Facial Tattoos of Dulong Women

Updated: 2007-09-17 09:09

Body tattoos may be fashionable and cool these days, but facial tattoos have long been a part of Dulong people's culture. Known as "the facial tattoo tribe", this Chinese ethnic minority lives by the Dulong River Valley in the northwestern part of SW. Yunnan Province .

Dulong River Valley

It's a primitive and isolated river valley, flanked by Gaoligong Mountain, 5,000 m above sea level, and Dandanglika Mountain, 4,000 m above sea level. Straight firs and dense pine trees cover the banks of the winding river and are home to rare birds, animals and valuable raw materials for drugs. But when the Moliwang Pass over Gaoligong Mountain is blocked by heavy snow every October, the whole valley is locked in winter stillness until spring returns. They communicate with neighbors on the other side of the valley by crossing the river on hanging rattan or wire ropes.

In the past, Dulong girls had their faces tattooed at the onset of puberty to show they had come of age. The patterns vary between clans, but beautiful butterflies are most common because the souls of the deceased were said to turn into butterflies. While these beautiful insects hovered over the valley, the tattooists used bamboo needles or sharp thorns to make indelible butterfly patterns on the girls' faces and dyed them with indigo.

The origins of facial tattoos among the Dulong people are unclear. Some claim they were a reaction to assaults by a powerful neighboring tribe who enslaved the Dulong and abducted the women. The women were tattooed to make them unattractive to marauders. Some say that because facial tattoos were the main adornment for women, tattoos made them more beautiful. Another theory is that facial tattoos helped to identify Dulong tribe members and ward off evil spirits.

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