Monday, April 10, 2006

THE DORK REPORT: Tattoos & T-shirts make Chinese culture trivial

Before Alaric Dearment went back to Ball State University to pursue a degree in Journalism, he has spent several years living in China.

In today’s Ball State Daily News, his column “The Dork Report” has turned the spotlight on Americans who are embraced in the “Asian Craze”.

(link & pdf)

One example he used in his article was .

I've seen T-shirts and tattoos with the Chinese character interpreted to mean "harmony." But many people don't know that while can mean "harmony," in modern parlance most Chinese speakers use it to mean "and" or "with."

While I was reading Dearment’s article, Andrew approached me with a very fundamental philosophical question:
"Is the propagation of knowledge [of languages] a good thing, even when we know that it is often misused?"

My answer?

The answers are both yes and no. Yes, if they are done correctly. No, if one culture is simply exploiting the other for their own instant gratification.

Related: China - Use Accurate English to Welcome the Olympics


  1. Tian,

    I thought his article was spot on. The one thing I forgot to mention earlier was that many Asian-Americans also seem to be guilty of this; at least those who don't read/write Chinese/Japanese.

    I dated a Thai girl several years ago and she and all of her sisters found it rather fashionable to wear clothing graced with Chinese characters. Unfortunately I didn't understand a lick of Chinese at the time, but neither did they. I can only imagine what they were advertising.....

  2. i've begun to think that it's fine if some westerners decide to tattoo nonsensical "chinese characters" on themselves. it provides excellent amusement for smart westerners and chinese alike.

  3. 和 can mean japanese in japanese. As is 和風 (japanese style)、 和食 (japanese meal), etc.

  4. When Hanzi went to Japan and took the name Kanji, that ended up with some differences too. If we are to have a tattoo or have a T-Shirt with those characters, we gotta consider the meaning differences between Japanese and Chinese contexts. 湯 is "Soup" in China and "Hot Water" in Japan. This applies to many others too. When that basketball player (can't remember who, don't know many NBA players...I still live in the time of Kareem A-J and Larry B.) had the word "Matrix" on his leg, thinking it's Chinese pronounciation of "Matrix", it appered that it was a bizarre combination of Onyomi and Kunyomi (Chinese and Japanese orijin pronounciations of Kanji) funnier than sensible. Things are tough for those who wanna have a Hanzi tattoo or a tee with Hanzi on it, they have to think carefully about a lot of things. Better not get a Hanzi tat (or not to have one at all...I'd never have myself carved.

  5. While I don't read (modern) Chinese, and can't seem to get the characters to print in the original column, I still had one comment.

    I agree with glandium that we have to distinguish between Japanese and Chinese meanings of characters, before we decide to say that a meaning is off. The character cited in the article and in your post does mean (in addition to Japan) harmony in Japanese.

    - Shannon

  6. It is obvious that all the comments left here are by people who understand Chinese and/or Japanese language(s), but to the general public (the ones can't find their own asses with both hands), they can't tell the difference.

    That is what the article was trying to point out.

  7. I was wondering, should I object when Japanese (and for all I know, mainland Chinese) use English words to be cool and trendy? Should I be waging a one-man war against the trendy element in Japan for trivialising English? Should I upbraid my Japanese teacher whenever she uses an English loan-word, especially when the meaning isn't exactly the same as in English?

    Come to that, should I purge English of all the imported French loan-words, especially the ones that aren't quite the bon mot? Should the Japanese learn to speak Chinese properly, instead of assigning their own meanings to Chinese characters?

    I mean, bon mot was imported into English to mean a witty remark, but in French the phrase isn't a phrase, it just translates to "a good word" with zero significance. So the first Englishman to use the phrase was using the words in the wrong way. Was he trying to coin a phrase? Was he trivialising French culture? Was he trying to clothe himself in another culture's exoticism? Should he therefore have not done it? Is it just historical precedence that means we can keep bon mot in its wrong sense, but we aren't allowed to experiment with hanzi, kanji and kana? Or is French intrinsically less valuable than Chinese?

    I can totally get behind making fun of tattoos that get it wrong, but I don't get why there's so much fuss about Chinese culture, as though it was holy writ. Cultures mix. People borrow from other cultures they come into contact with. And they do it badly. Should they submit all variations on a language to a committee for approval before use? Like a sushi apprentice, should they study the language for seven years before uttering a word, and thenceforth only speak correct speech?

    But what do I know? My first language, English, is a slut of a language, and will... associate with anyone. And then rifle their pockets for loose change.

  8. Well, yes, 和 does mean 'and' or 'with' in Chinese. If this guy checked his dictionary he would find it also means 'addition' (as in subtraction, multiplication, etc.) and (pronounced differently) also means 'to mix' in Chinese. It indeed also has the meaning 'peace' when used in compounds, and all Chinese would be aware of that meaning, given that Chinese characters are regarded as having inherent meanings and do not necessarily have to be used in a 'compound' (i.e., a word) to be understood.

    Additionally, it does mean 'peace' in Japanese, pronounced 'wa'.

    So as in all these things, a little learning seems a dangerous thing. This guy thinks he "knows" Chinese, but he's only scratched the surface.

  9. My first language, English, is a slut of a language, and will... associate with anyone. And then rifle their pockets for loose change.

    Love. This!

  10. Hi Tian

    I love your website, thought the concept of amalgamating letters used on tattoos and explaining their meanings in details prove to be a great way to encourage cross-cultural communication.

    I'm not sure the context of your comment on this 'exploitation for instant gratification. But I'll agree with your statement hands-down if you are looking at some of the marketing campaigns out there which capitalise on the exoticisation of cultural artifacts without value-adding to the whole process.

    In any case this whole idea of language use in different cultural contexts is indeed a fascinating topic. I'm not sure what happened to my trackback and a subsequent comment, but again, would love to hear from you on posts of relevant content in my site. That's of course, if you can spare the time to do so.

    By the way, just curious, how did you get all these photos? Are these sent in from your readers?