Video: Is David Beckham's Chinese Tattoo a Statement of Confucian Philosophy?

Early last week, David Beckham sparked international attention at a press conference in China when he lifted up his shirt to show off his side tattoo, to the sound of ear-splitting squeals from female audience members who apparently all must be really into calligraphy.

Beckham flashed his inked flank as a sign of his appreciation of Chinese culture after being named "international ambassador" for soccer in China. However, he hasn't had the greatest luck with non-English tattoos in the past, since a previous tattoo meant to spell out his wife's name in Hindi proved to be embarrassingly incorrect. With a huge prevalence of mistaken Chinese-character tattoos catalogued by sites like Hanzi Smatter, we decided to check in with Yun Qin, Senior Program Associate for Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society, to tell us if Beckham was more fortunate with this tattoo.

Thankfully, the soccer star's tattoo artist must have been more familiar with Chinese than with Hindi, as it received the OK from Yun. The exact wording is "生死有命,富贵由天" (sheng si you ming, fu gui you tian), which roughly translates as "Life and death are destined by fate, wealth and status are destined by heaven." The meaning of the quote (which is from the Confucian Analects), however, might make people think it signifies that Beckham is arrogantly arguing he was destined for greatness.

But Yun cautions that the saying doesn't necessarily mean you don't have to work hard to get where you are. The text was originally about a man who despaired over not having siblings — and it actually means people shouldn't worry about things they can't control. "If you examine the context of the text, the meaning is actually quite positive," says Yun. "You do not need to despair over the few things you cannot decide yourself, but rather must reinforce your own cultivation." It's possible that Beckham deeply pondered the line's meaning and came to this conclusion.

Yun states that there are also those in China who would disagree with that interpretation. "On one hand, pessimistic people think 'Even if I strive hard, it's still useless because matters are not in my control.' On the other hand, optimistic people think, 'The heavens can only decide a small part [of my fate], but the majority is nevertheless up to me.'"

About the Author

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Liz Flora is a contributor to Asia Blog. She has a master's degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.