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Chinese Tattoos in Ancient China

Updated on September 4, 2017
Chinese tattoo Guan Yin
Chinese tattoo Guan Yin | Source

Chinese term for tattooing

Ci Shen (also known as Ci Qing or Wen Shen) literally means piercing the body. In the olden days, the Chinese were of the view that one’s body is a gift from one’s parents and should not be abused. As such, although tattoo art existed in China for ages, it was not widely practised by mainstream Chinese.

General Yueh Fei and tattooing

The most famous tattoo in Chinese history is that of the Chinese General Yueh Fei of Southern Song Dynasty. With a sewing needle, his mother tattooed four Chinese words on his back. The Chinese words “Jin Zhong Bao Guo” was meant to constantly remind the son to serve his country with unfaltering loyalty.

Combination punishment of exile and tattooing

Tattooing as punishment existed since early days of ancient China. Anyone convicted of a severe crime would have words pierced on his or her face. During Later Jin (Five Dynasties Era), exile punishment was combined with tattooing. This form of punishment was known as Ci Pei (Ci means tattoo and Pei means exile).

One famous case of Ci Pei is Lin Chong, an imperial army instructor of the Southern Song Dynasty. He was falsely accused of a military crime and was Ci Pei to a faraway land. The Song Tattoo is rectangular in shape and golden brown in colour. While serving out his exile sentence, his enemy tried to have him killed. Being pushed to the brim, the tragic hero had to seek refuge at Mount Liang (or Liang Shan).

Mount Liang is the refuge for many others who, like Lin Chong, have either suffered injustice or committed a serious crime. Water Margin is one of the four classical novels of Chinese literature that describes the 108 bandit heroes (like Robin Hood) at Mount Liang. One of their heroes, Jiu Wen Long, had nine dragons tattooed on his entire body while few others had the tattoos due to Ci Pei.

This is a composite of a Hakka Chinese half sleeve on the left arm. The left image is the inside view of the arm, which shows a traditional Hakka Village. The middle image is the side view of the arm, which shows a female Hakka farmer in traditional
This is a composite of a Hakka Chinese half sleeve on the left arm. The left image is the inside view of the arm, which shows a traditional Hakka Village. The middle image is the side view of the arm, which shows a female Hakka farmer in traditional | Source

Abolishment of Ci Pei

As there was no way of removing a tattoo, a criminal who had served out his sentence still had to bear the stigma throughout the rest of his life. In view of the physical suffering and life-long emotional pain, it was considered too harsh a punishment by many people. Ci Pei was eventually abolished during the Qing Dynasty.

Tattoo traditions among Chinese minorities

Many Chinese minority groups have strong tattooing traditions, especially among the Li people of Hainan Island, Dulong tribe, and the Dai tribe.

Tattoos have served as rites of passage into maturity and adulthood, medicinal purposes,sign of strength and virility, protection from sexual harm, etc.

Taboos of tattoo

For centuries, tattooing has been practised worldwide. However, even till now, tattoo is still viewed negatively and considered a stigma in modern China and some other countries. It is quite often associated with gangland and the mafia criminal underworld.

There are people who later regretted having a tattoo for different reasons. Nowadays, tattoos can be removed by a laser technique, which is considered safe and with minimal side-effects.

© 2011 pinkytoky


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    • pinkytoky profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Lady, I agree with you. Thanks for dropping by.

    • Lady In NC profile image

      Lady In NC 

      9 years ago from A Small Town In North Carolina

      Hi , Although I don't haveany tattoo's myself I find them very pretty . Simple ones to pure art work is fascinating .

    • pinkytoky profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Singapore

      Just some clarification here. People were not actually punished for having tattoos. It is just the social perception about tattooing in some countries. For instance, in Singapore some years ago, quite a number of youngsters had difficulty getting a job because prospective employers noticed they had tattoos on.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      9 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, how fascinating! I had no IDEA that people were actually punished for having tattoos.


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