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Chinese Tattoos: A Historical Body Of Artwork

Yue Fei (岳飛), a Han-Chinese military general during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) bore a tattoo on his back which read “尽忠报国: Serve the country with the utmost loyalty.” Pigmentation and protection joining forces.

Oxford Dictionary defines the art of tattooing as follows, “to mark (a part of the body) with an indelible design by inserting pigment into punctures in the skin”. Abhorred by some yet adored by others, a tattoo arguably finds itself among the most extreme expressions of the soul. From far flung First Nations cultures, sleek Swedish Malins and graphic Greek glyphs to crisp Zen circles, this style of art captures, preserves and even epitomizes both the spirit of a society and the temperament of one individual. 

Sichuan Opera Actor tattoo. Courtesy of Odd Stuff Magazine
Sichuan Opera Actor tattoo. Courtesy of Odd Stuff Magazine

“The word ‘tattoo’ itself, or ‘tattow’ in the 18th century, is a loanword from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning ‘to write’.” Milady Merriam-Webster

神 (shén): Deity. Courtesy of Free Tattoo Designs
神 (shén): Deity. Courtesy of Free Tattoo Designs

Needle Pricks

First things first: To kick things off, we touch upon the skin of “Tattoo’s” great-great-great-…grandfather. The tradition of cherishing indelible marks on the body is found across time and even continents — with the exception of that one located in the far south on the world map, Antarctica. Other than a few textual records of tattoo tradition, the only direct archeological proof we have of its earliest existence thus far remains imprinted on preserved human skin.

As to who exactly deserves to win the honorary title of “Tattoo’s Founding Father”, that officially continues to be a neck-and-neck race between two men found in the Alps and South America, respectively. In the unofficial Temper logs, true to the art of radiocarbon dating, we shall go with the former, a frozen body — better known as the Tyrolean Iceman Ötzi — found on an alpine glacier. Having walked the globe during what experts assume to have been the Bronze Age, Ötzi features a total 61 tattoos on the knees, ankles and belly. And that was the pre-tattoo machine era, mind you.

The word “tattoo” itself is a loanword from the Polynesian word “tatau”, meaning ‘to write’.” Thank you, Milady Merriam-Webster. British Explorer Captain James Cook introduced the term to Europe after his Polynesian travels in the late 18th Century.

Meanwhile in the Middle Kingdom, numerous terms have been recovered, each and every one referring to this type of manmade body art.

As the ancient Dai proverb goes, “men’s legs should be decorated if they want to be called men.”

Paiwan hand tattoo. Courtesy of Taiwan Today
Paiwan hand tattoo. Courtesy of Taiwan Today

Pigmentation And Protection

China in the 21st Century has one reigning Chairman when it comes to the art of body inking: Tattoo Man Liu Ming — as seen in the featured image. That is now, so let’s turn back time a little and take a peek at the “then”…

In Ancient China, tattoo art was called 涅 (niè) which means “to dye black”. 刺青 (cìqīng), 文身 (wénshēn), 镂身 (lòushēn), 扎青 (zhāqīng), 点青 (diǎnqīng) and 雕青 (diāoqīng) are just a smattering of auxiliaries referencing the art of inking found across different historical records .

The earliest records of Chinese tattoo art can be found in the “Book of Rites — Royal Regulations (礼记·王制)”, a passage stating that the Yí (夷) people inhabiting the eastern parts of the nation and the Mán (蛮) people residing in China’s southern regions sport tattoos. A number of staple samplings include the native Wu people (吴人) who lived in the southern area of today’s Jiangsu Province and Guo Wei (郭威), temple name Taizu (太祖), a man known as the “Tattooed Emperor” in the Later Zhou during the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960). Yue Fei (岳飛), a Han-Chinese military general during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) bore a tattoo on his back which read “尽忠报国: Serve the country with the utmost loyalty.”

Pigmentation and protection — always, in all ways — walked hand in hand.

Bai Yue Image. Courtesy of Clipart
The Ancient Yue people (古越人): The  Baiyue (百越) . Courtesy of Clipart

Tracking back to the traditions of indigenous people, we give you a few fine examples:

  • The Baiyue (百越) fishermen who around 200 B.C. called home what is now Southern China and Northern Vietnam carved tattoos into their skin to protect themselves from sea monsters.
  • In worship of the snake totem, Fujian Province’s Minyue 闽越 natives displayed snake patterns all over their bodies, on the one hand reflecting their respect for the animal and on the other scaring away all types of bad juju.
  • The Taiwanese Atayal (泰雅) and Saisiyat people (賽夏) have long supported their tradition of facial tattoos, whereas the Paiwan people (排灣) firmly held on to their  time-honored hand tattoo art.

To this day, a number of Chinese and Taiwanese minorities such as the Zhuang (壮族) and Dai (傣族) (descendants of the Baiyue), Derung (独龙族) and Li (黎族) people maintain their tribes’ age-old traditions in body art. Derung women have their face etched with bamboo needles as a symbol of maturity at the age of 12 or 13 — though there are those who argue the practice aims to “uglify” the women in a plea to avoid being enslaved or raped. Today, the inked face has lost its shine and fewer than 30 face-tattooed Derung women remain with us. Dong Chunlian, born in 1953, is the youngest Derung woman to feature facial tattoos. Take a look — courtesy of the CGTN YouTube Channel:

Among the Dai people, both men and women display inked markings, originally to shield themselves from the monsters that lurk in the river-deep, yet over the years becoming a token of wisdom and maturity — in terms of both body and soul.

As the ancient Dai proverb goes, “men’s legs should be decorated if they want to be called men.”

With the rise of Confucianism, permanent body markings were no longer something to be proud of. Instead, China’s tattooed people were branded uncivilized and unworthy.

Triad Tattoo
Triad Tattoo Art — pigmentation as initiation. Image: Online, source unknown

Stigma or Style?

All historical tales, tattooed emperors and generals cast aside, with the rise of Confucianism, a permanent body marking  was no longer a thing to be proud of. China’s tattooed people were branded uncivilized and ungrateful. The Baiyue (百越) people were pushed into a corner of barbarian stigma, portrayed as living in primitive conditions and lacking basic technology by Chinese writers of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 221 A.D.).

Shanghai Tattoo drawings. Courtesy of Shanghai Tattoo
Zhuo Danting and her Shanghai Tattoo drawings. Courtesy of Shanghai Tattoo

Firmly defined in and by the “Classic Book of Filial Piety (孝经),” one of the 13 must-read Confucian classics, the Confucian principles convey that one “must not defile the body since it is given to us by our parents” (身体发肤,受之父母,不敢毁伤) . Filial piety, in the eyes of Confucius, is the quintessential mark of a civilized society. It was precisely for this reason that the practice of body “inscripting” transformed from a protective art style into a social or parental punishment. During the Song era (907-1279), criminals were marked with a tattoo to prevent them from committing another crime; slaves, too, were branded to showcase the stamp of ownership and keep them from running away. Here and there, female slaves were inked by the ladies of the manor to render them less attractive in the eyes of the men in the family.

Fast forward a couple of dynasties and Chinese tattoo art from the 18th Century onwards increasingly became associated with the wild and non-wholesome activities taking place in the underworld. Hong Kong’s secret society gang members in particular raised many an eyebrow as they, for example, needled either a dragon onto the left arm or a white tiger onto the right (左青龙,右白虎) to exemplify their respective triads. (One Oxford Dictionary quickie, “triad” is a translation of the Chinese term San Ho Hui, or “Triple Union Society”, referring to the union of Heaven, Earth, and Man. Now you know.)

With the advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, body art was condemned as immoral by the Communist Party of China. Half a century later, the art of tattooing, too, has received the New Made In China tag. From Mao jacket to Mao sleeve.

Chinese celebrities Faye Wong (王菲) and Nicholas Tse (谢霆锋) share “lovers” markings and mere mortal inking sightings run rife on the streets of China’s major cities.

Shanghai Tattoo
Shanghai Tattoo Parlor. Courtesy of Shanghai Tattoo and Zhuo Danting

About Police And Parlors

And from the Great Hall Of The People, we make our way into the tattoo parlor. The number of tattoo lovers in China is on the rise and thus is that of tattoo parlors. However, those who serve the public (sector) like soldiers and police officers must be left ink-free — truth be told, prejudice against tattooed candidates lingers on within China’s job market at large. When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, people with visible tattoo markings were forbidden to be part of the city’s welcoming committees. In this light, we might want to circle back in time a bit and disclose to you the fate of General Yue Fei. This celebrated military strategist in the end was forced to resign from his position and to his dying day cared for his mother — who gave him the tattoo to begin with. Oh tempora, oh mores?

At the same time, the younger Chinese generations are fond of bearing English writings or modern art styled drawings on their body to express themselves as individual souls. According to a survey on body art conducted by lifestyle site Haibao, one-third of respondents showcased tattoos, 16 percent of which even carrying more than one. Chinese celebrities Faye Wong (王菲) and Nicholas Tse (谢霆锋) share “lovers” markings and mere mortal inking sightings run rife on the streets of China’s major cities. Zhuo Danting, China’s “First Lady of Tattoos” who runs Shanghai Tattoo, confirms the growing trend as her parlor has witnessed a boost in Chinese clientele as well. Right along the Zhuo lines, some tattoo artists located in the big(ger) cities can nowadays earn up to $120 an hour.

Not too shabby for what was once deemed sullied.

 

The year 2002 saw the birth of the Chinese Artists Tattoo Association and numerous tattoo exhibitions and presentations have since sprouted across the Middle Kingdom. Despite previous Olympic triflings, the New Made In China label takes home the gold as even the mighty powerhouse that is Beijing currently hosts an annual tattoo convention. From emperors to generals and modern-day pioneers: Chinese tattoos reign supreme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Written by Minyoung Lee for Temper Magazine
This feature includes references to:
  • “Tattoo in Early China” by Carrie E. Reed for the “Journal of the American Oriental Society”, Vol. 120, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 2000), pp. 360-376.
  • “Inked: Tattoos and Body Art around the World” by Margo DeMello
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon for Temper Magazine
Featured Image: Liu Ming, China’s current Tattoo Emperor. Courtesy of China Daily
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