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Fun Facts about Tattoo Culture in China

Feb.01, 2023

Chinese character tattoo, with its exotic charm, is getting more and more popular internationally. Are you also thinking about getting a Chinese tattoo one day?

In this article, we will talk about the origin of tattoo in China, Chinese people's changing attitudes towards tattoos historically, the meaning of some common Chinese tattoos, and more! I hope this can help you have an all-round understanding of tattoo culture in China.

Let's dive in!

 Chinese word for tattoo - 纹身, 文身 or 刺青?

In Chinese, tattoo has 3 names: 纹身/wénshēn, 文身/wénshēn and 刺青/cìqīng.

纹 means pattern and 身 means body, so 纹身 literally means give patterns to the body. While for 文身, 文 as a verb, means to write, so 文身 literally means, write on the body.
刺青, 刺 means to puncture, 青 is a kind of dye, so 刺青 literally means use dye to puncture the body.

Chinese word formation makes a lot of sense, right?

The origin of tattoo in China

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese tattoo was not meant for looking cool, ancient Chinese people marked their body, coloured their skin, only for one purpose: to survive.
Early tattooed tribes which were mainly based in southern and eastern China, lived in coastal area, jungle, or by the rivers and lakes. They were called Yi, Yue, Man, Liao. Compared with the relatively stable farming operations in the central plains, the fishing and hunting life of the "barbarians" was full of variables and dangers. They needed to find food from deep water and compete with wild animals for living space. While the farmers in the central plains prayed to their ancestors, heaven and earth for good weather, the "barbarians" carved patterns on their skin and dressed up as beasts. They jumped into the sea, went deep into the mountains, and fought to the death against nature.


"文身断发,以避蛟龙" says tattoo the body and cut their hair to avoid being attacked by dragons. People from Yi and Yue believed that tattoos (dragon or scale-like tattoos) would allow them to gain the power of a dragon to conquer the sea. We can actually understand it like "cosplay": tattoo yourself as a dragon and pretend you are a dragon, thus protecting you from the real dragon attack. Even now, many coastal minorities still retain the traditional tattoo culture.

(Traditional tattoos of the Li people in Hainan)

Chinese people's changing attitudes towards tattoos

While people who live in the coastal area, jungle, by rivers and lakes were passionate about tattoos, people from central plains were not a fan of it. Confucius once said, "The body's hair and skin are received from the parents, do not dare to destroy, filial piety to the beginning." Tattoos in the central plains were once considered to be a serious disrespct of parental heritage and a great unfilial behaviour. 

However in Tang dynasty (618-907), due to the open cultural environment, tattoos gradually became popular in the central plains. Many literati would tattoo poetry on their body to show their unique literary tastes. Tattoos undoubtedly became a new way by which ordinary people in Tang Dynasty could show their personality.

The most famous tattoo in Chinese history

Yue Fei (1103 - 1142) was a famous general of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) who fought against the Jin people from the north and was also known as a "national hero". When Yue Fei was fifteen years old, the Song dynasty was powerless and the Jin people were constantly harassing the border, so the survival of the Song dynasty was hung in the balance. Yue Fei wanted to serve his country, but he was also worried about his mother and wanted to take care of her at home. Yue Fei's mother, who knew what was right to do for the greater good, not only did not prevented him from going to war, but encouraged him to serve the country. She used an embroidery needle to embroider the words "精忠报国 - Sincerely Serve the Country" on his back to teach him to protect the family and the country as his duty and to do his best to be loyal. So, Yue Fei remembered his mother's teaching and went to battle, later achieving a glorious military life.

(The image of Yue Fei in film and TV works)

(Yue Fei's mother embroiders the words "精忠报国 - Sincerely serve the country" on his back)

Chinese characters in tattoos

We can often see Chinese characters and patterns used in tattoo art. Some are really interesting! Do you know the Chinese meanings of them? Let's take a look!










Meanwhile some people chose another styleImage:





Hope this article helps you know more about tattoo culture in China, and gives you some ideas when you design your own Chinese tattoo!

Free Trial Fun Facts about Tattoo Culture in China
Fun Facts about Tattoo Culture in China