Tattoos' taboo past

Updated: 2013-12-01 06:48

By Deng Zhangyu(China Daily)

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Body ink's social implications have continued evolving over millennia in China. Deng Zhangyu reports.

People feared Dong Dong's arms a decade ago. The middle-aged tattoo artist says he, in turn, feared people seeing his arms.

He felt like a "bad guy".

"The discrimination against people with tattoos still exists but is much less than it was decades ago," he says.

Dong says he has seen great changes in the more than 10 years he has run his Beijing studio.

But the Chinese history of tattoos as taboos spans millennia.

More than 2,300 years ago, criminals were literally marked for life. Knives sliced characters into their foreheads, and ink was scrubbed into the lacerations. The brands - "murderer", "thief" and the like - depended on their violations.

This lasted for centuries. The first Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) emperor, for instance, tattooed criminals' faces with the characters cheng dan - literally, "city morning" - because they were forced to guard the Great Wall in the day and build it at night.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) tattooed convicts sent to do hard labor near the national borders, in case they fled into neighboring countries.

Revolutionaries aspiring to usurp Song Dynasty emperor Huizong re-invented tattoos' stigma into heroic symbolism. The revolt's leader Song Jiang - whose persona was made mythical in the fictional Outlaws of the Marsh, hailed as one of China's four classics - and his comrades coated their bodies in dragons and tigers. Tattoos became the trademark of the local culture in their hideout, the Liang Mountains.

Tattoos' taboo past

Outlaws of the Marsh tells of 108 heroes - many of whom were tattooed brigands - whose uprising dealt a heavy blow to the ruler.

Consequently, tattoos shifted from the underworld to the upper crust in the Song dynasty, when the elite started to flesh out their ethos in ink.

The most eminent bigwig to take on tattoos during this period was Yue Fei. He defended the Southern Song against invaders from northern China. And his tattoo is nearly as celebrated as he is.

The nonfiction Biography of Yue Fei claims he tore open his shirt to reveal the tattoo in court after chancellor Qin Hui arrested him for treason. The court accepted the vow inscribed on his hide as proof of innocence.

Steles created by ancient Chinese Kaifang Jews in 1489, 1512 and 1663 reference Yue's tattoo.

The largely fictionalized Shuo Yue Quanzhuan (The Life of Yue Fei) says the warrior's mother used an embroidery needle, vinegar and ink to etch jingzhong baoguo, or "serve the nation with utmost loyalty", on his back at age 15 after he refused to join traitors. She etched the vow on his flesh because she worried his spirit might become less virtuous after her death.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel The Story of King Yue Who Restored the Song Dynasty claims Yue flashed the tattoo to fellow villagers, who proposed joining criminals in the mountains when the Jurchen forces invaded.

Yue's legacy inspired many to view tattoos as heroic, rather than villainous. People began declaring their pledges on their skin.

Tattoos designated social groups, such as trade associations, in the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, China Association of Tattoo Artists chairman Wang Qingyuan says.

"It became a badge of membership," he says. "But these groups were informal and not criminal."

He recalls meeting an elderly man in Tianjin who had a tattoo of two seated gentlemen, sipping tea under a tree.

The man told Wang it was the mark of an industrial association to which he had belonged.

The ideas of tattoos as taboos resurfaced before New China's 1949 founding, when they were associated with prisoners who inked themselves.

But public perception has continued shifting from viewing tattoos as designators of deviance to socially acceptable expressions of individuality.

Wang says much has changed in the roughly two decades he has worked as a tattooist.

Dong, the celebrated artist, explains: "Technological development enables us to do more artistic designs. It's not just dragons and tigers, anymore."

The shifting perception of tattoos as art has made China - and Dong's studio in particular - a destination for such international moguls of the trade as US tattoo mogul Don Hardy.

Hardy says people kept their distance when he visited a bookshop in the Sanlitun Village shopping center. But nobody paid him any heed in the elevator.

He was in China to stage an art show of his tattoo designs. His influence on Dong's work - Dong has long admired Hardy's creations - is clear in the Chinese artist's studio. Colorful wall paintings make his workspace look more like an art studio than a tattoo parlor.

But change radiates beyond his studio, he says.

While the ink that covers his arms is permanent, he says that discrimination against it is fading by the day.

Contact the writer at

Erik Nilsson contributed to the story.

 Tattoos' taboo past

Top and above: Tattooist Dong Dong's artistic designs. Technological development enables Dong and his peers to diversify designs. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

Tattoos' taboo past

(China Daily 12/01/2013 page3)