Body art is a creative way to say what you’re thinking and feeling or to show how your mind works. Tattoos are referred to as 纹纑 wén shēn or 刺杒 cì qīng in Chinese. Chinese tattoos are one of the best examples of body art that embodies the spirit of mystery and ancient wisdom.
These beautiful symbols, which have a history extending back thousands of years, are more than simply ink on the skin; they signify a connection to a rich cultural legacy.
Chinese art offers a vast array of designs, ranging from calligraphy to dragons. So, whether you want to get a tattoo or are just interested in the stories these tattoos tell, keep reading to learn about the background and meaning of some of the most popular Chinese tattoo designs.
Chinese Tattoo History
Tattoos have traditionally been associated with punishment in Chinese history. Tattoos are called 纹身 “wén shēn” in Chinese, which means “Puncturing the Body.“
Water Margin (水浒传) (aff.link), one of the four classic books, talks about tattoos on the bodies of bandits on Mount Liang in Shandong. Three of the 108 bandits had tattoos spanning their entire bodies. This narrative takes place around the year 1120.
There’s also Yue Fei’s (岳飞) narrative, who lived about the same period. He was a Southern Song army general, and one of his marshalls betrayed him. He returned home to complain to his mother, who tattooed 精忠报国 (Jīngzhōng bàoguó) on his back: “Serve the country faithfully.”
Criminals who were banished and got facial tattoos to publicly display their sentence caused tattoos to get a bad reputation. This sort of punishment is known as 刺字 (Cìzì) or 黥刑 (qíngxíng) and is currently only found in historical books.
Tattoos are also an important element of the culture of several minorities in China. Tattooing is viewed as a coming of age for females by both the Dong Lu and Li minorities in China, even if the actual meanings and practices differ.
Tattoo Culture in China Today
In China, tattoos are still highly stigmatized, even to this day. Though more common than in the past, many parents still disapprove of their children having tattoos, and tattoos are frequently censored on TV in order to prevent the promotion of the tattoo culture.
Tattoos have long been stigmatized, with older generations equating them with criminal behavior, criminals, and prisons. They were frequently used to mark criminals to indicate that they were unwanted and were seen to be brutal kinds of art that defame the body.
However, with the passage of time, tattoo art is gradually gaining acceptance among the younger population. While character tattoos are popular in the United States, Chinese people seldom get them. Instead, English text is becoming more popular in China.
Types of Chinese Tattoos
There are a lot of things to think about before getting Chinese symbols as tattoos. You should think about the meaning behind the artwork, whether the image will translate literally into the meaning, and how private you want the tattoo to be, in addition to how you want it to look.
Symbolic tattoos have always been popular, and Chinese-style tattoos have grown in popularity thanks to their rich artwork and meaning. Chinese tattoo symbols are classified into two types: images and characters.
Images depict animals, plants, or creatures from mythology that have symbolic implications. On the other hand, if you want to get a specific phrase tattooed on your body but want the meaning to remain a mystery, a Chinese character tattoo is a perfect option. Characters may also add a romantic or exotic character to a tattoo, especially if they are arranged in many lines or verses.
So, before jumping into more difficult patterns like dragon, phoenix, serpent, and others, it’s a good idea to check into basic tattoos like calligraphy, which is quite popular in Western nations.
Chinese Character Tattoos
Chinese characters are both exotic and mysterious, making them ideal for tattoos. A Chinese character tattoo is a tattoo of a Chinese character written in a calligraphic style. Chinese calligraphy is often regarded as the most admired visual art form in China.
Over the past few decades, Chinese calligraphy tattoos have been increasingly popular, especially in the West, as the attractiveness of this art form has expanded globally. Old Chinese symbols have meanings that go back a long time. Because of this, some wise words seem even deeper and more important, especially when not everyone can understand them.
The disadvantage is that if you are not proficient, it is easy to interpret incorrectly. As a consequence, you may end up with a tattoo that represents nothing to you. So, always do your homework first.
The Five Styles of Chinese Calligraphy
Picking the style for your Chinese character tattoo is an important choice. Chinese calligraphy is divided into five primary styles:
- Seal Script (篆书 “zhuàn shū”)
- Clerical Script (隶书 “lì shū”)
- Cursive Script (草书 “cǎo shū”)
- Semi-Cursive Script (行书 “xíng shū”)
- Standard Script (楷书 “kǎi shū”)
Types of Chinese Character Tattoos
Chinese characters may be used to create a variety of tattoo designs, including tattoos using single characters, words or phrases, zodiac names, etc.
Single Chinese Character Tattoos
Single-character Chinese tattoos are the most prevalent type of Chinese tattoo. They are simple but elegant. Chinese characters, unlike English letters, represent significant emotions and notions on their own. Dream, love, hate, courage, destiny, beauty, and so on may all be represented by a single character. As an example:
Related reading: Chinese Symbol of Strength – Characters, Symbolic Animals and How to Use It in Feng Shui – Opens in new tab
Chinese Words or Phrases Tattoos
Another thing you can try with Chinese characters (汉字 – Hanzi) is a word, a phrase, or a quote from an admired individual, especially one from Chinese history and tradition. For example, Sun Tzu (孑子) or Laozi (老子). Think carefully before selecting the correct word or phrase, and do your homework to verify you’ve got the exact translation. Following are some ideas for words and phrases:
|内在力量||Nèizài lìliàng||Inner Strength|
|无为||Wúwéi||Chinese concept of “effortless action”.|
|春华秋实||Chūnhuáqiūshí||Spring flowers & autumn fruits
(referring to a literary person)
|恐懼會扼殺思維||Kǒngjù huì èshā sīwéi||Fear is the Mind-killer|
Chinese Zodiac Names Tattoos
It’s common knowledge that the Chinese zodiac is unlike any other and is made up of animals. One option for a tattoo is to choose the name of the animal that corresponds to the year of your birth. Take a look at the image below.
Chinese Elements Tattoos
- Huǒ – 火 (Fire): In Chinese culture, fire is a symbol of vitality, change, and purification.
- Shuǐ – 水 (Water): Water, is a fundamental component of Chinese culture and stands for vitality, flexibility, and adaptation.
- Jīn – 金 (Metal): Metal is associated with power, determination, and wealth in Chinese culture.
- Mù – 木 (Wood): In Chinese culture, wood represents growth, strength, and rebirth.
- Tǔ – 土 (Earth): In Chinese culture, Earth denotes stability, nurturing, and growth.
Chinese Name Tattoos
Some tattoo designs have the individual’s name translated into Chinese. Some people get their own names tattooed, while others have the names of loved ones. You can add color to it to make it stand out and make your loved ones want to see it right away. For added visual appeal, you may even add a few little motifs.
Chinese Family Tattoos
Family symbols are also among the more common Chinese tattoos. Family is of the utmost importance for one’s own growth, after all. This lovely design honors the relationships you have with your loved ones. The decision is very personal and should represent your personality.
The sign looks amazing in any position and when combined with any other tattoo symbol. It has an exotic yet classy appearance.
|姐姐||Jiě Jiě||Elder Sister|
When it comes to obtaining tattoos, Chinese character tattoos can provide you with a variety of options. Furthermore, they may be mixed with other abstract symbols to create both minimal and large tattoos. It’s all up to you.
Lost in Translation
Tattoos of Chinese characters have become popular all over the world. The only difficulty is that these symbols are frequently misinterpreted, eliciting laughter from everyone who understands them.
If you pick a character rather than an illustration for your symbolic tattoo, double-check the translation before getting tattooed. Although a lot of tattoo businesses provide flash cards of Chinese characters along with translations, those might not be accurate. Check the meaning with someone who speaks and writes the language if you can.
If you don’t know someone who speaks Chinese, look for information online or use a Chinese-English dictionary. When using a dictionary, whether in print or online, keep in mind that literal translations may not always have the desired meaning. If you are going to use more than one word together, make sure that the style and language of all of them match before you get tattooed.
It’s worthwhile to pay for a translation service to ensure that the symbols symbolize what you believe it does. With so many different variations available, you may be confident that your tattoo won’t be pointless or even humiliating.
Related reading: The Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Chinese Language – Opens in new tab
Chinese Imagery Tattoos
If you don’t want to employ characters in your design, images are the next best thing. Consider this tattoo style if you want an impressive and detailed tattoo with deeper meaning, or if you want a tattoo with personal meaning and importance for yourself but an outer look that stands on its own. These designs are often well executed by tattoo artists.
Here are a few of the most well-liked Chinese-inspired tattoo designs.
Chinese Animal and Mythological Creatures Tattoos
Chinese Zodiac Tattoos (images)
There are twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, and each has a special significance and set of characteristics. Many individuals have been inspired to use the zodiac animals for tattoo designs because of their significance and intricate details. The Chinese calendar serves as the basis for the design. Based on your birth year, you can select an animal and its features. This creates a fantastic inking, whether you want to depict a pig, dog, rooster, monkey, or anything else.
Tattoos depicting Chinese dragons are among the most common. People have long thought that dragons brought good luck and that only Chinese rulers were worthy of them. Dragons are commonly associated with power, courage, strength, and independence. They are most usually connected with nature’s power and the male element of yang. Dragon tattoos are often available in a wide range of styles. You may go with a traditional black silhouette or make it pop with colors. This makes Chinese dragon tattoos an excellent choice, not just for their aesthetic value but also for their symbolic significance.
Koi Fish Tattoo
At first, koi fish are associated with success, prosperity, good fortune, and luck. It also represents the fortitude necessary to overcome hurdles in one’s life and attain a single objective. The koi fish tattoo comes in two varieties: upstream and downstream. If it’s downstream, the person has already passed the tough part. If it’s upstream, it suggests that the individual is still dealing with difficulties.
Another famous tattoo design is the phoenix, which rises from the ashes. It is known as Fenghuang in China and is associated with the empress. The firebird is associated with rebirth, rejuvenation, immortality, and change. The phoenix is frequently paired with the dragon in Chinese mythology, representing the balance of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) forces. A phoenix tattoo is ideal for anybody who has triumphed over adversity or achieved personal development, but it is also a sign of peace and prosperity.
Turtles, like dragons and phoenixes, are holy animals in Chinese mythology. Turtles represent knowledge, intellect, profound thought, experience, and tranquillity. Turtles are an uncommon but excellent choice for a new tattoo, particularly if you want to express your spiritual energy, wisdom, strength, and endurance.
Aside from that, turtles, like Koi Fish, may represent fortune and wealth, which is why many people buy miniature turtle figurines to keep at home. Keep in mind that some Chinese traditions believe having the turtle symbol can slow down your life and career, so having one is bad luck.
The Qilin is a legendary creature in Chinese mythology, frequently referred to as a Chinese unicorn. According to legend, it had an ox’s tail, a dragon’s head, and a deer’s body. The Qilin represents wealth, success, and good fortune. A Qilin tattoo might symbolize your desire for wealth and success.
A tiger tattoo is a well-known Chinese tattoo. Tigers are among the most remarkable creatures in the wild and are a prominent character in mythology. They signify strength, dignity, and courage. They are also associated with the afterlife and are said to be protectors of the deceased. Choose a large enough area of the body to truly bring this design to life, and don’t be afraid to experiment with vibrant colors.
Snakes are powerful symbols of vitality and life in China, as they are in many other civilizations. In Chinese stories and legends, they are also thought to bring good luck and often make people live longer. All of this, along with the eye-catching visual appeal of scales, coils, and fangs, makes Chinese snake tattoos very appealing.
Guardian Lion (Foo Dogs) Tattoo
The Chinese guardian lion, or Foo Dogs, is a popular tattoo design due to its striking beauty and deep meaning. They are eye-catching pieces that represent riches and success while also being strong protectors. They work best in pairs.
Lucky Cat Tattoo
The lucky cat tattoo is a lovely and meaningful inking option. It symbolizes good fortune, prosperity, and wealth. Although they may be seen in Chinatown, this design is not Chinese. In fact, Japan is regarded to be its birthplace.
Check out our “Free Art Library“. We have compiled some great free resources, about Chinese art, for your research.
Chinese Spiritual Symbols Tattoos
Guan Gong Tattoo
Guan Gong, sometimes known as Guan Yu, was a historical Chinese military hero famed for his devotion, righteousness, and bravery. He is frequently represented as a red-faced warrior with a long beard wielding a massive guandao, a sort of Chinese pole weapon. A Guan Gong tattoo represents unshakable honor and bravery. It is particularly popular among individuals who have a strong sense of justice or an enthusiasm for martial arts.
Demons are common in Chinese mythology. Chinese demon tattoos are a wonderful alternative for anybody looking for a one-of-a-kind creature that will stand out from the crowd.
Yin Yang Tattoo
The classic emblem of Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy reflects the harmony of conflicting forces in the cosmos. It has a history that dates back more than 500 years. The black and white swirls represent the interconnectedness of light and darkness, masculine and feminine, and other dualities. It represents harmony and balance in one’s inner mental life.
Both aesthetically arresting and deeply spiritual, the tiered roofs with upturned awnings are remarkable. For those who wish to devote a small portion of their body to the sacred, Chinese temple tattoos are an excellent option.
Eight Trigrams Tattoo
This ancient symbol was created 3,000 years ago. It is made up of eight trigrams grouped in a circle, each symbolizing a basic part of existence such as fire, earth, wind, and water. Using eight trigrams to represent the relationship between the universe and ourselves might be helpful when creating a philosophy project.
The Laughing Buddha Tattoo
The laughing Buddha has always been a sign of good fortune. These tattoos are sure to draw admiring glances, despite their simplicity. They look nice and aren’t very common. They are often used with the traditional yin and yang symbol. These tattoos also represent positivity and luck, which many people want to keep with them forever in the form of body art.
Chinese Flower Tattoos
Tattoos of flowers are popular because they may have a delicate, feminine appearance. From lotus flowers that spring from pond muck to commemorate the Buddha’s journey to cherry blossoms that reflect the cycle of life, Chinese tattoos with flowers are just as meaningful as they are beautiful. They look great in a variety of styles and colors and may be paired with other illustrations or characters or inked on their own.
Other Chinese Symbols for Tattoos
Chinese Warrior Tattoo
A Chinese warrior is going to make a big impression. It is a meaningful tattoo that represents courage, strength, devotion, and honor. Chinese warrior tattoos may be formidable and unique, with leather plates, elaborate helmets, and stern gazes. Whatever way you choose to display this item; it should be worn with pride.
Chinese Knot Tattoo
The Chinese knot tattoo is said to provide its wearer with a sense of calm, security, and protection from negative energy and potential threats. It appears best in red ink and has a highly positive meaning, bringing the wearer good fortune and luck. Depending on the level of detail you want, you may select from a variety of designs that will look fantastic, whether inked alone or in combination with other images.
This tattoo is a reference to the depiction of mountains, rivers, and other natural features in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The Chinese concept of harmony between nature and mankind is embodied in these tranquil and peaceful sceneries. This kind of tattoo might reflect your respect for nature’s beauty, your desire to discover inner serenity, or your devotion to living in harmony with the environment.
Chinese Lantern Tattoo
A lantern tattoo is a lovely design with a lot of symbolism. It will symbolize fresh beginnings and the release of the old. This will serve as a reminder to you of the significance of determining your life’s direction. The lantern festival is a Chinese tradition that pays tribute to the departed, fosters forgiveness, and advances peace. We can easily see why such a design would be very popular.
Chinese Lady Tattoo
You can use these designs to show that you’ve lost someone important, or you can just use them because they look nice. To make this tattoo appear eye-catching, you may also utilize bright colors. This tattoo even depicts a person’s feelings.
Chinese Tribal Tattoo
Tribal tattoos have historically been used for protection, intimidation during war, or to denote social status. Many ethnic subgroups in China still practice tattooing. At the age of 12, they design a tattoo on their face as a mark of adulthood. These tattoos feature several little critters and are done in the space between the eyebrows and around the lips.
Original tribal tattoos are hard to come by, and replicating marks that belong to some minority groups can be disrespectful. Instead, go for a more stylized look using black ink and strong lines with little shading.
Where to Place Your Tattoo
The placement of any tattoo is one of the most crucial factors in body art, and it will vary based on the design of your tattoo.
Before getting tattooed, make sure you’re comfortable with the placement of your tattoo. If you want it, most tattoo artists will place a temporary replica of the actual artwork on your body. For a few days, you can wear this fake tattoo instead of the real one to make sure you’ll be happy with it.
As the body ages and moves, tattoos may and will alter their shape. Make sure that the place you pick will still be appealing in the years to come for a beloved work of art.
Following are some ideas for tattoo designs on different parts of the body:
|Body Part||Tattoo Design Ideas|
|Finger||Single Characters, Flowers|
|Wrist||Names, Words, Zodiac symbols|
|Forearm||Chinese Characters, Words, Phrases|
|Arm||Names, Flowers, Dragons,|
|Shoulder||Lady Tattoo, Buddha, Single Character|
|Behind Ear||Knot, Flowers, Single Character|
|Back||Dragons, Koi Fish, Buddha, Temple, Landscape|
|Body||Dragon, Buddha, Flower|
|Side Rib||Flower, Dragons, Phrases|
|Leg||Chinese warrior, Flower, Dragons|
|Sleeve||Calligraphy, multiple Chinese symbols|
Make Sure It Means Something to You
Make sure the symbol—be it a character or an image—means something to you before getting one, just like with any other tattoo. It could be a connection with the traits behind it or a love for the artwork itself. Whatever the reason, your new tattoo should be a representation of you and your inner self.
Chinese Tattoo FAQs
Why are Chinese symbol tattoos popular?
There are several reasons why people choose to get Chinese symbols tattooed. Some people could select a symbol that has special meanings for them, such as a symbol of love or strength. Others may select a symbol because it is visually appealing or has important cultural or historical value.
What exactly are Chinese tattoo designs?
Chinese tattoo designs may be unique and inspired by everything you can think of. You might choose a Chinese symbol, a Chinese adage, or your favorite Chinese cartoon or character. You could also choose a song, a quote, or a flower or plant that has something to do with China.
What is the name of the Chinese-style tattoo?
刺青 cì qīng, which translates to “puncturing the body,” is the term used to describe tattooing in China. Despite having existed for hundreds of years, it is not widely accepted in mainstream society; yet, literature, mythology, and rich culture have inspired many people to create their own body art.
Who Should Have Chinese Tattoos?
Chinese tattoos are suitable for both men and women, as well as teenagers who desire something charming and touching tattooed on their skin. Because they are so adaptable and easily customized, they will fit everyone—even the most picky person!
Do people in China get tattoos?
Tattoo culture has just recently emerged in China. This is because tattoos are highly stigmatized in the country and are frequently associated with illegal activity and gangs. Even now, when they are more widely accepted, tattooing Western symbols is more common.
Can anything be written in Chinese symbols?
Yes, Chinese symbols can be used to translate and write anything. With more than 70,000 characters, the Chinese writing system is highly developed and able to capture all the subtleties of modern language.
What’s the difference between Chinese characters and kanji?
The term “kanji” refers to Chinese symbols utilized in the Japanese language. In Japanese, kanji are Chinese characters that have been modified to represent Japanese words. The meanings in Chinese and Japanese may be completely different, or they may be the same but uttered differently.
What animal tattoo is considered unlucky in Chinese culture?
Turtles are considered bad luck in certain Chinese cultures because, while they are emblems of longevity, it is also believed that having one will slow down your life and company.
Getting your body tattooed may be an extremely satisfying experience that will last the rest of your life. Many people believe that their Chinese symbol tattoos are highly symbolic depictions of their inner selves and personalities. That is the significance of selecting a Chinese symbol tattoo that really captures who you are.
We hope this information has sparked your interest in getting a Chinese tattoo. Even though Chinese tattoos are popular, you can differentiate yourself from the crowd by selecting from a variety of different patterns. It’s important to note that Chinese patterns are complicated, and a single stroke might change the meaning somewhat. Thus, you have to be sure the design is just what you desire.