Queen of the World

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Cindy, who works in my favorite barber shop next to the Penn campus, has the following symbols tattooed on her back:

I instantly recognized the first and last as two quite well-formed Chinese characters.  After two or three seconds of puzzling, I realized that the third symbol is another Chinese character written upside down and backwards (how the tattoo artist achieved that is a bit of a mystery, especially since he / she got the first and fourth one in their correct orientation).  The second character was more refractory.

I told Cindy that I recognized the top character as meaning "mother" and the bottom one as meaning "expensive, noble, honored, distinguished, valuable".  I also told her that the third one meant "thing, matter".  Since the second symbol didn't even look like a Chinese character — it seemed to be some sort of cross, although I thought it also might be a highly stylized form of a Chinese character meaning "child" — I wasn't certain what sentiment all four symbols taken together were meant to convey.

So I asked Cindy what she thought the tattooed symbols running down her neck and spine meant.  She replied:

The bottom two were supposed to be success… then respect.

Oh well.  Works either way.  It is what it is.  You can put whatever name you want.

Queen OF The World is what I prefer.

I followed up by asking Cindy what she thought the second, very unusual, symbol meant.  She said, "Oh, that's just a cross for Jesus."

Tentatively, this is what I had to work with:

1. mǔ 母 ("mother")

2. zǐ 子 ("child"), or perhaps some kind of cross

3. wù 物 ("thing, object")

4. guì 贵 ("precious; expensive")

With considerable effort, I could get that to mean "Mother and child are precious things."  But I was not satisfied with this interpretation, both because of my uncertainty over the second symbol and because it required me to accept a strained interpretation of the final two characters.

I then approached Imre Galambos, who is both an authority on Chinese tattoos and on ancient forms of Chinese writing.  Imre's response:

Considering that 物 is upside down, I think the second symbol could be the character 必 in the clerical script, slightly rotated. Then the meaning is also something about a mother having to be valued, although probably pieced together by the tattoo "artist" from separate characters using English grammar. But this is obviously just a guess.

Imre suspected that the second symbol might be an early form of bì 必 ("must"), in which case — allowing for distorted syntax — we might be able to render the string of characters as "A mother should be considered something precious."  But what if the second character really is "a cross for Jesus"?  That might possibly yield "The mother of Jesus is something precious."

In the end, I think that Cindy put it best:  "It is what it is."


  1. Theophylact said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

    I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand.

  2. Jonathan said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    I am reminded of Henri Deplis, who agreed to pay 600 francs for a collar-bone to waistline tattoo representing The Fall of Icarus under the impression that Icarus was a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Year's War. And last month the Glasgow Herald reported this incident: "During a rare visit to my home town of Kirkcaldy my brother introduced me to one of his friends Shug who looked a bit depressed. He explained that the previous week, while holidaying in Turkey, he decided after one too many to get a tattoo. When asked what he wanted, he answered in a broad Fife accent: "My name, 'Shug'" – only to wake up sober the following morning and find the word 'THUG' tattooed on his upper arm."

  3. The Ridger said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    Not tattoo related, but the Fall of Icarus story made me think of the student (okay, it was me, but I'm not alone!) who heard a Russian teacher say something happened after the Fall of Jers and thought Jers must be a place… instead of the Slavic short vowels which disappeared from Russian leaving odd spellings and phonemic behaviors behind.

  4. Candide said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    I guess it's like having a cipher always with you, so you can lie to your crush in order to be seductive. By the way it's codification a woman should be aware of – following the kama sutra.

  5. James said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    Do tattoo artists use stencils? Because that would explain the double reversal.

  6. djhk said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    To me the second character looks rather more like 米 meaning rice (with readings "kome" or "bei" in Japanese).

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    As MacLeish might say, a tat should not mean but be.

  8. Dan Milton said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

    There's a website: http://www.badhebrew.com/
    with dozens of messed up tattoos. Maybe there's one for Chinese too.

  9. Mike W said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

    Indeed, there is: http://hanzismatter.blogspot.com/

  10. Sili said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand

    It's not like she can see it.

  11. Jason Stewart said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    4. guì 贵

    I've only studied Japanese, not Chinese, but shouldn't that fourth character be貴?

  12. KWillets said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

    She can read it in the mirror.

  13. Matt Enlow said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    The first thing I thought of on seeing the second one was 求, request / wish / want / demand in Japanese

  14. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    Jason- the character you posted is just the traditional form.

  15. Alex B. said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    I prefer to see the second character as 米. The message would then be 母米物貴 which, loosely translated, means, "I want to put Asian letters on my upper back because I think they look cool." Interestingly, this same message can also be written in a variety of different kanji.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

    @James: Do tattoo artists use stencils?

    Yes, they do (personal experience). But ones with a brain account for any reversals; and tattoo-ees with a brain, they check.

  17. Tian said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

    Cindy has been featured in Hanzi Smatter in 2005:


  18. languagehat said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand.

    Same here. Why, oh why, do people insist on having some (usually vague/mystical) thing they've thought of rendered (inevitably badly) into Latin, Chinese, or some other language they don't know and inscribed permanently onto their skin in order that they may be derided by people who actually know the language in question? If you love your mother, why not have MOTHER or MOM tattooed? Too… common?

  19. Nick Lamb said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    I can think of a reason, but it's a big stretch, like "excuses for why the Kessel run is measured in parsecs" stretch, and it doesn't match this or most examples on hanzismatter.blogspot.com

    You might wish to carry a mark which identifies you to certain people who have esoteric knowledge but not to outsiders, and both the intended readers and you wish to reduce the chance of being deceived by copies. So the mark encodes certain verifiable information about you, in a way readable only by these persons. If it is copied onto another individual, the verification will fail, and even torturing the marked individual can't reveal the secret because they do not have it. It's a poor man's public key crypto.

    (e.g. imagine an organisation with no knowledge of Chinese tries to infiltrate the local safe house of a Chinese international criminal organisation. They send their man with a plausible excuse and he shows the tattoo painstakingly copied from video footage of another member. Unfortunately this tattoo means "tall, blond, grey hat" and the agent in question has dark hair, is of medium height and is not wearing any head gear. He is welcomed inside but then immediately tortured and executed as an imposter.)

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand.

    Same here. Why, oh why, do people insist on having some (usually vague/mystical) thing they've thought of rendered (inevitably badly) into Latin, Chinese, or some other language they don't know and inscribed permanently onto their skin in order that they may be derided by people who actually know the language in question? If you love your mother, why not have MOTHER or MOM tattooed? Too… common?

    1. They like the way Latin or Chinese or whatever looks on a tattoo better than the way English looks.

    2. They trust the tattoo artist. (2a: They're drunk.)

    3. They don't expect to meet anybody who knows the language in question. (3a: Thus the tat is a conversation starter.)

    4. If they think of checking (see 2a), they don't know a reliable way to check.

  21. Gene said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 11:51 am

    Street venacular translation.

    "Child, I'm here to tell you, This Mother was expensive"

  22. rukymoss said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    I knew a man who got a lot of free beer and money off bets on his tattoo–he would tell strangers in his local bar, "I'll bet you $20 that I have your name tattooed inside my lower lip." He did–"YOUR NAME". Could this be done in Chinese, or would differing pronoun usage get in the way?

  23. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    Linda Greene to me: " You would think before you have something permanently displayed on your body, you would make sure what it says."

    VHM replying to Linda: " Unless maybe you were under the influence of something when you had it done to you."

  24. Matt said,

    March 11, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    Would it be overthinking things to see a connection between Cindy's preferred "Queen of the World" and "Mother [Cross-for-Jesus]"?

  25. Abbie said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 1:00 am

    This is why I got a rongorongo tattoo- nobody is going to correct me!

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    I'm strangely reminded of the exchange in James Blish's SF novel Black Easter:

    Hess pointed to this, and to a different but equally baffling inscription that was duplicated on the handles of the stylet and the lancet. "What do those mean?"

    "Mean? They can hardly be said to mean anything any more. They're greatly degenerate Hebrew characters, originally comprising various Divine Names. I could tell you what the Names were once, but the characters have no content any more — they just have to be there."

    "Superstition," Hess aid, recalling his earlier conversation with Baines, interpreting Ware's remark about Christmas.

    "Precisely, in the pure sense. The process is as fundamental to the Art as evolution is to biology."

    My point being, there's a very long history of copying unfamiliar texts badly.

  27. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    I agree with djhk, but my first reaction was that it could be the asterisk-like “kome mark”, ※ (itself named after 米 ).

    I think the fascination with writing you can’t understand is a kind of magical thinking. If they’re difficult and exotic and unreadable but still mean something, their meaning must be all the more powerful.

  28. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    "I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand."

    I would stop after the word "mark". I realized even as a teenager that whatever holds my interest at the moment is unlikely to be a permanent source of fascination to me. Some prior interests I look back on fondly. Others I look back and wonder what the attraction ever was. So even as a teenager I realized that a tattoo which might seem deeply meaningful at the moment would at some point become at best irrelevant, and at worst terribly embarrassing. A tattoo is like suicide: a permanent response to what is probably a temporary condition.

  29. Mary Kuhner said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:52 pm

    I think a lot of people want some way to make potentially transient states into permanent states. This is why you carve "4 EVER" messages into beech trees or spray-paint them on the bottom of high bridges or tattoo them on your biceps: you *want* it to be forever, you are not sure it will be, and the message is a magical act intended to create permanence.

    This may even work some of the time: magical acts can be psychologically powerful.

  30. Chaon said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 3:57 am

    "Mother's Ten Valuable Things"

  31. Eugene said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 7:38 am

    No commenter has mentioned the parallel universe of T-shirts and commercial signs in Asian countries (engrish.com and so on, the subject of other entertaining Victor Mair posts). That other language is exotic and sends a message quite apart from native language semantics. The actual content of the message, and whether it makes sense in that other language, is somehow inconsequential.
    If you live in China, Korea, or Japan, you often wonder why no native speaker is consulted before the production of clothing and signs with odd English messages. I've come to the conclusion that the messages are stylistic and for internal consumption only.
    I've often wondered how it would seem if Westerners put meaningless Kanji/Characters on their clothing. I hadn't seen much of it. I had assumed that people might be careful about their tattoos. Ha!
    These expressions mean what they mean – the bearer is making a personal statement, and perhaps the less you understand it the better.

  32. Adam said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    I wonder if Chinese writing is more susceptible to certain kinds of errors because of popular misconceptions about "ideograms": maybe many Westerners think that you can lay out a set of "ideograms" in order to express a set of ideas, without having to consider syntax.

  33. Ray Girvan said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    @Eugene: you often wonder why no native speaker is consulted

    An alternative – and, I admit, very cynical – theory is that many business owners, the world over, are arrogant, stupid and anti-intellectual. In my younger days, I worked in editorial positions with a couple of commercial firms (and by no means tin-pot ones) who put out ludicrously misspelt or mispunctuated advertising copy, because the CEOs would rather run the copy past someone in the circle of their semi-illiterate family/friends than someone with an actual command of English.

  34. J. Goard said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 11:57 pm

    I have never understood why you would want a permanent, visible mark that you didn't understand.

    How about expressing your core views about the universe, spirituality and morality in a language that you don't understand and that nobody speaks natively?

  35. J. Goard said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 12:18 am

    @Mary Kuhner:

    I think that such "goal commitment" strategies are essential to the success of our species at complex extended tasks and complex social structures. Consider what the majority who don't get "BOB&LIZ4ever" tattoos nonetheless often do — put themselves into debt by throwing a lavish party for a large number of friends and family. Whatever the stated conscious reasons are, the ultimate reason has got to be that the "sunk cost" effect helps many young couples stick it out through tough times.

  36. Neuroskeptic said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 7:39 am

    The second character is a deformed version of "rice" 米 but I doubt that it was meant to be that. It looks more like someone's drawn a Cross and added "sparkle lines".

  37. Neuroskeptic said,

    March 14, 2012 @ 7:45 am

    Hmm, maybe it's a Catholic thing? Mother of "Jesus" (it's as good a symbol as any) is Honorable? Holy Mary Mother of Christ….?

  38. Ross Presser said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about this …

    A permanent reminder of a temporary feeling
    Amnesiac episodes that never go away
    It's no complex memento, no subtle revealing
    Just a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling

    "Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling" (2000)

  39. Ross Presser said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    Oh, and Mary is called the Queen of Heaven, not the Queen of the World.

  40. Maureen said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

    "Regina Mundi" is a perfectly good title for the Virgin Mary. Not popular, but you see some churches named after it.

    Of course, Mary's queen of pretty much everything, so that particular title pattern has a great deal of flexibility.

  41. Sakura Maichiru said,

    March 23, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Yeah, I never got the whole mystery-kanji-tattoo deal. Someone had me do some kanji calligraphy to be tattooed once, but we both made a lot of effort to make sure it said what he wanted it to say. (He didn't just say, "I want it to say this" and leave it at that.)

    When I looked at the second "character" (i.e. the "cross for Jesus"), my first thought was of a (somewhat distorted) Nushu character.

  42. Yugan said,

    March 25, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    The second mark is a cross between 米(rice) and ※, which is used in Chinese to emphasize a line, like a bullet mark. I can't see that it has anything to do with 必.
    The last two characters, with the upside down 物, bring to mind the common expression 物以稀為貴:scarcity makes things more valuable.
    In Chinese, 物 is a "thing," but is not used like "thing" in English which may refer to something intangible: We talked about a lot of things. In Chinese, 物 is a solid, concrete substance. This has no conceivable connection to success or respect.
    It is what it is: mishmash.

  43. Dengchao said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    Good work spotting that 'wu!'

    I knew as soon as I looked at it that the cross was something the tatooer meant to put there and tried to make it seem a bit chinese because he was out of characters and couldn't be bothered doing a search on the internet to verify he was getting it right.

    It is what it is alright: rubbish!

  44. grniewnie said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    I thought the first character could be a miswritten 每 as in 每个物贵 which could maybe be imagined to mean everything's precious….? I used to always confuse 母 and 每 when I first learned Chinese tho that presumes the tattoo artist actually had an inkling of understanding to be confused about…

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