Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wrong Chapter from Tao Te Ching

道德經, or Tao Te Ching, is one of the oldest exemplars of classic Chinese literature. Millions, perhaps billions, of people have read it since it was first written by Lao Tzu (or Lao Zi) around 600 BC.

For some, it is considered to be the Chinese equivalent of the Holy Bible. It has formed the foundation for Chinese philosophies such as Legalism, Neo-Confucianism, and Taoism. Thus, if someone decides to get sections of Tao Te Ching tattooed, he better do some serious research.

However, this person and/or his tattooist did not:

Three photos titled with “This is one of the TAO proverbs. So far I have 88 charaters. (by Jeniffer, Liberty Tattoo's, Sacramento Calif.)” were posted in BMEzine’s gallery on March 13, 2007.

Most of the text was from Chapter 64 of Tao Te Ching, which should read:

其 安 易 持 , 其 未 兆 易 謀 。
其 脆 易 泮 , 其 微 易 散 。
為 之 於 未 有 , 治 之 於 未 亂 。
合 抱 之 木 , 生 於 毫 末 ;
九 層 之 台 ,起 於 累 土 ;
千 里 之 行 , 始 於 足 下。
民 之 從 事 , 常 於 幾 成 而 敗 之 。
慎 終 如 始 , 則 無 敗 事 。

However in the photo shown above, the section circled in red is actually from a completely different chapter.

Chapter 29 reads:

將 欲 取 天 下 而 為 之 , 吾 見 其 不 得 已 。
天 下 神 器 , 不 可 為 也 , 不 可 執 也 。
為 者 敗 之 , 執 者 失 之 。
是 以 聖 人 無 為 , 故 無 敗 ﹔
無 執 , 故 無 失。
夫 物 或 行 或 隨 ﹔ 或 噓 或 吹 ﹔
或 強 或 羸 ﹔ 或 載 或 隳 。
是 以 聖 人 去 甚 , 去 奢 , 去 泰 。

The mistake would be less noticeable if he did not have the chapter title tattooed near his butt cheek.


  1. Is it really THAT hard to find someone who understands Chinese/Japanese (depending on the tattoo) to fact check these things BEFORE they go on your body?

    I feel for this guy, I do, but he really has only himself to blame if he didn't do the research.

  2. Well, at least the calligraphy doesn't look like total crap this time.

  3. I notice that the periods and commas appear next to characters. Is that normal in vertically-written Chinese? (In Japanese they appear under characters.)

  4. Kuri's question reminded me of something I learned a long time ago, that in ancient Chinese text, punctuation did not exist. Since only a few were literate and these few had all studied the same books, punctuations were taught when Teacher interpreting the text. Usually Students would mark breaks of sentences in their books with dots and circles. (So if you had a mediocre teacher, his interpretation might be way off from the original by breaking at wrong places.)
    But once punctuations was later developed and being used, it always occupies a full space on a page just as a written character. I remember this because when we composed an essay in school, we wrote it on paper with square grids and each punctuation took a full space. It was quite a pain; but that is how it was done.
    I imagine a tattoo should mean something to the wearer. So, I wonder what does it mean here?

  5. Yeah, I noticed the punctuation too. It looks a bit out of place.

    As for the writing itself, what exactly is written on his leg?

  6. About the punctuations: notice how there are only dots and circles? Imagine being in a lecture and in your book there are characters but no markings (punctuations) to show you how the text should be read. So as Teacher interprets the text, he also indicates where you should put a dot or a circle, hence organizing a bunch of words into a meaningful writing. I had teachers used an old hallow ballpoint pen shaft and red ink pad to mark old text. They inked a red circle where a sentence should break and end. It was one strange way to study.

  7. In modern Chinese books, you almost never see punctuation to the side of the text. In fact, I've never seen it in any modern Chinese published text (i.e. novels, newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc.) The only thing I've read that had punctuation to the side like that was in the Chinese translation of the Bible.

    Maybe they did that for Tao Te Ching. It is an old text, after all. But I've never read it, so I don't really know.

  8. Format of modern Chinese publications is very different than what was long ago. What I meant by "ancient Chinese text" was more like in hundreds of years ago. Today, no one would need to learn it "the old ways." Some of the stuff I mentioned happened at least 50 years ago; I heard these stories 20 some odd years back when I was in school.

  9. Perhaps the tattooist added that stuff from Chapter 29 just to make the whole block of text rectangular.

  10. This one really isn't so bad. The calligraphy is good considering the length of the text, and (I haven't looked that closely, but) it appears like there aren't any mistaken characters. The punctuation is more an approximation of ancient style (I know I've seen some other places, usually in classical/ancient texts, with punctuation out to the side).

    However, this all leaves one, major question: why the hell would you get 80+ characters you can't read anyway tattooed all across your leg? At the very least, you could pick out two or four lines and stick with that. K

  11. This one had to suck. Usually it is one or two characters that are miswritten or out of place/context.

    This time the guy sat and had an entire chapter of a book tatoo'ed on his leg and still came out with the wrong result.

    Did he not speak Chinese himself? How would he even come up with this idea if he didn't own a book, I mean you mark the page you want...

    Chinese (Asian) people sometimes get characters tatoo'ed on them, but it seems laowei/gaijin seem to be prone to be extra ignorant.

  12. I actually run the About Tao web site linked to here. I have seen quite a few images of the original bamboo slips and only one had any punctuation at all and that was small filled in squares used as sentence ends. Generally all the punctuation in quoted classics is added for clarity and is done in line not of to one side.

    Even if this guy had the tattoo while drunk, it is so long he would have been sober by the end. Don't these people have friends? In the end it makes about as much sense as any other tattoo I guess.

    By the way, great web site!

  13. This one doesn't seem too bad to me. If the person actually did go off of one of the versions mentioned before where this is how it's written, it doesn't seem that bad. It looks well formed, no one's noted any character errors. The punctuation is odd, but, we're still speculating about a tattoo we don't know much about on a person we don't know much about.

    For all we now, they may be able to read Chinese. And as such a matter, perhaps they had a teacher who was poor/odd with punctation and learned to form it like that.

    I think it's a little too early to be too judgemental about this. I think the cliched nature of Chinese/Japanese/Asian characters as decoration lead some to be resentful of it, but I don't think we should bar people from an interest or dedication to another culture, provided they've done their research and know what they're doing.

    I just wish for some of these tattoos we could ask the people in question what they were thinking. It might clear some stuff up. I'd be waiting for some jokester to say "Oh, this is a tattoo of a misuse of Chinese characters. I got it as a parody."