History of Chinese Tattoos

Long history of Chinese Tattoos

tattoo art

tattoo art

Tattoos have been present in China for thousands of years. Chinese tattoos go back so many years that many reference texts provide an estimate that tattooing in China has been practiced since the Zhou and Qing dynasties. Tattoos made in China have similar functions to most other tattoos around the world. Their main purpose is to represent a particular type of significance, message or form of communication that has a meaning in someone’s life, relates to his origin, culture or religion. Even though the history of tattoos in China incorporates this same cultural underpinning and purpose commonly established with tattoos, the historic genesis of this practice differentiates itself when compared to the history of tattoos from other nations around the world in terms of significance, meaning and modern perspective.

The Origin of symbols used for tattoos

One of the most fascinating and intriguing characteristics of Chinese tattoos is the fact that the symbols used for the tattoos mainly come from both China and Japan, even though both countries have usually not been thought of as originators of tattoos. Historic texts reveal that tattoos in China were never a cultural icon or something common among the entire Chinese population. This has created a great deal of fascination, intrigue and uniqueness since almost all tattoos in China offer beautiful characters, symbolize deeper meanings and signify many other values and traditions compared with regular tattoos.

Since China has never been a society where tattoos were widespread, the fact that the characters and symbols present in its tattoos are unique makes the overall history of tattoos even more fascinating. However, only a few numbers of Chinese natives have been able to properly practice tattooing without the respective influence of the social stigma of tattoos in China that has formerly been associated with crime or lower class around the world.

The main reason for why tattooing in China has been an uncommon practice is mainly for the historic association of tattoos with the defamation of the body, as well as for the fact that tattoos in China have been linked to negative connotations such as criminal backgrounds and other questionable activities. This particular way of thinking is still present to some degree in modern China, were parts of the population still associate tattoos with social stigma directly linked to criminals, gangs, the underground world and organized crime.

Tattoos with Chinese minority groups

However, not all tattoos represented in the Chinese culture are linked to negative connotations widely popularized by the common population and culture. There are countless forms and designs of Chinese tattoos that symbolize beautiful and highly unique meanings worthy of attention and permanent display on an individual’s body. As mentioned previously, there are very few Chinese minority groups that still practice tattooing as part of their own cultural identity, some of these minority groups are the Drung (独龙族) and Dai (傣族) tribes present in mainland China, as well as the Li people and its descendants from the Hainan Island.

The tattoo culture with the Drung people

The Drung tattoo

The Drung tattoo

Starting with the first Chinese tribe, the Drung (also called Derung or Dulong) peoples and its tattoo history date back to the Ming Dynasty approximately 350 years ago; the main participants in tattooing were the women present in this period within the Drung tribe who would tattoo their faces as a sign of reaction against the attacks of other neighboring tribes who often denigrated the Drung tribe and frequently took the Drung women as slaves to their own tribes. The Drung women simply saw the power of tattoos marked on their faces as making themselves uglier and less likely to be taken as slaves or be raped when confronted by neighboring tribes. Drung women still continue to tattoo their faces despite the fact that they are no longer attacked by other tribes; they also have the tradition of tattooing their faces as a sign of maturity.

The tattoo culture with the Dai people

Dai Tattoo

Dai Tattoo

The Dai minority tribe present in mainland China has had the ancient tradition of tattooing specific parts of their bodies, specifically in the hands, arms and backs. According to the Dai tradition, the different patterns and the different body parts have different significance. For example, some tattoo patterns have protective power, some can enhance one’s attractiveness, some can improve intelligence, some can cure disease etc. Getting tattoos inked is an extremely painful process. The overall significance of men’s tattoos is seen as a sign of virility, masculinity and strength. The most common Chinese tattoo designs used by the Dai people are large tattoos that represent dragons, beasts or any other kind of ferocious animals. This tradition of tattooing within the Dai minority tribe is still practiced today with the purpose of signifying strength, courage, and determination.

The tattoo culture with the Li people

Li Tattoo

Li Tattoo

Among the Li community in the Hainan Island of China, women are the ones that are most commonly tattooed. The Li people has at least 3000 years of tattoo history. Since they do not have their own written language, the tattoos themselves are useful historical records. In the old days, tattoos were inked mainly for religious reasons. More generally, tattoos within the Li tribe signify a rite of passage representing maturity and adulthood for women, where girls between the ages 13 to 15 are tattooed on the neck, throat and face. After a couple of years, each girl is then tattooed on her arms and legs to represent themselves as more mature women with higher responsibilities. Only Li women who are married can get tattooed on their hands, since this specific symbol represents the maturity associated with married women and their respective responsibilities as housewives. The patterns of the tattoos have not changed much throughout the years.

Chinese Tattoos today

The main origin, culture and history of Chinese tattoos are directly represented by these three tribes who have captivated the positive essence of Chinese tattoos around the world. Even though the social connotations of tattoos presenting criminal ties in China are still to some degree present today, there is a great deal of attention in the Western hemisphere with regards to the positive symbols represented by a wide variety of tattoos. This current trend based on the preference for Chinese tattoos comes into play due to the overall uniqueness and overall combination of beautiful characters that symbolize many positive meanings of human life, soul and spirit.

Given the divided history of tattoos in China with criminal ties and beautiful meanings on the other side, it is highly recommended to thoroughly research the significance, symbols and characters in order to ensure that the tattoo represents positive ideals and not criminal ties whenever planning to mark onto your skin a Chinese tattoo popularized by Western media and the recently acquired attention around the world in terms of Chinese tattoo designs.


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