Chinese Tattoo culture 100 B.C.E.

Early Chinese sources describe a intricate multilayered culture of tattooing in ancient China. Tattoos could be seen as as punishment; the mark of the slave; or as mere adornment, as well that of a strong tattoo culture inside the military. Seems hard to believed but maybe very little has change in such a long time.

Inside this great paper by writer Carrie E. Reed title “Early Chinese Tattoo”the author gathers a great series of historical insights of early Chinese culture of tattooing as it delves into the different aspects of just how the individual bearing a tattoo was received in different eras and geography throughout the Asian continent.

We find from historical records, that many people in the areas surrounding the “central kingdoms” tattooed their bodies. Most of the records refer to Man or Yi as “barbarians,” broad terms that refer to various tribes located mostly in the regions south of the Yangzi River, such as present-day Guangzhou, Zhejiang and northern Vietnam.

Some people had the custom of tattooing their bodies as an apotropaic device, to ward off jiao or “bad spirits” with images of dragons. They would do this, they would cut their flesh and darken it by rubbing red and green pigment into it. There is mention of this practice in some of the works contained in the great sixth-century literary anthology.

We find amazing examples like In Yang Xiong’s description (53 B.C.E.-18 C.E.) “the emperor orders swimmers from the tattooed peoples to catch water creatures for him.” It is not clear how the tattoo was seen to protect these swimmers; perhaps it functioned as a simple charm, but also possible is that the tattoo was thought to render the­ swimmer indistinguishable (and thus safe) from certain dangerous water creatures, as the function of a kind of sympathetic magic.

Or the history of the Southern Dynasties. The bodies of the inhabitants are patterned (with tattoos, presumably) like animal skins, and on their foreheads are three marks. Those with straight marks belong to the nobility, and those with small marks are of low rank. Though they do live in houses, they are not city dwellers; they are a humble, happy folk. Their king’s residence is decorated with gold, silver and jewels, and they use jewels for money. Normally, the historian relates, they use whipping to punish crimes, but for crimes deserving of capital punishment, they throw the offender to fierce wild animals to be eaten alive. If the person is innocent, the beasts will avoid him, and if he remains unharmed overnight, he will be pardoned.

We read that the people of Liuqiu guo (modem day Taiwan) eat with their hands. The women tattoo their hands with ink designs of insects and snakes, while the men remove all of their body hair.

Wang Bao (1st c. B.C.E.) writes that there are countries whose people braid their hair, scar their faces, blacken their teeth, and whose eyes are set deep, like the eyes of owls. There are those that cut their hair, tattoo their heads and go about with naked, tattooed bodies; all of these peoples “hasten to make tribute offerings to the Chinese empire and take joy in returning allegiance to China.”

The specific customs described by the Chinese in these texts vary, but in most cases the purpose of the passages seems to be, as in this one, to highlight the differences of the peoples who practice tattoo. This sense of otherness is strengthened by the mention of activities such as eating raw meat or eating with the hands, going about naked, wearing rings in the nose and so on; from the point of view of a civilized Chinese person these are habits hardly distinguishable from those of animals. Tattoo is, in a sense, the epitome of uncivilized practices since it renders the human body patterned like the skin of an animal or water creature.


Tattoo as punishment

The existence of this kind of social pressure must have made punishments such as the injuring of the skin by tattoo or branding particularly feat. There are several passages in the Shang shu (Hallowed Documents) that mention tattoo as one of the ancient physical punishments for crime.”

In the section known as the (The Oath of Tang) the minister Yi Yin, advises Tang, the founder of the Shang dynasty, stating that there are nobles, high officials and even princes who engage in activities such as drunken dancing and singing; they suffer from addiction to wealth, women and hunting; they do not heed the words of the sagely ancients, are not filial and so on.

Ministers who do not remonstrate with this type of ruler in an attempt to change his behavior shall be punished by branding, or tattoo.

In another passage, the so-called “Miao people” are criticized for having excessively carried out physical punishments such as tattoo, cutting off the ears, nose or testicles, and, in fact, for relying on this kind of punishment rather than ome more benevolent means to regulate their society.”

It is very likely that a large percentage of tattoos after at least the Han dynasty were in some way connected with the military. Tattoo was used to brand men as part of a particular regiment, as a means of identification (dead and alive), to prevent them from escaping and to mark prisoners of war.” Valiant individuals also tattooed themselves with oaths, proclaiming their wholehearted dedication to a particular nation or to a certain military or personal cause.

We read that the armies of “Shu” tattooed themselves with the shape of an axe to give themselves renewed courage when they learned that they were going to be attacked and that others tattooed (up to eight or more) characters on their chests, proclaiming their dedication to the nation

Figurative tattoo 

the life of Liu Zhiyuan was the founder of the Posterior Han dynasty (947-950). The pinghua account is considered a kind of historical fiction rather than official history; nevertheless, it portrays accurately the subject of Liu’s early life and career as it appeared in the popular imagination, starting at least in the Yuan dynasty (1 206- 1 3 67). According to the pinghua story, in his youth, Liu Zhiyuan went out, took the money and hired a tattoo artist “needle brush artisan” to tattoo his body. On his left arm he had the man tattoo an immortal maiden and on his right arm he had tattooed a treasure-snatching green dragon. On his back was tattooed a ”yahha (demon) who laughs at Heaven.” This, along with his drinking and gambling, infuriated his family, and Liu was kicked out of the house.

Eventually Liu became humbled by his own losing streak at gambling, and he set out to reform himself. His worth was recognized by Li Jingru a man skilled in physiognomy, who wanted to help Liu to stay out of the army since, once in, it was so difficult to get out. Mr. Li was forced, because of Liu’s tattoos, however, to give Liu a job “in the back” feeding the horses. Supernatural occurrences eventually convinced this man of Liu’s special qualities so in spite of the tattoos, he married his daughter to Liu. This set Liu Zhiyuan on the road to his social rehabilitation and to his eventual seat on the dragon throne

Duan Chengshi’s ninth-century miscellany, the Youyang zazu. Its one of the most compelling storys about ancient Chinese tattooing. Duan writes of tattoo as a practice of peoples peripheral to China, as punishment in ancient times, as a means to brand slaves and as a kind of cosmetic.

fascinating entries are those that describe the figurative and textual tattoos that grace the bodies of people on many walks of life

Tattoo in China, in some ways, seems quite limited; there does not seem to have ever been any use of tattoo as a rite of passage into adulthood, as a mark of sexual maturity or marital status, as a mark of identification in a special occupation, or in the other roles that it has played in other cultures around the globe. Tattoo as punishment, as beautifying cosmetic, as mark of bravery and as apotropaic device are, on the other hand, among the uses that China’s tradition shares with some of these same cultures.

You can Download and read the complete paper here

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