Table Of Contents3.The Origin of Tattoos in China
4.The Development of Tattoos Among Chinese Ethnic Minorities
- Introduction to Dai Ethnic Tattooing
- Formation of Dai Ethnic Tattooing
- Dai Ethnic Tattoo Legend
- Characteristics of Dai Ethnic Tattoos
3.The Origin of Tattoos in China
As a part of China's mysterious culture, as early as the Shang and Yin dynasties' sacrificial ceremonies, people would apply pigments to their bodies, representing the incarnations of gods and spirits. It's a perfect blend of individual expression and art. Historically, people viewed this profound art from religious or worshipful perspectives. Today, tattoos have gradually separated from religious and underworld connotations, and people have started to appreciate this magnificent art. Tattoos have become a fashionable trend, proudly displayed for all to see. Tattoos in China existed in ancient societies as early as the Neolithic Age. From painted pottery cultures to the Sanxingdui site, from the southeast Wuyue to the southwest barbarians, the distribution area of ancient tattooing was actually quite extensive. Although the choice of patterns and reasons for tattooing varied, these tattoos did not seem to have a derogatory nature in terms of social class.
Records indicate that during the Zhou Dynasty (1111-771 BC and 770-256 BC), there were already records about tattoos in China. About 3,500 years ago, during the Shang and Zhou periods, tattooing was used as a form of punishment, referred to as [zong] or [mo punishment]. Ancient texts such as the "Shang Shu" and "Yao Dian" mention the "five punishments of mo punishment."
Mo (qing): An ancient punishment where words were tattooed on a person's face with ink. Later, it was also applied to soldiers to prevent them from escaping. For example, the term "Qing Tou" referred to prisoners who were tattooed.
From the Western Zhou period onwards, the use of the mo punishment was widespread. The initial laws of the Zhou stipulated "500 mo crimes," indicating there were as many as 500 offenses that could result in this punishment. The "Shang Shu, Lu Xing" also mentions "a thousand mo punishments." This shows that the punishments at that time were very severe, and people could easily be tattooed for minor offenses. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, various states frequently used tattooed prisoners for various hard labor tasks. When Shang Yang reformed the laws of the Qin state, he used severe punishments. On one occasion, when the crown prince broke the law and couldn't be punished directly, Shang Yang had the prince's tutor, Gongsun Jia, tattooed as a warning. In 213 BC, during the 34th year of Emperor Qin Shi Huang's reign, Prime Minister Li Si proposed burning Confucian books like the "Poetry" and "Book." Those who didn't burn these books within 30 days after the order was issued were to be tattooed and made "city dawn."
The method of implementing the mo punishment was to cut the person's skin with a knife and then apply ink to the cut. The "Shang Shu, Lu Xing" mentions "mo avoids doubt and pardons," after which Kong An's biography states: "Cut its forehead and dye it, called mo punishment." The "Zhou Ritual, Punishment" section mentions "500 mo crimes," and Zheng Xuan's note states: "Mo, tattooing, first cut its face, and then block it with ink. It means cutting the forehead into a sore, blocking the sore hole with ink to change the color." The "Li Ji, Wen Wang World Son" note states that the mo punishment, like the yao and yue punishments, "all use knives and saws to cut and stab the human body." All other books that mention the mo punishment say that a knife was used.
These explanations show that when the mo punishment was first established as a punishment, a knife was used, not the needle that was used in later times. The facial nerves of a person are extremely sensitive, and the pain that a criminal would feel when being tattooed can only be imagined. Due to wound infections, some criminals would also die from being tattooed.
At the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the criminal law followed the Qin system and still used the tattooing punishment. The "Han Book, Criminal Law" stipulated "500 mo crimes," the same number as in the early Zhou period. In 167 BC, Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty, Liu Heng, issued a decree to abolish corporal punishment, stipulating that those who should be tattooed were "shaved and plucked as city dawn in spring." Some people say that the Xiongnu's regulations were their custom, just using ink to show on the face, symbolically representing tattooing, and not really cutting and stabbing the flesh with a knife. This should be distinguished from tattooing as a punishment.
After the Han Dynasty, with the restoration of some corporal punishments, tattooing was also readopted. During the Jin Dynasty, it was stipulated that if slaves ran away, after being caught, they would be tattooed above both eyes and added with copper
-green color; if they ran away a second time, they would be tattooed on both cheeks; if they ran away a third time, they would be tattooed below both eyes.
The above three places, when implemented, all had to make the tattoo mark one inch and five points long and five points wide. This kind of tattoo mark can be deeply imprinted on a person's bones. During the Tang Dynasty's Zhenyuan period, Duan Chengshi (803-863, a famous Tang Dynasty novelist) passed through a place called Huangkeng. His entourage picked up the skull of a dead person, intending to use it for medicine. He saw a piece of bone with the words "runaway slave" on it, the color like light ink. Duan Chengshi judged that this was the skull of a person who had been tattooed in ancient times, and it might be the remains of a runaway slave from the Jin Dynasty. The cruelty of the tattooing punishment can be seen from this.
The Tang Dynasty notes "Youyang Zazu" is a collection that preserves a large amount of historical data, anecdotes, and folk customs from the Tang Dynasty. It records a note about tattooing. There were many tattooed teenagers in Chang'an City. The Jingzhao Yin (official name of Chang'an) Xue Gong (a person's name) couldn't bear their worries. He secretly reported to the emperor and suddenly teamed up with various neighborhood chiefs, leading two thousand soldiers to arrest them, catching three thousand people. There was no time for individual trials at the time, so everyone was beaten to death with a board. Among them, a man named Wang Linu had the finest tattoos, with his whole body covered in landscapes, birds, beasts, figures, flowers, and various patterns, colorful. But he also couldn't escape death. (It can be seen that the level of manual tattooing at that time was already very exquisite.)
"Water Margin" was written at the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, authored by Shi Nai'an and edited by Luo Guanzhong. It has many versions, is widely circulated, and is well-known. It has had a profound impact on Chinese and even East Asian narrative literature. Among the thirty-six heavenly spirits in "Water Margin," most have been in prison, and each person's face is tattooed with words like [tattoo match]. Among them, the prodigal son Yan Qing is even tattooed with a full body of peony flowers. It can be seen that the tattooing technology at that time had already reached a considerable level.
During the Southern Song Dynasty, Yue Fei's mother, Madam Yao, tattooed the words "Jing Zhong Bao Guo" (Loyalty to the Country) on Yue Fei's back to encourage him to fight bravely against the enemy. From this, it can be seen that during the Song and Yuan periods, tattooing was a socially recognized heroic act and something that young heroes were willing to do. Before the Qin Dynasty, there were roughly three types of tattooing.
The first was tattooing behavior focused on aesthetics or bravery. The second was "strong man tattooing" related to military control. On those with military merits, the
words "loyal heart to the country" were tattooed on their arms, probably inspired by Yue Fei. At the turn of the two Songs, there were many soldiers who were tattooed to show their loyalty, and some were even regarded as symbols of loyalty.
The third was the mo punishment as a criminal law. After the Tang and Song Dynasties, the tattooing technology improved a lot compared to its application in criminal law, but similar behaviors motivated by individual consciousness also began to take the stage in history.
4.The Development of Tattoos Among Chinese Ethnic Minorities
Various ethnic groups in China have had tattoos, but not many remain today. The main ones include the Li, Gaoshan, Zhuang, Bouyei, Dai, Yi, Derung, Jino, Jingpo, Wa, De'ang, Blang, and Luoba in the southern (South China and Southwest) regions, and the Qiang and Tujia in the northwest region. Among them, the tattoo customs of the Li, Gaoshan, Dai, and Derung are the most prominent.
(1) Introduction to Dai Ethnic Tattooing
Among the various ethnic groups in Xishuangbanna, mainly the Dai and Bulang men have the custom of tattooing. They tattoo various patterns on their legs, chest, back, and arms with needles, and then apply indigo or bile to make it blue and permanent, which is a very painful process. According to the modern book
"Cheli", tattoo patterns can be broadly divided into four categories: animals, such as elephants, tigers, leopards, dragons, horses, deer, monkeys, etc.; patterns like clouds, squares, circles, flowers, etc.; text, such as Dai Buddhist mantras and sutras; and others, such as curves, straight lines, geometric shapes, etc. There are different opinions on why people get tattoos, not only among scholars but also among those who get tattooed. In fact, tattooing as a custom has a history of development and evolution. Before the Tang Dynasty, ancient Chinese texts mentioned that the Yue people "revered witches and ghosts" and "feared ghosts and gods". The tattooing of various ethnic groups, including the Dai, originated from the Yue people's "hair cutting and tattooing". The earliest reason, as mentioned in the book "Huainanzi", is that "land matters are observed, and water matters are numerous, so people are tattooed to resemble scale insects", that is, "to resemble the shape of a flood dragon, so as to enter the water without being harmed by the flood dragon". This is a primitive mentality of biomimicry, seeking to live in harmony with nature.
In some ancient books from the Tang and Song Dynasties, tattooed barbarians
were divided into several types: "embroidered foot barbarians", "embroidered face barbarians", and "carved title barbarians". During the Ming Dynasty, the "Baiyi Biography" stated: "Those who do not tattoo their feet are laughed at by the crowd, saying they are women, not of the Baiyi ethnicity". This indicates that at that time, society had entered a patriarchal stage, and tattooing was a way to distinguish between men and women and different ethnic groups. The Dai text and Buddhist inscriptions in tattoo patterns developed after the introduction of Buddhism and the creation of written language. According to Dai legend, the patterns were drawn by the Buddha to help young monks concentrate on listening to the sutras and achieve enlightenment. This may be to show that a man has received education in a Buddhist temple and has transformed from an "uneducated person" to a "knowledgeable person". Some scholars and tattooed people say that tattooing is to win the love of women, which may not be unreasonable.
As a cultural phenomenon, tattooing can be traced back to the ancestors of the Dai people who believed in ghosts and gods and were afraid of harmful animals or
imaginary "monsters" during activities such as hunting in the mountains and fishing in the rivers.
Later, the ancestors who believed in witchcraft thought that although dragons were evil and tigers were poisonous, they would not harm their cubs. Having fish scale patterns and fierce animal patterns, as well as later Buddhist inscriptions, on the body could make oneself a "dragon child" or "tiger child" and seek the protection of gods and Buddhas. Tattooing was a strategy adopted by ancient people to adapt to a special environment and seek harmony with nature with a simple mentality.
Tattooing, called "sha mo" in Dai language, is based on the traditional aesthetic concept of the Dai people that "men should get tattoos, the more the better; women should be beautiful by applying powder, the whiter the better". Under the influence of religious and aesthetic ideas, boys who become monks in Buddhist temples can get tattoos after they turn eleven.
The person getting tattooed, under the arrangement of their parents, invites a skilled tattoo master, Bo Hu. Bo Hu is often a "Kang Lang" who has returned to secular life from being a "second Buddha". In addition to being proficient in Dai language, they must also have knowledge of witchcraft and medicine. Bo Hu lets the person getting tattooed choose the patterns they like or need from the tattoo pattern samples, and then the tattooing ceremony is held on the selected day. Some are drawn by respected local senior monks or Hu Ba, and then the tattoo master follows the drawings and inscriptions to tattoo. The specific date for tattooing is usually chosen to be the Dragon Boat Festival in May.
Before tattooing, the pattern is drawn on the skin with ink or indigo. During the tattooing process, the tattoo master uses a needle dipped in pigment to pierce the skin of the person being tattooed, leaving the pigment in the skin and forming a permanent mark. The needle is used to pierce along the inked pattern, allowing
the pigment to penetrate the skin. Once the wound heals, it becomes a permanent pattern. Most tattoo patterns are agricultural tools like plows and harrows, and animals like cattle, horses, dogs, fish, birds, centipedes, roosters, etc. Some are various symbols and patterns of plum blossoms and azaleas. Some people even tattoo their own names directly.
During the tattooing process, an altar is usually set up in the home of Bo Hu, but sometimes it is set up in the home of the person getting tattooed or on a secluded island surrounded by water.
Before tattooing, a sacrificial ceremony is held to pray for the blessings of gods and Buddhas. Then the health and birth time of the person getting tattooed are inquired about to determine the tattooing measures, whether to complete the tattooing in one session or several sessions. After hanging up the portrait of the tattoo ancestor "Bo Hu Wu Bu Cha" (this portrait was burned during the Cultural Revolution. According to the description of the elderly, Bo Hu Wu Bu Cha is a demon with upright hair and beard, round eyes, holding a talisman, with a pair of tusks, and covered with dense hair), a bamboo table is set up, covered with a new white cloth, a paper umbrella is inserted, and a piece of cloth, bananas, sugarcane, and candles are placed.
The tattooing begins with the tattoo master "Bo Hu" using a tattooing tool made of iron or copper, called "mei mo" by the Dai people, with a square lead block at the top and a needle for tattooing. There are various forms of needle arrangements for different patterns or texts. Types of tattooing include scale tattooing (fish scale pattern), fern tattooing (young fern tip pattern), letter tattooing (Dai alphabet pattern), shape tattooing (various animal patterns), etc. During tattooi
ng, very fine soot or indigo leaf juice is usually used as pigment, mixed with animal bile with cooling and disinfecting effects.
If the person getting tattooed requests, other plant or mineral pigments can be used to create green, red, and other colored patterns. To reduce the pain of the person getting tattooed, they can drink a certain amount of opium water as an anesthetic before tattooing. There are two types of tattooing: whole body and partial. It is up to the person getting tattooed to decide. Generally, those who get tattoos all over their body need several sessions to complete. After the pattern is tattooed, to make the pattern clear, Bo Hu will wipe it again with different pigments, and then wipe off the pigment with disinfectant or diluted animal bile, and the tattooing is over. After the anesthesia, the person getting tattooed will have red and swollen skin all over their body, and it will be painful and itchy. It will take at least a month to recover and leave a permanent pattern. Those who give up halfway due to lack of willpower will be ridiculed for life, and even in hot weather, they dare not take off their clothes. Those who are determined to complete the tattooing must put up a sign on their door within a month before they recover, prohibiting strangers from entering their home, avoiding food that has been bitten by others, rats, and avoiding dog meat, mutton, etc.
After the person getting tattooed recovers, they become a true Dai man and will be respected by their people wherever they go. However, although they have gained some divine power, they must still abide by the taboos of not killing, not stealing, not having extramarital sexual relations, not lying, not cheating people of money, and not passing under the skirts of drying women and under bridges.
Tattooing is a traditional custom of the Dai people and is part of the Pali culture. It is inherited from the ancient customs of the Baiyue ethnic group and is an important symbol of ethnic identification. Tattooing is a cruel primitive art, and one has to endure great pain during the tattooing process. Dai tattooing is combined with religious witchcraft, and various tattooing methods have been derived, such as tattooing, piercing, writing, and ink, that is, piercing the skin to leave marks or patterns:
Inlaying, that is, cutting the skin open and embedding metal plates or gems with patterns into the body, and waiting for the skin to grow and seal the opening: there are also patterns carved on metal plates or drawn on paper, wrapped in cloth, tied with ropes and hung around the neck or worn on the arm or hung around the waist; there are also patterns drawn on cloth, sewn into bags and hung on the shoulder; if there is a war, the patterns are drawn on pieces of white "divine clothes", and worn when going to war, seeking the protection of gods and spirits, etc. Tattooing is combined with witchcraft, and it was widely believed in the past that it had the magical effects of "turning bad luck into good luck" and "being invulnerable to swords and guns".
(2) Formation of Dai Ethnic Tattooing
The Dai people in Xishuangbanna are mainly of the Dai Le branch, with other branches like Dai Ya and Dai Ne. They, along with the Zhuang, Dong, Shui, and Buyi ethnic groups in southern China, are descendants of the ancient Baiyue ethnic group. The cultural arts of the Dai people are diverse, with a long history and rich heritage. Due to their unique location and the influence and integration of Han culture, Southeast Asian culture, and Indian culture, they have gradually formed a distinctive ethnic style.
For the ancestors of the Dai people, everything in nature carried a sense of mystery. When complex and unpredictable natural disasters threatened their lives, apart from instinctively avoiding them, the only thing they could turn to for help were the deities they imagined. In order to seek the protection of the gods, they
not only offered the food they could obtain to the gods but also expressed their reverence and devotion to the gods in what they believed to be the most sincere ways - through music, dance, and practices like "hair cutting and tattooing". This led to the unique custom of tattooing.
(3) Dai Ethnic Tattoo Legend
In China, tattooing is the most iconic cultural symbol of the ancient Baiyue ethnic group. The ancestors of the Dai people had Baiyue customs such as dyeing teeth, tattooing, and embroidering feet. Historical records mention "golden teeth Baiyue... men with tattoos", and there's a popular saying among the people: "Even a frog's leg has patterns, how can a man's leg not have any?" Tattooing in the Dai language is called "Sha Mo", which means engraving patterns on the torso and limbs of men. It's an ancient custom of the Dai people with profound cultural significance, and thus, various versions of legends and stories have been passed down. One of them goes as follows:
In ancient times, there was a water monster called "Pi E" in the waters where the Dai people lived. Fishermen who caught fish and shrimp were often attacked by it, making people afraid to go into the water. A poor man named Ai Pi Jie, in order to support his sickly old mother, braved the dangers and went fishing in the river. By chance, he caught a carp that was actually the transformed young daughter of the Dragon King. The Dragon King quickly sent a minister to the shore to rescue his daughter. When Ai Pi Jie learned that the carp was the Dragon Princess, he promised to personally return her to the Dragon Palace. Before taking him underwater, the minister drew some unique patterns on Ai Pi Jie's waist and body. The water monster "Pi E", upon seeing Ai Pi Jie's body covered in patterns, fled in panic. When Ai Pi Jie returned home, he told the villagers about this, and they began to engrave patterns on their bodies to avoid the harm of "Pi E". This is how the custom of tattooing was passed down. This legend is very similar to the account in the "Han Book · Geography": "Cutting hair and tattooing to avoid the water dragons."
(4) Characteristics of Dai Ethnic Tattoos
Tattooing is a significant feature of Dai men, serving as a "racial certificate" and "identity card". Not having a tattoo is considered a betrayal of the Dai ethnicity. Those without tattoos are no longer recognized as descendants of the Dai and face societal discrimination, especially from women. A Dai proverb says: "Even the legs of a stone clam and frog have patterns; how can a man's leg not have them?" Another saying goes: "Those with tattoos are men, those without are women; those with tattoos are brave, those without are plain water-born." For Dai men, having a tattoo is a symbol of masculinity and bravery, highly favored by women. Those without tattoos are seen as "gender-indistinguishable water buffaloes" and might even struggle to find a wife. Therefore, in the past, every Dai man had tattoos, usually done between the ages of 12 and 30.
Dai tattoos have become a way in which primitive religion and Theravada Buddhism coexist and develop together. Tattooing is not just a method of primitive witchcraft for protection but has also become a way to worship Buddha, promote Buddhist teachings, and use Buddhist rituals, talismans, and amulets for protection.
For instance, it's believed that having the "Pa Ya She Hong" tiger pattern tattoo can protect the body, making it impervious to "knives and guns". A peacock pattern, "Nuo Yong", is considered beautiful. Having the Buddhist scripture title "Araham" tattooed ensures Buddha's protection, again making one impervious to "knives and guns". Tattoos on the chest and back with Pali, Dai, Burmese, and Siamese letters or complete Buddhist scriptures and spells ensure that "guns won't hit". There are numerous tattoo designs, not just for aesthetics but mainly for protection against evil, serving as a talisman in people's imaginations.
The Dai people of Xishuangbanna simultaneously believe in both primitive religions and Theravada Buddhism, so their tattoo designs reflect this dual religious culture. The variety of tattoo designs is vast, and the types of patterns expressing the content of the tattoos are also rich. Summarized, they include the following forms:
- Linear patterns, which encompass straight lines, curved lines, and water wave lines.
- Geometric patterns, which include circles, ellipses, cloud patterns, triangles, and squares.
- Animal and plant motifs, which feature tigers, leopards, deer, elephants, lions, dragons, snakes, cats, rabbits, peacocks, golden roosters, phoenixes, as well as leaves and flowers of trees or grass.
- Texts, which consist of Pali script, Dai script, Burmese script, Siamese script, and other letters or phrases from Buddhist scriptures, spells, and talismans.
- Other designs include human figures, half-human half-animal figures, pagoda patterns, and tool patterns.
Dai tattoos are a precious legacy of the ancient Baiyue culture's dragon and snake totems. The "Han Book · Geography Records" states that the Yue people, who often lived near water, cut their hair and tattooed their bodies to resemble dragon offspring, thus avoiding harm. This suggests that venerating the dragon and snake as ancestors and recognizing oneself as their descendants is linked to both ancestor worship and snake totem worship, typical of ancient Baiyue culture. To this day, the Dai people have myths and legends about snakes being their ancestors and humans transforming into snakes.
Tattooing is the key to unlocking the mysteries of ancient Dai society and culture. The ancient Dai people, due to their limited understanding of the objective world, often interpreted many natural phenomena with a sense of mystery. For example, the Dai "Hu La" culture, which encompasses a vast array of knowledge, is seen as both profound and mysterious. Among this knowledge, some are scientific, while others, like witchcraft, divination, and geomancy, are mixed with astronomy and arithmetic. Those who possess some "Hu La" knowledge are called "Mo Hu La", and tattoo masters, "Bo Hu", are among them.
Among the various tattoo styles by Bo Hu, one consists of patterns and spells, called "Yan" in Dai language. "Yan" can be tattooed on the body, drawn on paper, engraved on copper plates or bracelets, or even embedded under the skin using gold or silver sheets. Some "Yan" drawn on paper can be burned and consumed. It's believed that those possessing "Yan" have extraordinary senses and powers. Moreover, there's a type of white short coat with patterns, spells, or scriptures called "Se Yan", which is the aforementioned "divine clothing". "Se Yan" is believed to have even greater powers than "Yan", including being impervious to weapons. Tattoos and the spells within them are sacred and revered among the Dai people. Those who understand them know their taboos and never explain them to others. Tattoos, while seemingly decorative, carry ancient mysterious imprints and the colors of primitive religion, serving as the golden key to the mysteries of ancient Dai culture.
Through the rich and vivid information conveyed by tattoo patterns and symbols, one can interpret the Dai ancestors' views on the universe, life, values, ethics, thought processes, and aesthetic preferences.
(1) Introduction to the Tattoos of the Li Ethnic Group
The Wa people are a unique ethnic minority found only in Yunnan Province, mainly distributed in the southwestern counties of Cangyuan, Ximeng, Gengma, Shuangjiang, Zhenkang, Yongde, Lancang, and Menglian. There are currently