Tattoos in China

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On hot summer nights, you can look around and see oceans of flesh. Tables along the street are packed with shirtless men munching away amid a clutter of empty beer bottles. A decent amount of this flesh is covered in tattoos—it’s in summertime that you truly realize the popularity of body art in modern China.

An informal survey of men sitting out on a boiling Tuesday night, shows the diversity of motives for tattooing: One man explains that the fearsome design spreading across his shoulder is Tibetan imagery guarding against demons. Another man with a small hawk on his bicep tells how his girlfriend loves such birds. A third man shows off his back, covered with a large fish design and observes that (in Chinese) “fish” and “luck” are homonyms—the former brings the latter . . .

How we relate to our bodies and how we see our bodies as relating to the world around us varies considerably from society to society. In Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition, the body is something divinely-formed. To defile it in ways not demanded by God himself is wrong. When European sailors first encountered Pacific Islanders to whom marks on the body symbolize power and provide a talisman against the circling forces of evil, the contrast was stark. When those sailors began returning to their homelands covered in strange symbols they were signaling their separation and difference from the society they had left. They were forever marking themselves as something apart.

Among Han Chinese, a similar distaste for body art persists. Confucianism, fundamentally based on respect for parents and ancestors, holds that the body is a gift from one’s elders and altering it is disrespectful. Added to this is the tradition of tattooing criminals. Those convicted of serious offences were subjected to ci pei (“tattooing and exile”). Warlords often dragooned farmers in their private armies and tattooed them to insure they would not escape.

Tattoos’ place in Chinese society has, thus, long been as a symbol of shame. Even the most famous instance of tattooing in Chinese history—when Song Dynasty General Yue Fei’s mother forced him to have “Serve Country Loyally” etched on his back—was born of disgrace, a punishment for his decision to resign his commission and care for her rather than his emperor. Perceptions of tattoos softened a bit in works like Shuihuzhuan (Outlaws of the Marsh) in which several of the bandit characters sport full body tattoos—yet, romantic as the idea of being an outlaw may be across cultures, few actually make the leap.

Into the 20th century, tattoos have remained largely the province of the Chinese underworld. A permanent tattoo symbolizes that one’s involvement in organized crime is a lifetime commitment. During the 1920s and 1930s Triads were particularly strong in China, but the Communist Party worked hard to weaken them after 1949. Implying that direct connections existed between tattoos and “roguery,” the government even banned tattoos during the 1960s.

Much of this history, however, does not reflect the experiences of Chinese minority peoples. As early as 200BC Yue fishermen were marking themselves to ensure protection from sea monsters. Among some minorities, the tradition is more recent–a method to differentiate themselves from hostile neighboring groups during periods of intense strife which marked the Ming dynasty. In modern times, the Zhuang, Dai, and Li people still practice ritual tattooing. Li women, for example, receive facial markings at the age of 11 or 12 and are seldom able to find a husband without such marks.

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In the last decade tattoos have exploded in popularity world-wide—in America 1 in 7 people has one. As with any trend, the popularity has snowballed. Numerous NBA players are covered in tattoos—especially Chinese characters—and the sight of role models like these showing off their body art has done a great deal to broaden acceptance among young Chinese.

Ironically, since tattoos are still associated with low-life behavior, it is the Chinese middle-class that is fueling the boom. Tattoos are not particularly cheap and the majority of people now getting them are white-collar workers and their children. Taboos against tattoos persist, however, and employers tend to discriminate against applicants with visible tattoos; police and soldiers are forbidden from having any; and, during the Olympics, there was a formal policy in place barring the obviously-tattooed from working on welcoming committees. As a result of all this, tattoos are usually hidden away on the upper arms and torso.

In a country with so many people and so much pressure to conform, one’s body is among the few things one has a final say in—and altering it the simplest way to make oneself stand out. Just like orange hair, tattoos are a way to proclaim one’s individuality. It’s a fairly safe prediction that the popularity of body art in China has not yet peaked.

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