Chinese tattoos have become a raging phenomenon among tattoo enthusiasts of the western world. Chinese tattoos offer beautiful characters with a sense of the exotic and often much deeper meaning than that which lies on the surface.
However Chinese tattoos have also come with much controversy. The Hanzi and Kanji characters on which they are based come from China and Japan, but neither of these countries have strong tattooing histories related to Chinese characters. Often as well there are many problems with translation of English sayings into Chinese as well as tattoo artists attempting to replicate complex Chinese characters that often leads to tattoos that don’t say what you think they say.
Ci Shen – Chinese Tattoos
The art of tattooing has been known in China for thousands of years. Tattooing in China is called Ci Shen (Or Wen Shen), a term that means literally “puncture the body.” Although the art has been known in China for ages, it has for the most part been an uncommon practice. Throughout Chinese history tattooing has been seen as a defamation of the body, something undesirable.
Water Margin, one of the four classical novels of Chinese literature, does reference tattooing. Water Margin tells the stories of bandits of Mount Liang area of China during the early 12th century. The novel talks about the 108 companions of the historical bandit Song Jiang. Three of these characters are referenced as having tattoos covering their entire bodies.
The most famous tattoo in Chinese history comes from the legend of the Chinese general Yueh Fei. Yueh Fei served the South Song Dynasty. During battle with northern enemies the Field Marshall under whom Yueh Fei served betrayed the South Song and went over to the enemy.
In protest Yueh Fei resigned and returned home. His mother grew angry with him, telling him that his duty was first and foremost to his country, despite all else. To remind him of this fact she tattooed four characters on his back with her sewing needle. These characters, jin zhong bao guo, are difficult to translate but mean something like “Serve his country with ultimate loyalty.”
At some points in Chinese history Chinese tattoos were also used to mark criminals. Criminals convicted of a severe crime would be ordered to have a tattoo printed on their face and exiled into a faraway land. Even should the criminal ever return the tattoo would mark them forever as a criminal. This form of punishment was known as Ci Pei (Tattoo/Exile).
In modern China Chinese tattoos have grown somewhat of a stigma as being affiliated with organized crime and the criminal underworld.
Chinese Tattoos Among Chinese Minorities
Although tattooing does not have a strong tradition among mainstream Chinese, many Chinese minority groups have much stronger tattooing traditions. Strongest among these are the Drung and Dai tribes, along with the Li people of Hainan island.
Tattooing among women of the Drung group, who live along the Drung river, dates back to the Ming Dynasty some 350 years ago. During this time the Drung were under attack from many of their neighbors, and the women would often be taken as slaves.
The Drung women began tattooing their faces in reaction. It was thought that the tattoos would make them more ugly and less likely to be raped. This tradition has continued into modern times despite the fact that the Drung are no longer under attack from neighboring tribes.
At the age of 12 or 13 all Drung girls are tattooed on their faces. This is a rite of passage among Drung women and is seen as a sign of maturity.
The Dai people of China have an ancient tattooing tradition. Both men and women among the Dai are tattooed. Dai women are generally tattooed on the backs of their hands, their arms or have a small dot tattooed between their eyebrows.
Among Dai men tattoos are seen as a sign of strength and virility. Generally tattoos will be made in such a way as to accentuate and draw attention to their muscles. Although there are no fixed traditional designs among the Dai people, most commonly the tattoos will be of a ferocious beast such as a dragon or a tiger.
In ancient times Dai tattoos were given to young children of the ages of 5 or 6, however it grew to be more common to be given about the ages of 14 or 15, sort of a rite of passage into adulthood. Tattooing among the Dai is still practiced to this day.
Tattooing also has a long standing tradition among the Li people of Hainan island. Most commonly tattooing among the Li people, like those of the Drung, are practiced among the women. Men have been known to have three blue circular rings tattooed on their wrists for medicinal purposes, but other than that the tattooing is among women.
Like both the Drung and the Dai, the art of tattooing among the Li is seen as a rite of passage into maturity and adulthood. A Li girl is tattooed sometime during the ages of 13 or 14. The girl would first be tattooed on the nape of the neck, the throat and on the face. This process would take about four or five days.
Over the next three years, the girl would then have her arms and legs tattooed. Her hands were not tattooed. Among the Li only married women could have their hands tattooed, it was not appropriate for single women to wear them.
Li tattoos differed greatly among the different Li tribes, and could be easily used to differentiate between a woman of one tribe and another.
During the 1930’s a German ethnologist Hans Stubel studied the Li people, and wrote extensively of their tattooing practices. It is mostly from his work that our understanding of their tattooing customs come from. During his day few still wore facial tattoos, tattooing was primarily of the arms and legs. Today hardly anyone in Hainan sports the traditional tattoos of the Li people save a few elderly women.
Chinese Tattoos in the West
The west’s fascination with Chinese tattoos has little to do with the history of Chinese tattoos and Chinese tattooing traditions, however. It is not an outgrowth of any strong Chinese tattooing tradition but is rather a testament to just how perfectly Chinese characters mesh with the art of tattoos. It is for the most part a recent phenomenon, but one that continues to grow.
If you are planning on getting a Chinese tattoo, or even multiple Chinese tattoos, you should make sure that your tattoo is what you think it is. Too often there are stories of people getting Chinese tattoos that say something completely different from what they thought it would say. There is the story of a young man in England who thought he was having the Mandarin characters for “Love, honor and obey” tattooed on his arm. He later found out from a Chinese woman that what he actually had tattooed on his arm said “At the end of the day, this is an ugly boy.”
Chinese tattoos can be beautiful and powerful tattoos, but you should do thorough research before getting any Chinese tattoo put on your body. It is, after all, going to be with you the rest of your life.