Ancient China & Tattoos: A Complicated Relationship

If anyone has had a troubled relationship with tattooing, it’s the Ancient Chinese. While the art has been practiced since the early sixth century, it has mostly been looked upon with distaste by the general population throughout the course of history.

The art of tattooing is known to the Ancient Chinese (and in some cases, still today) as Ci Shen or Wen Shen, which translates to the phrase ‘puncture the body.’ To most Ancient Chinese citizens, tattooing was considered detrimental, as it defamed the body. There were those who still partook in the art form, however, and perhaps didn’t help to edge the general populace into favoring the practice. These were more often than not individuals of lower moral standard – in a word, criminals.

Ancient Chinese Tattoo

Despite the art being largely uncommon, you can still find many references to the practice throughout Ancient Chinese history. In fact, the practice of inking the body appears in one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, Water Margin. This body of work discusses the Bandits of Mount Liang, who were active during the twelfth century. Within the story, over 108 companions of the famous bandit Song Jiang were said to be covered in full body tattoos.
Another story of legend tells of the Chinese general Yueh Fei, who served the South Song Dynasty. According to history, during a battle with enemies from the north, Yueh Fei’s Field Marshall defected, betraying his troops and changing sides. In disgust, Yueh Fei left his post of service and returned home. As the story goes, he didn’t receive a very warm welcome. His mother, furious at him for resigning, decided to teach him a lesson he would never forget. She used a sewing needle to tattoo the characters jin zhong bao guo across his back. This roughly translates to ‘Serve His Country with Ultimate Loyalty.’ That’s some serious parenting!

The Ancient Chinese government had a hand to play in the reputation of tattooing, as well. Criminals were often marked with face tattoos and exiled for their punishment. According to the Han Shu (an official document on Punishment crafted by the Han dynasty in the early sixth-seventh Century), there were over five hundred crimes considered to be worthy of tattoo punishment – mo zui, or ‘ink crimes.’ This list included crimes such as adultery and robbery.
Confucius also spoke on the matter, implying that it is “honorable to preserve the body in the form created by the parents.” This highly popular religious model referred to any form of body defilement as immoral, helping to shine the light of negativity on this art form.

There were Chinese minorities, however, that partook in the art of tattooing quite avidly. These were tribes of people that had a different view of the art form and included the Dulong and Dai tribes and the Li people of Hainan Island. Tattooing to the Dulong tribe, which lived along the Dulong River and were often found to be under attack by neighboring tribes (perhaps due to their unique location). The women were often carted off during these attacks and utilized as slaves, often being raped along the process. As retaliation, the women began tattooing their faces in an attempt to disfigure themselves and make themselves less attractive, and in turn, less likely to be raped. This became the norm for this tribe, and at the age of maturity – often 12 or 13 years old – all women would be marked on their faces, almost as if a rite of passage. The Dai tribes used tattoos to accentuate their features – with the men tattooing along muscles, as if to draw attention to that area.

These tattoos were seen as a sign of strength and ferocity and often included a dragon, tiger, or other vicious beast. The women of the Dai tribes were most likely to be tattooed across their arms, between their eyebrows (a small dot, similar to the Indian practice), and across the backs of the hands. Again, tattooing was used as a passage into adulthood for children on the cusp. In the Li people, tattooing was kept generally within the female gender, however, has been seen as a medical treatment in men on occasion. Young women of the tribe would, over a four day process, be tattooed across the upper chest, neck, and face as a symbol of passing into full womanhood. This process would continue over the next few years, as the woman’s arms and legs would be tattooed. Their hands would remain tattoo free until after they became married.

These Chinese minorities were deemed uncultured and not accepted in mainstream society due to the excess of their tattoo practices.

Between religious stigmas and tattoo punishments for criminals, it is no surprise that the Ancient Chinese people looked upon those with body ink as barbarians and considered them uncultured and unwanted in their ‘civilized’ society. This principle has carried on into modern culture, with the practice of inking the body still being associated with criminals and gang life. Today, Chinese characters are a staple in Western tattoo parlors. Quite intriguing, given its rocky history in its country of origin. Perhaps food for thought?

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