Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hanzi for "Dummies"

As someone who feels relatively intimidated by Chinese calligraphy and its 5,000 year history, I thought I might help out fellow westerners by summing it up a bit!

First off, I have to set a misconception which is becoming more and more common involving Japanese vs. Chinese characters. I keep hearing that “people want Japanese tattoos, not Chinese”, and “Chinese tattoos are just a fad, Japanese Kanji is here to stay”. I’ve got news for you Japanophiles… Japanese Kanji originated from Chinese Hanzi. Furthermore, the vast majority of Kanji are the exact same characters as Hanzi. So much for your “Japanese” tattoo!

Now, back to the story... let’s do some learning:

Back in 1899, an archaeological find unearthed animal bones and tortoise shells (thousands of years old) with ancient Chinese markings on them. This finding proved that China has a written language at least as far back as 1400 BCE. Due to the spiritual nature of the writings on the artifacts, this style is known as “Oracle Bone Scripts” to westerners. This is the oldest style known, and is believed to have been a product of the Shang dynasty. It is no longer used.

As time progressed, so did the way these characters were written. When the Shang dynasty fell, the Zhou dynasty took its place. During this time, the writing process was formalized and became known as “Seal Script”. At the same time, ancient bronze work was being created and it bared another unique style known as “Bronzeware Script”. While Seal script is still in use today, Bronzeware script is extinct.

As the Zhou dynasty ended, China was unified under Qin Shi Huang. The language underwent major reforms, losing and gaining many new characters. This became the “Small Seal Scipt.”

After the Qin dynasty, China entered into the lengthy Han dynasty. Here, Small Seal script was replaced with “Clerical Script”, “Regular Script” and other lesser variations. Regular script was in use for over 2,000 years as the script for official documents and publications. At some point, Hanzi were introduced to Japan and became known there as Kanji, which literally means “Han characters”.

Up until the 1950’s, Chinese Hanzi continued to go through major reforms. Many proponents tried to alphabets and phonetic scripts, but these attempts failed. When the Communism took over in China, a “Simplified” version of Chinese was implemented. With a good number of complex characters being replaced with similar ones containing fewer strokes, Simplified Chinese is the official script in use today.

Works Cited:

Sung, Dylan W.H. Hanzi. February 2001.

Hu, Wei-Chung. About Chinese Calligraphy. July 2006.

Also, Wikipedia in all of its infinite glory.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Why do people like Chinese Tattoos?

A little tidbit I learned from my Chinese master...

The biggest difference between Chinese and all other other languages on earth is that....
Chinese is not only a tool for communication, but also a highly developed art. People call it Chinese Calligraphy (書道). While most of the writting systems on earth are alphabetic, but Chinese is the one of the only "Pictographic" writing systems that exist.

Differing from A,B,C, etc., every Chinese character has its own meaning and history. Throughout nearly five millenia of Chinese calligraphy evolution, thousands of famous Chinese artists dedicated their life to refining this "art of writting." I believe that this is the reason Chinese calligraphy is loved by so many tattoo fans....

It is because "People love art".

Thursday, May 17, 2007

7 Tips for Getting the Right Chinese Tattoo

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Chinese tattoos are all the rage in Western culture nowadays. People go to tattoo parlors and pick a pretty character from the flash sheets. Some folks bring in whatever Mr. Yang the Chinese delivery guy swears is the character for "honor". They have this inked into their skin forever, and three years later they find out that their tattoo is either incorrect, "ugly" by Chinese handwriting standards, or both.

"Unfortunately, this happens all the time, and a quick search for "Chinese tattoos" on Yahoo backs that up," explains Wei-Chung Hu, Master of Business Administration and native Chinese speaker. “It truly is a shame, but we're doing what we can to educate the masses.”

In hopes that those of you who are considering a Chinese tattoo might be reading this, I present you with 7 tips for getting the right Chinese tattoo:

1. If you like a character you saw in a tattoo flash book, do not... I repeat, do NOT get inked until you verify its accuracy!

2. So, how do you verify their accuracy? Skip on Mr.Yang the Chinese delivery guy. Speak to a Chinese language instructor in your area, who will most likely be found at a University. If you are going to ask a native speaker, aim for a first-generation Chinese-American. Even better, find a Chinese exchange student to help you (most foreign exchange students are the top of their class back home).

3. The most reliable way to get the right translation while keeping your character style correct is to use a professional Chinese calligraphy website. For example, has a search engine for translating names, words and phrases into calligraphy. Plug and play, it doesn't get much better than that. Your next best bet is a manual Chinese calligraphy service, but this could take up to a week or more.

4. Do not get your character out of a Chinese-English dictionary, online or otherwise. First off, the characters are in a typewriting font, and unless you are skilled in the art of Chinese calligraphy, any attempt to make it look cool will foul things up.

5. I cannot stress this enough... keep in mind that Chinese calligraphy is a 5,000 year old art form, and it can take many years to master the brush strokes. Make sure that your tattoo artist can draw your character perfectly on paper before they even come near your arm!

6. If you want to get the most out of your tattoo, spruce it up with relevant artwork. If you're getting a tattoo for "fire", put some flames around that baby! You get the idea.

7. When you finally have the Chinese tattoo you've been dreaming of, wait five full days. If you still want it, head down to your pre-screened tattoo artist and ink away. Oh, and please make sure you're sober.

Be smart.