I've only ever known tattoo (wénshēn) to be written as 纹身.

I was reading an article from 凤凰财经 yesterday called 猪躺着也能挣:一张纹身猪皮值百万.

What struck me, though, were all the comments on the article saying things like:




Looking through ABC, Zhongshan Medical and even the Grande Ricci they all have:



tattoo / tattooing (MeSH) / Tatouer


MoE and 两岸 have entires for 文身 and note:


There seems to be a pattern here, though. MoE and 两岸 are Taiwan-based; 凤凰 is Hong Kong-based.

So where are the complaints coming from?

Let's have a look at 规范

动 在人体的皮肤上刺上文字或图案。

注意 不宜写作“纹身”。

Oh, there it is. Mainland-based 规范 is not happy with the 绞丝旁 here.

I have my hunches but what's the deal?

Why are some people so insistent that 纹 is wrong?

And who are these people?


3 Answers 3


They are purists. In the words of Steven Pinker:

...also known as sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nitpickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha! Gang.

According to this article, 纹身 is accepted by a newer version of 《现代汉语词典》 as an alternative form of 文身.

  • 2
    I think the first paragraph in your answer should be removed.
    – fefe
    Dec 8, 2014 at 7:29
  • 4
    I don't know why you call them "communists", but indeed they are so-called purists. The very original meaning of 文 traced back to oracle scripts was just "tattoo on the chest", while 紋 didn't appear in Shuowen and was invented to differentiate from 文 much later. The purists are so proud that they refuse to use the character without historical origin. It seems ridiculous but sometimes they have a point in my opinion (e.g. I agree that the character 錶 is totally needless).
    – Stan
    Dec 8, 2014 at 8:36
  • 3
    @Stan I guess that's just a joke. He's talking ablut Grammar Nazi, but being China famous (along Russia and Cuba) as a communist country, he felt the need to swap the qualifier.
    – Zachiel
    Dec 8, 2014 at 9:48
  • @Zachiel: Russia is not "a communist country". Hasn't been for decades. Dec 8, 2014 at 10:34
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    @fefe I take back my words because I've found something better :) Dec 9, 2014 at 1:45

It should be 文身. Here is a verb, and another example of this usage is 文过饰非. 文身 is a verb-object construction here.

According to "说文解字", 文,错画也, means interlaced draw.

is a noun, which means lines; veins; grain, such as 花纹. So 纹身 is not correct, even if it's widely used by modern Chinese.

Reference: “文身”还是“纹身”

  • 3
    Language is subject to change. If something incorrect is used widely for quite a long time, then it is the accepted norm. Dec 9, 2014 at 1:59
  • @WangDingwei Maybe it's an opinion-based issue. IMO, 文身 makes up a V-O form perfectly, so easier to understand and remember. And what I am interested in is why/when/how 纹身 become widely used nowadays?
    – user4072
    Dec 9, 2014 at 2:27
  • Because it's what people do to languages. Have you heard about the silly thing? Doesn't make sense at all. Dec 9, 2014 at 2:49
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    It is true Pushkin created a lot of new words and popularized them through his poems. That was how Russian language was modernized. Pinker, on the other hand, belongs to a class of confidence men who speak in splattered sentences, bloviate with frothy talks, and churn out theories that are a waste of breath to mention. Jan 14, 2015 at 17:41

In traditional Chinese (Taiwan), we always use 紋身, not 文身.

Both and are nouns in origin, and we verbalize those characters (in Taiwan).

, in verb, means more like to write (a word); , in verb, means more like to embroider (a pattern).

You could check out the 刺青 in wikipedia.

By the way, 紋身 could be a verb or a noun.

More info:

Due to Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (文化大革命), China had simplified Chinese characters. They use one Chinese character to representative multiple characters. Today, most Chinese doesn't recognize or know the correctly original characters anymore.

  • 5
    Basically wrong. 1) 文身 is the very original form, not 紋身. 中華民國教育部重編國語辭典修訂本 include both entries 文身 and 紋身. In fact, the oracle script 文 just stands for tattoo. 2) Simplified Chinese characters weren't invented due to the cultural revolution. In PRC, the first official document for character simplification was issued in 1956, just before the cultural revolution. Well, if we are talking about the first time in modern China when simplified characters were officially carried out, it should be in 1935, via Order No. 11400 issued by MOE of ROC.
    – Stan
    Dec 8, 2014 at 12:09
  • 1
    -1. Your comments about 文身 and history of Simplified Chinese are both wrong.
    – thinwa
    Nov 12, 2015 at 5:59

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