I’m generally embarrassed by tattoos of Chinese characters, particularly so when found on bodies of people who can’t read them. Inevitably, their tattoos are grammatically incorrect and upside down. They reflect all the artistry of a three-year-old wielding a paintbrush. The people bearing them often have weird ideas about the Orient. If you don’t believe me, Hanzi Smatter offers examples of the catastrophes that result from loving anime and beer too much.
Tonight the Giants won the World Series. Tonight I also learned that the star of the series (and currently, the sport) Tim Lincecum bears a tattoo in Chinese characters on the back of his neck that’s usually covered up by his scraggly hair. It’s not beautifully written or even straight, but it’s a poetic mantra for a star pitcher.
Simply translated, his tattoo means, “man” or “male.” It is, as many have pointed out, the character that tells you which bathroom to use. But broken down into its parts, nan means so much more. At its base is li, 力, which means “strength.” At the top, tian, 田, which means “field.” Back when humans were just starting to assign written symbols to ideas, we thought that demonstrating strength while toiling in the fields was the measure of a man. For a ball player, strength on the field remains the mark.