The value of a tattoo in English

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Andy Averill sent in the following picture of a Chinese person with the English word "value" tattooed on her right shoulder:

We sometimes get the impression that it's only Westerners who are getting Chinese tattoos, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were just as many, if not more, Chinese getting tattoos in English and other Western languages as there are Westerners getting Chinese tattoos.

I suspect, however, that most Chinese who get tattoos in Western languages know the meaning of their tattoos, indeed, can probably read them off correctly by themselves. In contrast, many Westerners who get Chinese tattoos can't read a single Chinese character, and most of them have only the foggiest notion of what their tattoos say. We've seen proof of that over and over again, e.g., here and here (with references to earlier posts and other resources for the study of Chinese tattoos on the bodies of non-Chinese people).

On imgur, where the photograph above originally appeared, it was labeled "a random English word as a tattoo". I'd wager that it wasn't "random" at all, but that the wearer of the tattoo picked it in full awareness of its meaning. I would also speculate that maybe, just maybe, the star that follows the word and is slightly above it may be functioning as an asterisk, and that the woman may sport another star elsewhere on her body where there is an annotation explaining the precise significance of the word "value" for her. But perhaps my scholarly instincts are getting the best of me.

Anyway, it's nice to see a neat, clear, well-formed, sensible English word on the shoulder of a Chinese person, and I'd be happy to see other example of such tattoos.


  1. Kimchikraut said,

    August 28, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

    Is she selling something?

  2. Rachael said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 4:21 am

    Personally, this makes me think of Tesco (UK's biggest supermarket chain). Their cheap economy range is called "value", and their premium range is called "Finest*" with a star. The tattoo looks like a mashup of the two.

  3. Deborah said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    It could be that this person is a Word in Shelley Jackson's short story "Skin," which is published on the skin of 2,095 volunteers across the world.

  4. Rowland said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 4:51 am

    It's unfortunate as it implies she's selling herself at a bargain.

  5. Janet Williams said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 6:40 am

    I find the word 'value' on the lady's arm rather endearing. It would be more of a problem if the word is 'value-added'.

    Chinese people appreciate positive words such as 'value, respect, tradition, culture, morality." I read 'value' as "I value (myself, education……)" . She may have tried to express the sentiment of "Because I'm worth it" from L’Oréal.

    Thank you for this inspiration.

  6. Mark P said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    Maybe it's just because of my familiarity of English words and unfamiliarity with Chinese characters, but Chinese characters seem to me to have aesthetic qualities apart from their meaning that an English word lacks.

  7. G Jones said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 7:57 am


    I'm not sure value = bargain.

    I would think that value = you get what you pay for (aka the price is "fair").

    While bargain = you get more than you pay for (aka the price is "more than fair," or tilted in the purchaser's favor).

    Not that there's such a thing as a "fair" price, but you get the drift.

  8. Petrus said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    Best one I ever saw was when I was standing in line in a shop here in Oz behind a young Chinese woman and she had tattooed on the back of her neck "Made in China". Wish I had had a camera but you will just have to believe me.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    Perhaps neat, clear, and well-formed, but I'm not seeing "sensible". "Value" on it's own doesn't mean anything. And the asterisk doesn't do anything to make it sensible.

  10. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    Maybe she is a Theodore tugboat fan, and that is her "V" word.

  11. Logan said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 10:09 am

    I really hope that the asterisk leads to a footnote tattooed on her actual foot.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    Compared to fēngkuáng mǔgǒu 瘋狂母狗 ("crazy bitch" [seen by Timothy Clifford on the back of the neck of a woman in a Wal-Mart in Maine) and kuángxiè 狂瀉 ("crazy diarrhea; plummet [as in the value of a currency]" [reported by Brendan O'Kane]), "value" is eminently sensible. (see the third comment, by "Anonymous", i.e., Tian Zi (Chauncy) (shows the actual tattoo)

  13. Steve said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    The "value*" tattoo actually strikes me as being somewhat analogous to the tattoos that Westerners get with Chinese words, in that, in both cases, what seems to be lost is a sense of context. A friend of mine (a native Chinese [Cantonese] speaker) grumbled about the silly tattoos that Westerners often get. As he explained it, the problem was the the tattoo often reflects no understanding of the context in which the Chinese words are used. He gave the example of a woman who got a tattoo with two Chinese words on it that she understood to mean "Girl Power." However, while one of the symbols could be translated as "girl" and the other could be loosely translated as "power", the "girl" word had a connotation of "little girl" (i.e., in pigtails) and the "power" word had a connotation of something that powers industrial equipment (or a train), and the two symbols would not be juxtaposed in that fashion by any native Chinese speaker, either to express the concept of "girl power" or for any other reason. (One could joke that it would mean something like, "Super-charged dynamo girl", but my sense was that it wouldn't have such a meaning. It would be more on the nature of a meaningless combination of words, like "Little girl power-utility [for industrial machinery].")

    Here, the issue is not that the English word "value" has been used in an absurdly incorrect context, but that it was used in a way that provides virtually no contextual clue as to its meaning. My guess, though i could of course be wrong, is that she has a specific Chinese word in mind which WOULD have a reasonably clear meaning as a standalone statement, and that this word can be loosely translated as "value".

    Of the two examples, a Western woman with a "little girl industrial energy" tattoo is certainly more awkward than a Chinese woman with a "value*" tattoo, but both have an air of someone having picked a tattoo based on Google translate. (Note to self: write a crime drama entitled, "The Chinese woman with the value star tattoo.")

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    A tattoo of "value" seems eminently reasonable to me, not like a translation. It means that the person has value, is valuable, values herself and should be valued by others. I admit, though, that in an image search for "tattoo value" and one for "tattoo 'word value'" I gave up before finding any other examples. (There were lots of interesting pictures, though.)

  15. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    Mark P, in my experience, a lot of Americans are completely indifferent to this aesthetic qualities of Chinese characters beyond the fact that they look to them like little pictures. I have been stunned by the atrociousness of some of the characters tattooed on people's skin, just as I've been charmed by beauty of some Latin script calligraphy I've seen on others. Whatever difference in inherent qualities there may be between the various scripts is far overshadowed by elegance of execution or lack thereof.

    (I still don't understand why so many people choose to get themselves tattooed with basic verbiage when they have a multicoloured three-dimensional canvas to work with, but that's a different sort of aesthetic objection.)

  16. Alec said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    Brings to mind this haunting folk song …

  17. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

    I agree with Jerry Friedman, "Value" is a very loaded word, well worth musing about. The thing that popped into my head was the line from _The Elephant Man_, "I am a man!"

  18. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

    "Compared to…" it's sensible? But what meaning of sensible is it sensible? It has no meaning. How can a meaningless tattoo be "a neat, clear, well-formed, sensible English word"? There's no context to give it sense.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 7:42 pm

    P.S. If you mean it's an actual word rather than a random characters (letters), I get that. But I don't see how that makes it "sensible".

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

    @Ellen K.

    "But what meaning of sensible is it sensible?"

    The opposite of inane. (see the definitions and the thesaurus)

    "It has no meaning."

    What??? "Value" certainly does have meaning, and others in this thread have pointed out some of the pertinent implications of the term in the context of its appearing on the woman's shoulder.

    I think you may have missed what I was driving at in my previous comment (at 11:19 a.m.). Compared to the countless moronic Chinese tattoos we find on Westerners' bodies, "value" (which the woman is claiming for herself) makes a lot more sense; it is a reasonable assertion for a woman to make about herself. (again, see the definitions and the thesaurus)

  21. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

    I see theories about what the tattoo might mean. None of them convincing. That people are somehow able to see a meaning in it based on the various meanings of value/valued/values doesn't mean that the word value, on it's own, no context, no article, no suffix, no anything but the bare word, conveys a message. It doesn't. No one's made a convincing case that it does. The word "value" has meaning when we use it in context. On it's own, it conveys no message. Not unless we read one into it.

    Value is a reasonable assertion to make about oneself? But it's not an assertion about oneself. It's a noun, and not one that can apply to a person. Or it can be a verb. To say it's a comment about herself is to read more into it than it's there. Or to imagine a d at the end that's not there.

    Well, that's how I see it.

  22. E said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    How do you know she's Chinese?

  23. William Steed said,

    August 29, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

    My instinct says that it's a translation of 德 (which is appropriate for a tattoo), but I have no real basis for the assumption.

  24. Andy Averill said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 6:39 am

    @E This came from reddit, where somebody said the water she's drinking is a Chinese brand.

  25. Brian T said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    "Value" is an eminently suitable word for a tattoo. If I had a tattoo as a constant reminder, "focus on things you value" would be one of the better reminders. If only every tattoo reflected some thought about "what do I value?"

    But to get an idea of which Chinese characters are chosen for tattoos by English speakers, I google-imaged ["chinese character" tattoo]. The very first image included characters translated as "maniage," "streng," "beliefe," and "smattily." I want to meet somebody who has requested "smattily."

  26. Graham Peterson said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    Stars are some of the oldest and most common tattoos in the tradition; it's likely not an asterisk.

    A Chinese person, who isn't familiar with the modern new-age, spiritualist movement which borrows from Chinese culture, seeing an American with "serenity" tattooed on their arm, would think the word needed more context clues or an asterisk to explain it too.

    It shouldn't surprise left-leaning American academics that a Chinese woman feels "value" is a worthy ethical admonition considering the radical way in which market reform in China has opened up the region politically and socially, and begun feeding otherwise starving people.

  27. boynamedsue said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    Ellen says that "value" on its own has no meaning. Surely it functions as an imperative?

    To me the tattoo's ambiguity actually makes it quite effective as these things go. If it is a noun, she is clearly stating "I have value", only a proscriptive pedant would make the case that this is not understandable from context. But the other argument is that she is ordering people to value her. Although value is usually transitive, there is a tradition of using transitive verbs intransitively to impart a sort of authority. (Imagine a sign saying simply "Love")

    Anyhow, multiple possible meanings is a good thing, and it certainly shouldn't be compared to those eejits walking round with "Uncle HO's Wantons" carved into their skin in Chinese.

  28. xyzzyva said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 10:19 am


    Among younger Mexican-Americans a t-shirt with the graphic "Hecho en México" is not uncommon, and I believe I've seen the same in tattoo form.

    What I'd love to see along these lines is a tattoo "Assembled in USA from foreign components".

  29. hanmeng said,

    August 31, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

    On the Chinese soap operas I watch, the adult characters are often shown wearing T-shirts or other clothing with English (and possibly French?) words or phrases on them. (Sorry I can't remember any specific examples.)
    While the words on clothing Americans wear usually seem to be some kind of message, for the Chinese the foreign words on their clothing seem to me to be no more than a decoration. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  30. SDL said,

    September 4, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    Was this post tongue-in-cheek? Whether the word is 'well formed' or not (not the hardest thing to do with an alphabet), she obviously is trying to say something with it that doesn't work in English.

  31. Gpa said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

    There's no proof she's Chinese. If drinking something with chinese written on it and from china makes you chinese then you mean everyone who drinks coca Cola in the usa is American? That's nonsense! someone who lived in and around Chinese communities or in mainland communist china would dream of this nonsense!

  32. Thamane said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 4:41 am

    Nerd explanation : the asterisk is used as a placeholder for "everything", as in "*.jpg", so the message is "Value all.", "Value everything.". But I like the idea that there is a footnote somewhere.

  33. Thamane said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 4:55 am

    @ Andy Averill : The bottle looks indeed like a Nongfu Spring 农夫山泉 bottle as sold in China.

  34. Tania Osbourne said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    Part of the popularity of tattoo designs based on Chinese writing is due to the fact that most people in the West will not understand what it means. Not only will people ask what the characters say, but you will also be able to tell them why you chose to display a message like that.

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