girl power" or whatever through an asian word than any other word. I think this belief is rooted in an essentialist and orientalist view of east asian cultures and languages, and this does come hand in hand with cultural imperialism and its transformation of a language me and my family see as the everyday into something that is both exotically spiritual and primitive in order to sell a product. One of the things that makes this site funny, but also makes the ignorant misuse of hanzi/kanji a sad topic of relevance within the framework of cultural imperialism is that it loses its primary selling point- its mystery and exoticism- with people who live actively within that culture.
    As someone who smiles oh-so-painfully when I see "dog face love" tattooed on someone's arm, or geishas on tshirts, or girls who get henna done for frat parties, I am glad someone is being forceful and opinionated about this topic.

  6. Still, as someone mentioned, the question of the site remains. Are Asian people appropriating the English-language culture without understanding it just because it looks cool, in exactly the same way as people with hanzi tattoos do the Chinese-language culture? Is a t-shirt with laughably wrong English somehow less wrong than a tattoo with correct (even if completely culturally inappropriate) Chinese? I would have liked to see more analysis of this in the paper.

  7. I've been waiting all my life to see the phrase "stultifying semiotic marxist prism". Now I can die peacefully.

    (Methinks someone is tring a bit to hard...)

  8. First of all, if you're going to write a paper criticizing other people's use and misuse of Chinese characters, you yourself should make sure all of your character references as correct. 安 is always pronounced first tone, not fourth tone as you have written. Additionally, your comment on Spice Girl's tattoo was incorrect: 女力 is not homophonous with 努力, as the following 注音符號 will demonstrate 女=ㄋㄩ, 努=ㄋㄨ. If ignorance of Chinese characters while utilizing them for some expressive purpose is a crime, then you yourself are guilty of at least a misdemeanor (also kind of makes you look like a hypocritical jackass).

    Furthermore, I find it highly laughable that you would write disparage Americans for trying to adapt Chinese characters is some manner as representative symbols by saying that the differences between the languages is too great while including references to Japanese Kanja in the same paragraph, essentially ignoring the fact that the very same could be said for the use of Chinese characters in Japanese. (page 5 - 6)

    Are Americans appropriating Chinese characters for their own use? Yes.

    Are Americans utterly ignorant if what they're permenantly affixing to their bodies? Yes.

    Can characters be selected, used, and displayed on purely aesthetic grounds? I think the answer is yes, in this instance decontextualization has rendered the foreign quintessentially American, and thereby acceptable, I think instead of romanticizing the Orient, Americans are just homogonizing it and claiming as their own, which is what we Americans do best.


  9. Adam, your comment on American's taking Asian characters and trying to homoginizing them into their own culture can be generalized to a large percentage of tattoos. How about Americans who get other symbols tattooed on themselves, such as carp, dragons, phoenix, faeries, lotus, ankh, Hindu gods, and, well, the list goes on and on. These all symbolize something in their original culture, and people all over the world get these symbols tattoed on themselves. Some know more about the meanings than others, who just want something pretty on their skin.

  10. I didn't bother to sign up, but my name is Seth Kallen Deitch. All the anonymous posts are a bit confusing.
    I don't see so much cultural imperialism being at the root of Asian language tattoos as more that the characters have a lot of graphic interest. There is something to be said for even a pointless phrase being rendered in very nice calligraphy. Personally, I'm fascinated by the graphic look of the Mongolian, Armenian, Sinhalese and Cherokee languages (among many others) and can delight aesthetically in pages of text printed in these tongues, none of which I speak or read. There is a certain something to be derived from *not* absorbing the meaning of a text, knowing that there is something right before your eyes that, had you the knowledge, the secret of these symbols would be revealed. In their obscurity, the symbols take on magical attributes. The mystery is the greater half of the game and the meaning secondary.
    On my web page ( I have posted a collage book that I did about fifteen years ago designed to convey that kind of mysterious feeling. The text is pasted up Mongolian. For all I know it is a political rant, a cookbook or some sort of pornography. Chances are, none of the above and no doubt the entire piece is going to be an artistic failure to the eyes of a Mongol and pretty laughable as well. This was not made with the intent of mocking these people. I could have created the same thing with a made up text such as the one found in Luigi Serafini's CODEX SERAPHINIANUS, but I just loved the graphic look of the Mongolian. Click on the flashing skull at my site to view it.

  11. A lot of people will take an image or some words and post them on a note board or wall, in hopes of attaining those characteristics. Or, to gain that material object. This is called visualization and is a well known technique that is taught in many seminars. It's described sometimes as one of the habits of successful people. So, having these things tattooed on the body seems like a perfectly logical step for someone to choose.

    The fact that calligraphy is pleasing to the eye increases the chance that someone might choose it. Don't forget, many Americans feel a lack of culture themselves in the homogonization that is modern culture in the states.

    I think ridicule and the desire to punch these people in the face has to come on a case by case basis.

  12. Anonymous sez:

    "The fact that calligraphy is pleasing to the eye increases the chance that someone might choose it. Don't forget, many Americans feel a lack of culture themselves in the homogonization that is modern culture in the states."

    As an American I suppose I should be offended by the above, but I confess that I am mostly confused by it. It can be argued tha American culture is pernicious and destructive or that it absorbs elements of other cultures and sells them back to them in homogenized and sanitized form. Even if one subscribes to these beliefs, it doesn't indicate a denial of the existence of American culture. The United States has the second largest global market for films and the largest for television. There are more books published in the United States than anywhere else by a large margin. Say what you will about the *quality* of American culture, but I assure you that most Americans do not feel cultureless.
    One characteristic of American culture, however, is a marked absence of internationalism. Commonly it is believed in the USA that the benefits of living in our culture are so great and that those benefits are so obvious that they are perplexed that desire for them is not universal. They in fact find it churlish and pointlessly contrarian. While the USA is not *the* most chauvanistic nation on the planet, not by far, but we do seem to have a chauvanism that is out of proportion to our power, a curious "inferiority complex."

  13. "Is a t-shirt with laughably wrong English somehow less wrong than a tattoo with correct (even if completely culturally inappropriate) Chinese?"

    I certainly wouldn't say so. Although, some certainly hover around the same level of being laughable and sometimes painful to look at. I've gotten about the same balance of ROFL moments and "Oof! That's bad." moments from both and Hanzi Smatter.

    Can we really blame the Japanese for butchering a bit of English? I must admit that those of us who speak English as a first language don't exactly lead by a good example (particularly those of us in the US). And it seems like we don't even care. In fact, if it's stupid enough, we might just add it to the dictionary or make a whole different dictionary to accomodate it and its whole ridiculous bastardized family. Always nice to see native English speakers thinking that "would've" is written "would of" rather than "would have", even though "would have" makes all the sense in the world and "would of" is clearly nonsense if given half a thought. Sadly, those are the cream of the crop who manage to actually spell all the words correctly and set up at least a readable sentence structure. Oops! No time for thought! MTV is on! *drooooooool*

    Sorry, I just don't think we have much in the way of room to criticize.

  14. I just don't get the 'Engrish" bit! Is this a pronunciation problem the Chinese have? It most certainly isn't the Japanese as they don't have the R phonetic. It's L. EngLish!

  15. I'm Ellie, and I just have a few words to add to the debate.
    I actually have a Chinese calligraphy tattoo. It is a quote from the Buddha which is very important to me: "No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may, we ourselves must walk the path." My tattoo reminds me of what I've been through and how I've come out of it with my inner strength. It makes sense to have this in Chinese, as this is the language most Buddhist writings have been preserved in (although originally written in Magadhi).
    Not only did I choose this tattoo as it meant something to me, but I had the sense to get it professionally translated and written in calligraphy. This was for the cost of a few dollars - not much considering my tattoo will be there for a while!
    I don't have a problem with kanji tatts. What I do object to is people who have them to look "cool", and don't give the culture and calligraphy the respect it deserves.

  16. Hi, my name's Karen. (too many anonymouses!)
    In response to the person who was wondering about the r/l distinction in Japanese:
    The Japanese sound system has neither r nor l. What is romanized as an r is really a flap.
    American English has flaps. If you're American, say the word "butter". Notice that the t sound isn't really a t. We speak so fast that what we say is really more like a softened d sound. It's called a flap or a tap. We make the flap on that ridge right behind our teeth, which is called the alveolar (al-VEE-ler) ridge. So it's called an alveolar flap. The Japanese flap is a little behind the alveolar ridge. This forces the tip of the tongue up. (Try it.) The unfortunate thing is that when Japanese people speak English, they use their post-alveolar flap for both r and l, and English speakers generaly hear the opposite of what is intended. Thus the "flied lice" and "engrish" jokes.
    This is a bit technical, but it might be interesting to see where the confusion comes from.

  17. Thanks Karen. Yes, it was very technical, and interesting. Why is it that native speakers would here the opposite of what was intended? I under stand the rice/lice bit but L is pronounced L.(らりるれろ) I have never once heard a Japanese person say engrish and I've been living here more than five years.

  18. Hi, I'm the next anonymous. Call me Anton.

    L is not pronunced L in Japanese, because there is neither L or R in Japanese (as Karen explained). The sound that exists is somewhere inbetween. I've heard Japanese people make mistakes both ways, for example rice -> lice, and election -> erection.

    When I hear Japanese I sometimes interpret the sound as R, sometimes as L.

    I find it unbelievable that you have lived in Japan for 5 years and never heard someone say 'engrish'. It didn't take many days after my arrival before I heard it the first time.

  19. Interesting paper. It leans a bit heavily on this site, but I guess it was hard to find many other sources.
    But the writer should have had the whole thing checked by someone who spoke Chinese. Nuli is not the same as nüli, an has a first tone, and what I found the most annoying, Yao Ming's family name is Yao, not Ming.
    For the rest, interesting, keep it up.