It’s not hard to believe that tattoos traditionally carry a negative social stigma in China – after all, there are very few cultures where ink infused body art hasn’t been stigmatized. Still, China’s history with tattoos (like most things in China) dates long before modern fads put tattoos back in the public’s eye. The following are some interesting facts about Chinese culture and tattoos.
1) Tattoos and Confucianism – 刺青和儒家思想
Confucianism is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture, the values are still present in today’s modern society. That being said, the Confucian attitude toward tattoos and other body alterations are being challenged. According to Confucianism, “the basis of filial piety lies in avoiding injury to the skin, hair, and body that is received from one’s parents.” Therefore, any damage to one’s natural body – be it intentional or otherwise – would be disrespectful. Interestingly enough, the most famous tattoo in Chinese history was given by a mother to her son.
2) Yue Fei and Military Tattoos – 岳飞和军事刺青
Anyone who knows anything about Chinese history (or Hangzhou history, for that matter) knows about the famous Song general Yue Fei. Coincidentally, Yue Fei was also the owner of the previously mentioned “most famous tattoo in Chinese history” – according to legend, that is. Betrayed in battle by his commanding officer, Yue Fei defected from the army and returned home. When he arrived, his mother scolded him furiously. As punishment she used her own sewing needle to tattoo the phrase: “jin zhong bao guo” or “serve your country with ultimate loyalty” on to his back. This prompted many soldiers to get tattoos of their own. Whereas ordinary tattoos are viewed negatively, those who served in the military who bare tattoos are viewed with respect. Typically military tattoos are figurative because they are believed to possess supernatural abilities – “for example, the tattoo’s image might be a god who bestows power to those who bear his image.” Wait! If tattoos are a source of power, why are they stigmatized?!
3) Criminal Punishment – 刑事处罚
In ancient China tattoos were used as a form of punishment for criminals. According to historical texts, during the Zhou period, there were five hundred crimes punishable by tattooing. For example, a ring would be tattooed behind the ear in the case of robbery or banditry. Most tattoos issued for punishment were placed on or around the person’s face. This caused the guilty person to lose face both physically and metaphorically as they were marked for life – making tattoos an effective deterrent for committing crimes. If that wasn’t enough, those who bore tattoos were often ostracized by society. Criminals were banished to protect groups of upstanding, law abiding citizens. The predominance of criminals baring tattoos continued into the 1940’s – becoming synonymous with crime syndicates like the mafia. Not all Chinese tattoos are bad, though!
4) Minority Cultures and Dying Traditions – 少数民族文化和正在消失的传统
China is home to 55 minority cultures some of which have a long tattoo tradition. There are two in particular worth mentioning: the Li of Hainan and the Dulong of Yunnan. For both cultures, tattoo designs were unique to particular sub-groups of the culture. Designs were often inspired by patterns found in nature. Whereas the Li in Hainan bore tattoos on their neck and body, the women of the Dulong had tattoos applied to the center of their faces. Tattoos were administered through a method known as hand-tapping using bamboo rods and needles. The typical pattern for Dulong women’s tattoos was a butterfly. “The image of the butterfly is associated with passage in Dulong culture. The souls of the dead are thought to change into butterflies.”
When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Communist government implemented policies designed to end belief in superstitions and transform social traditions. These laws – which sought to unify Chinese culture and society – ultimately led to the demise of tattooing among minority cultures. Dulong tattoos were officially abolished in 1967. That being said, a 2003 census reported 65 Dulong women who still bore their traditional facial tattoos (though most of them were elderly).
5) Modern Tattoo Culture – 现代纹身文化
Fast forward to today! Things are changing due to the influence of popular culture. Celebrities like music artists, athletes, and the like have further encouraged a more accepting attitude toward tattoos. Whereas the government held stake in tattoo culture in the past, body modification is not high on the current administration’s list of priorities. That’s where the Chinese Association of Tattoo Artists (CATA) comes in. This organization seeks to regulate tattoos in China by promoting safety and hygiene. The CATA hosts an annual convention for tattoo artists in China – the convention for 2015 was held in October in Nanning. Tattoo artists and enthusiasts from all over the world attend the event to share their love for body ink.
China’s long history of negative attitudes toward tattoos are far from disappearing. Still, only time will tell how popular tattoos become as society continues to develop. Interested in learning more about tattoos in China? Hangzhou Plus recently issued a survey regarding attitudes toward tattoos. See the results here. We also did an interview on what it is like to be a female tattoo artist in China.Life, Stories