Chinese word for tattooing is Ci Shen or Wen Shen, which literally means “to puncture/pattern the body”. The art itself has been known in China since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A.D.), but has been considered “barbaric” throughout the ages. Indeed, it is only unjust to attribute Ci Shen to the Chinese people, since tattoos were reserved for minorities (the ruling Han Dynasty considered themselves the only “real” Chinese people) and criminals. That is the reason why Chinese tattoo patterns have been more popular in Europe and the USA than in China itself and that is also the reason why tattooing in China is still being observed through a veil of prejudice.
Many are the reasons for negative approach to the art of tattoo. During the Confucian times, people believed that the body had to remain “pure”. Tattoos were viewed as a type of body modification and were therefore undesired.
According to tattoo expert Lars Krutak:
“With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the Communist government implemented policies of pochu mixin (“eradicating superstitions”) and yifengyisu (“changing prevailing customs and transforming social traditions”). These laws were aimed at China’s fifty-six ethnic minority groups and ultimately led to the demise of tattooing amongst those peoples who practiced the indelible art including the Li of Hainan Island and the Dulong of Yunnan.”
Tattoo tradition of the aboriginal and “minority” groups in China has been vanishing for years, due to cultural and religious changes that have been imposed to these ethnic groups. In most cases, all that is left of the original symbolism is kept with elderly tribe members, but there are cases when a young person gets a traditional tattoo – in order to preserve the old tradition. The Paiwan people are an exception, since tattoos among this ethnic group are a sign of nobility.
Legends and Origins
Many Chinese classical novels mention tattooed characters. The most famous legend speaks of Chinese general Yueh Fei, who served the South Song Dynasty. The general was betrayed by the field marshal during a battle against a northern foe and he returned home in protest. There he met his parents’ rage. He was to serve his country, that was his duty, his mother said. Thereby she fetched her sewing needle and tattooed four Chinese characters on his back – “jin zhong bao guo”. Translated literally, this means: “To serve your country with ultimate loyalty”.
Similar to Japanese Yakuzas (or Gokud?, members of organized crime circles in Japan), the Chinese also used tattoos to mark their criminals. According to the Han Shu (“Treatise on Punishment”) text (7th century A.D.), there were around five hundred crimes punishable by tattoos, including adultery and robbery. The criminals had tattoos on their faces, which showed their shame. After the tattooing was over, they were exiled. This punishment was called Ci Pei (Tattoo Exile).
However, many minority groups in China have different view. The Dulong and Dai tribes and Li people of Hainan Island are known for their lively tattoos. Same applies to the Paiwan tribe of Taiwan. They know no punishment markings and see tattooing as an act of art and patterns as symbols of passage.
Dulong (Drang) Tattoos
The Dulong or Drang tribe lives along the Dulong river. They have been present in China since the rule of the Ming Dynasty (some 350 years ago). The Dulong women were often taken as slaves by the neighboring clans, which triggered the tattoo tradition. Namely, they started tattooing their faces. The aim was to make them less attractive, which would eventually save them from raping. Of course, in modern times the Dulong tribes are bereft of their enemies, but the tradition still lives on.
All Dulong girls get their tattoos at the age of twelve or thirteen. In contemporary times, this act is seen as a sign of maturity. The Dulong tribe is one of rare tribes to keep their tradition alive in contemporary times.
The tattoo is applied by a thorn, between the eyebrows and around the mouth (forming a diamond shape), and many dots are applied to the cheek.
The Dai tribe lives along the Burmese border in Yunnan Province of China. Both Dai men and Dai women practice tattooing. The tradition is old and has roots in the belief that tattoos are a sign of strength (in men) and maturity (in women). Dai men have tattoos that underline their muscles – usually a dragon, elephant or a tiger – ancient eastern symbols of strength. Dai women tattoo backs of their hands and arms and a dot between the eyebrows. The symbolism of the latter has been known in the East for a long time, tracing back to the first belief of the third eye. Originally, Dai children were tattooed around the age of five. Now they get their tattoos around the age of fourteen. The symbolism still lives in contemporary times – a tattoo is a sign of adulthood. Dai tattoo customs were first noticed by Marco Polo:
“Tattoos are applied using five needles joined together… they prick the flesh till the blood comes, and they rub in a certain black coloring stuff.”
Revival of Dai tattoo customs is somewhat unusual. A 77-year-old man of the Dai tribe told “The New York Times”:
“During the anti-Japanese war, we all got tattoos to show that we are of the Dai people and not Han Chinese so the Japanese would not kill us.”
The war mentioned is the WWII. Many people of the Dai tribe took to tattoos during the 1940s, abandoning the original symbolism and using tattoos to mark their ethnicity. And indeed, Dai tattoos are nowadays used to underline men’s strength and women’s beauty, as opposed to the original function – to darken their bodies and protect them from lurking wild beasts.
The Li people have been populating the island of Hainan for over three thousand years. In older days, they were known to the Chinese as the “tattooed race”, meaning a barbaric, primitive race with no civilization. Their tattoos (tatan) are closely linked to their religion, which is based on animism. Li tattoos are common among women. Men tattoo blue rings on their wrists (believed to be linked with medical purposes), but other than that – none. Patterns vary from tribe to tribe and usually consist of totemic symbols typical for each clan. A girl who is to be married to another clan member gets the bridegroom’s tribal tattoo.
Similarly as with the Dulong and the Dai, tattooing among the Li people is seen as a sign of adulthood. A Li girl gets her tattoos around the age of thirteen – first on the neck, then on the throat and face. Until her sixteenth birthday, the girl will also get tattoos on her arms and legs. Married women get tattoos on their hands; tattooed hands are inappropriate for a single woman.
In modern times, this practice is much simplified. Only elderly women still wear traditional Li tattoos, while facial tattoos are completely abandoned.
The Paiwan people populate Taiwan. They are inseparably connected to Chinese culture, so their tattoos are worth mentioning as well. The Paiwan have a long-standing tradition of tattooing a viper on their bodies. This, of course, has roots in the Paiwan religion, where the viper is the guardian spirit. The only difference between the tattooed vipers comes from the social status of the person wearing it. Originally, only a noble Paiwan would have the right to wear the tattoo, but a commoner was allowed to purchase that right from a noble. Dots and lines are also common patterns among the Paiwan women. Men tattooed, beside the viper, human heads and figures and solar designs.
The Paiwan still hold to their hierarchy. A person wearing a full body tattoo is a noble one, and even a foreigner may recognize a wealthy and important person. According to Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peoples:
“They use artistic decoration to solidify their social status and honor their class. Only the nobles have the privilege of installing wood and stone carvings in their houses, of having tattoos or body ornaments, of wearing luxury clothes and special headwear, and of owning ancient pottery kettles and lazurite beads. Hence the meaning of tattoos transcends the visual and aesthetic. For example, the hundred-pace snake and human images are two holy patterns. But all in all, the Paiwan art lacks motifs from daily life.”