Referred to in Mandarin Chinese as wénshēn (文身), the word “tattoo” literally translates to “puncturing the body”. Traditionally, tattooing was viewed as defamation of the body, something undesirable, associated with criminals, prisoners and all things bad.
Jumping forward to 21st century China, tattoos have become a statement of body art and quirky coolness in the nation’s first-tier cities. With Western and Asian celeb culture driving tattoos into the mainstream, China’s post-90s (the millennials) have taken to the craze with much gusto. Inking skin has become an expression of the self.
Dive into the world of tattoos and explores their turbulent journey to becoming a form of body art in the East.
The Ink Imprinted In History
Arguably the most famous tattoo in Chinese history is that of Yue Fei (岳飛 or Yuè Fēi in Chinese), a Han-Chinese military general during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). He bore a tattoo on his back which read “尽忠报国 or jìnzhōng bàoguó ” and loosely translates as “serve your country with the utmost loyalty”.
Legend has it that when the emperor sent Yue Fei to resist enemy invaders, Yue suffered from a moral predicament as there was no one to take care of his elderly mother if he went off to battle. When his mother learned of her son’s dilemma, she told him that the country’s needs should always take precedence. She went on to tattoo the four above-mentioned Chinese characters onto his back using a sewing needle.
Yue Fei’s loyalty and devotion to the country became a model for Chinese youth in centuries to come. Pigmentation and protection joining forces.
The Mark Of A Criminal
Nevertheless, tattoos were used as a reprimand for silly mistakes or bad behavior. At some points in Chinese history, tattoos were used to mark the acts and bodies of criminals. Criminals convicted of a severe crime would be ordered to have a tattoo printed on their face before being exiled into a land far, far away.
In a time and land not too far away, then… China in January 2018 banned all references to hip-hop culture, including actors and singers sporting related tattoos, from appearing in the media as part of a crackdown on “low taste content”.
“Do not use actors [or soccer players or reality stars] whose heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble,” stated Gao Changli, publicity department director at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China.
Fun fact: The Chinese face and neck tattoo in the 21st Century is once again a socially acceptable, and even cool style, statement in urban China. Just go take a stroll around China’s annual Langfang International Tattoo Festival in Hebei Province. Next edition: May 2019.
The Women Of China: Inked, Out And About
One of the oldest forms of Chinese tattoo is the Dúlóng minority (独龙族 in Chinese) tattoo, exclusively reserved for the female members of this ethnic group. These facial tats date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). When under attack from their neighboring rivals, women would often be taken as slaves. In response to this, women began tattooing their faces in the hopes this would render them “uglier” in the eyes of the attacking beholder and thus less likely to be tormented. It worked.
Traditional gender roles in China are currently changing by the week, minute and hour. The change in opinion over the topic of tattoos is part of this development. Once particularly taboo for women in socially conservative China, taboos often represented the mark of a sex worker.
However, Chinese women in Shanghai now stand inked and proud as the former social stigmas slowly wash away and tattoos are becoming a sign or modernity and artistic coolness.
China’s Modern Urban Woman
Gazing out on China’s first tier urban landscape, young women are embracing their bodies in the form of tattoos and piercings. Chinese society still prizes the Molly Ringwald millennial pink good girls, the hard academic workers, the married woman and mother of one (or two) with a stable job. Tattoos, somehow, don’t fit in with this picture perfect notion of female perfection.
Even so, for these emerging hipsters, tattoos are an individual expression of identity. A new kind of unobtrusive and artsy tattoo , known as a delicacy ( 小清新 or xiǎo qīngxīn in Chinese), offers a generation of young Chinese women a way to be expressive and socially acceptable at the same time. A line of text etched along the outer edge of a young woman’s foot or a French phrase inscribed on an ankle. They are all part of an emerging trend among young Chinese women: Self-expression without violating the parental social taboos.
Body inkings in a way speak of the courage that daily life, and the high overall standards it implies, as a woman in China often requires. Their general acceptance into society exemplifies how urban China is now warming up to different lifestyles and their various forms of expression.
Fun fact: Shanghai has been dubbed “China’s Tattoo Mecca” by China’s state media with parlors sprouting across the city’s urban scenery. The city’s hottest and most renowned tattoo parlor Shanghai Tattoo (founded in 2007) is the brainchild of female tattoo artist extraordinaire Zhuo Danting. Girl power.
The Influx And Influence Of Celebrity Culture
This social flow in the demand for tattoo art is partially due to the influence of celebrity culture. Now that China has developed into an international country with global pull, public figures bearing tattoos are put up on billboards and social media platforms alike. The fusion of Western and Eastern symbolism helps open the gates between both cultures in a more creative way.
From Justin Bieber to David Beckham and Angelina Jolie. A plethora of western celebrities all rock a ‘Chinese tattoo’. These usually consist of a handful of Chinese characters stating something “prolific” and “deep” — familiar with Google translate disasters, anyone? Needless to say, these tats can often leave native speakers scratching their heads.
Just why are Chinese characters so popular with the rest of the body art loving world, then? One reason might include the fact that the Chinese language appears mysterious and exotic to the majority of Westerners. Not to mention how each individual character offers up a small piece of art in se. Never underestimate the power of Asia, In any shape, size or form.
Speaking of celebrity culture, check out this 2014 Beijing ad agency JWT online film for Intel, inviting viewers to ‘look inside’ to find love, belief, courage and power. Starring badmin and tattoo hard hitter Lin Dan:
As the video clearly proves, it’s not just foreign celebs rocking Chinese tattoos; it’s the Chinese celebs as well. Lin “Super” Dan, China’s two time Olympic and five time world badminton champion, for one caused controversy over his extensive tattoo collection laid bare in his 2015 photography book, stirring up much debate on Chinese social media.
Lin also serves as a lieutenant colonel in the service of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, an organization which largely regards tattoos as taboo among its members. Many netizens held the opinion that Lin, as a soldier, should abide by military regulations. Supporters of Super Dan backed Lin up, saying it’s a personal and artistic choice.
Fun fact: Responding to the controversy, Lin remained unfazed and said during an interview with Beijing News that his tattoos “may violate some military rules, but that doesn’t mean he is not loyal to the army”. Eyez on the prize.
The Artistic Generation Gap
The generation gap in China runs wide. Very wide, in fact. The older generations often still believe that people with tattoos are criminals, gangsters or people of low morals generally associated with the underworld.
China’s younger generations, then, do tend to have an open mind to this kind of body art. Youngsters tend to see their body as a blank canvas, a way of marking their bodies with special memories. Not even the fear of pain is holding back many a Shanghai’s dweller from getting inked. No pain, no gain.
Shanghai’s tattoo culture is particularly evident and according to the 2018 data, the city boasts some 2,000 tattooists. With long waiting lists and expensive price tags, it’s clear to see the demand for tattoos is outgrowing their supply — or, rather, “suppliers”.
As well as celeb culture, the dominance of social media is encouraging China to look beyond their immediate culture and indulge in some international trending topics. Enter “纹身” or “小清新 ” on Sina Weibo (China’s Twitter) and you will come across a host of multi-lingual body etching input. Just hold the hip-hop.
Tattoos and piercings in urban China are creating a kind of “freedom of speech” rhetoric. Call it a new era of expression through the sharing of ideas, hopes, passions and pasts on the bodily surface.
China’s millennials now lead the powerful body art movement, as the old tattoo taboos of criminal and sexual deviance gradually fade away.
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Written by Emily Aspinall and Elsbeth van Paridon for China Under The Radar
Images: Courtesy of Zhuo Danting, Shanghai Tattoo
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