Chinese Way

A history of Chinese tattoos and Chinese tattooing traditions

Updated: 2011-03-15 14:45


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Li Tattoos

Tattooing also has a long standing tradition among the Li people of Hainan Island. Most commonly tattooing among the Li people, like those of the Du Long, are practiced among the women. Men have been known to have three blue circular rings tattooed on their wrists for medicinal purposes, but other than that the tattooing is among women.

Like both the Du Long and the Dai, the art of tattooing among the Li is seen as a rite of passage into maturity and adulthood. A Li girl is tattooed sometime during the ages of 13 or 14. The girl would first be tattooed on the nape of the neck, the throat and on the face. This process would take about four or five days.

Over the next three years, the girl would then have her arms and legs tattooed. Her hands were not tattooed. Among the Li only married women could have their hands tattooed, it was not appropriate for single women to wear them.

 A history of Chinese tattoos and Chinese tattooing traditions

Li tattoos differed greatly among the different Li tribes, and could be easily used to differentiate between a woman of one tribe and another.

During the 1930's a German ethnologist Hans Stubel studied the Li people, and wrote extensively of their tattooing practices. It is mostly from his work that our understandings of their tattooing customs come from. During his day few still wore facial tattoos, tattooing was primarily of the arms and legs. Today hardly anyone in Hainan sports the traditional tattoos of the Li people save a few elderly women.

Chinese Tattoos in the West

The west's fascination with Chinese tattoos has little to do with the history of Chinese tattoos and Chinese tattooing traditions, however. It is not an outgrowth of any strong Chinese tattooing tradition but is rather a testament to just how perfectly Chinese characters mesh with the art of tattoos. It is for the most part a recent phenomenon, but one that continues to grow.

If you are planning on getting a Chinese tattoo, or even multiple Chinese tattoos, you should make sure that your tattoo is what you think it is. Too often there are stories of people getting Chinese tattoos that say something completely different from what they thought it would say. There is the story of a young man in England who thought he was having the Mandarin characters for “Love, honor and obey” tattooed on his arm. He later found out from a Chinese woman that what he actually had tattooed on his arm said “At the end of the day, this is an ugly boy.”

Chinese tattoos can be beautiful and powerful tattoos, but you should do thorough research before getting any Chinese tattoo put on your body. It is, after all, going to be with you the rest of your life.

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