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Ci Shen or Wen Shen, which literally translates to "to puncture/pattern the body," is the Chinese name for tattooing. The technique itself has been practiced in China since the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), but has always been seen as "barbaric." Since minorities and criminals were the only ones allowed to have tattoos during the Han Dynasty, which regarded itself to be the only "genuine" Chinese people, it is unfair to credit Ci Shen to the Chinese people. This explains why Chinese tattoo designs are less well-liked in China than in Europe and the United States, as well as why tattooing in China is still viewed with prejudice.

There are several causes for people to see tattooing negatively. People throughout the Confucian era held the notion that the body needed to be "pure." Tattoos were considered to be an undesirable kind of bodily alteration.

Lars Krutak, a tattoo specialist, says

"Pochu mixin ("eradicating superstitions") and yifengyisu policies were put into place by the Communist government after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. ("changing prevailing customs and transforming social traditions"). These prohibitions, which were directed at China's 56 ethnic minorities, eventually resulted in the extinction of tattooing among those populations, including the Li of Hainan Island and the Dulong of Yunnan."

Due to forced cultural and religious changes on these ethnic groups, China's "minority" and "aboriginal" tattoo traditions have been fading for years. The only remnants of the original symbolism are often retained by senior tribal members, although sometimes a young individual may receive a traditional tattoo in order to uphold an ancient custom. The Paiwan people are an exception since they see tattoos as a symbol of aristocracy.

Origins and Legends

Tattooed characters are mentioned in a lot of traditional Chinese texts. The South Song Dynasty's Chinese commander Yueh Fei is mentioned in the most well-known tale. The general came home in anger after the field marshal betrayed him after a fight with a northern opponent. He ran into his parents' anger there. According to his mother, it was his responsibility to serve his nation. In response, she went to get her sewing needle and tattooed "jin zhong bao guo" in four Chinese characters on his back. This basically translates to "To serve your nation with the utmost devotion."

Chinese Yakuzas (or Gokud?, members of Japan's organized crime rings) and Gokud-style tattoos were both used to identify criminals. In accordance with the Han Shu ("Treatise on Punishment") literature from the seventh century A.D., more than 500 offenses, including adultery and thievery, were subject to tattoo punishment. The tattoos the offenders had on their faces revealed their humiliation. They were banished when the tattooing was finished. This penalty was known as Ci Pei (Tattoo Exile).

However, many Chinese minorities have different opinions. The vibrant tattoos of the Dulong, Dai, and Li people of Hainan Island are well-known. The same holds true for the Taiwanese Paiwan tribe. They have no concept of punitive marks, and tattoos and patterning are seen as artistic expressions and rites of passage.

Dulong (Drang) Ink

Along the Dulong river, the Dulong or Drang tribe resides. Since the Ming Dynasty's control, they have existed in China (some 350 years ago). Due to the frequent enslavement of Dulong women by nearby tribes, tattooing became a custom. They began marking their faces specifically. It was intended to lessen their appeal so that they would finally be protected from rape. Of course, there are no longer any opponents for the Dulong tribes in current times, but the custom continues.

Every Dulong girl receives a tattoo when she is twelve or thirteen years old. This behavior is seen as mature in modern society. The Dulong tribe is one of the few tribes that continues to practice its traditions in modern times.

Between the eyebrows, around the lips (creating a diamond shape), and on the cheek, the tattoo is done using a thorn.

Tattoos by Dai

The Dai tribe resides in China's Yunnan Province at the Burma border. Both Dai women and Dai men are tattoo artists. The long-standing custom has its origins in the notion that tattoos are a symbol of maturity and power (in males) (in women). Dai males often wear tattoos of a dragon, elephant, or tiger, which are traditional eastern emblems of power, to accentuate their musculature. Dai women have a dot between their brows and tattoos on the backs of their hands and arms. Since the earliest conceptions of the third eye, the latter's significance has long been understood in the East. Children of the Dai tribe used to get tattoos around the age of five. Around fourteen is the current age at which they receive their tattoos. The meaning is still relevant today: getting a tattoo signifies becoming maturity. Marco Polo was the first to become aware of Dai tattoo customs:

Five needles connected together are used to apply tattoos; they pierce the skin until blood appears and then rub in a particular black coloring substance.

It's remarkable that Dai tattoo traditions are returning. According to a 77-year-old member of the Dai tribe,

We all received tattoos during the anti-Japanese fight to identify ourselves as being of the Dai people and not Han Chinese, preventing the Japanese from killing us.

The reference is to World War II. In the 1940s, a large number of members of the Dai tribe began getting tattoos, eschewing the original symbolism in favor of utilizing them to identify their heritage. Indeed, today's Dai tattoos are used to emphasize both the beauty and the power of men and women, as opposed to their original purpose of darkening the body and defending the wearer from skulking wild animals.

Tattoos by Li

Hainan Island has been home to the Li people for more than three thousand years. They were formerly referred to by the Chinese as the "tattooed race," which meant that they were an uncultured, barbarian people. Their animism-based religion (tatan) is strongly related to their body art. For ladies, li tattoos are very popular. The only other tattoos that men have are blue bands on their wrists (said to be for medicinal reasons). Tribal patterns differ from one tribe to the next and often include totemic symbols unique to each clan. The bridegroom's tribal tattoo is applied to a female who is being married to another clan member.

The Li people see tattooing as a symbol of maturity, much as the Dulong and the Dai do. Around the age of thirteen, a Li girl receives her first tattoos on the neck, followed by those on the throat and face. The young woman will also have tattoos on her arms and legs before turning sixteen. Tattooed hands are unacceptable for a single lady; married ladies acquire them.

This procedure has been much simplified in current times. Traditional Li tattoos are only still worn by old ladies, and face tattoos are no longer done at all.

Thai tattoos

Taiwan is inhabited by the Paiwan people. Their tattoos are also noteworthy since they are inextricably linked to Chinese culture. Tattooing a snake on one's body is a long-standing custom among the Paiwan. This naturally has religious origins in the Paiwan culture, where the viper is revered as a protector spirit. The social standing of the wearer is the sole distinction between the tattooed vipers. A commoner was permitted to buy the privilege to wear the tattoo from a noble, even though originally only a noble Paiwan would have been able to do so. The Paiwan ladies often wear designs with dots and lines. Along with the viper, men also had tattoos of human heads, figures, and solar patterns.

The Paiwan continue to maintain their order. A whole body tattoo signifies a noble person, and even a stranger can tell who is affluent and influential. Indigenous Peoples of Taiwan's Digital Museum reports:

"They accentuate their social rank and respect their class by using creative decorating. The privilege of having wood and stone sculptures installed in their homes, tattoos or other body adornments, designer clothing and specialized headgear, old ceramic kettles, and lazurite beads are only afforded to nobility. As a result, tattoo meaning goes beyond the just ornamental and visible. For instance, two sacred patterns are the 100-pace snake and human representations. Overall however, there aren't many everyday themes in Paiwan art."

Chinese Ci Shen and Paiwan Tattoos

Chinese Ci Shen and Paiwan Tattoos

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