There's more to Chinese tattoos than just the symbol tattoos, although tattoos have quite a negative connotation in traditional Chinese culture. In fact, there was a belief that the body is a sacred gift from one’s parents and should not be altered in any permanent way – which of course includes tattooing.
Ci Shen - The Chinese Tattoo
Despite the negative connotation of the Chinese tattoo, there has always been tattooing in China. The Chinese word for tattoo is Ci Shen, literally meaning puncture the body.
The first Chinese tattoos were considered a punishment – sort of a mark of disgrace. Criminals were marked with a face tattoo and forced to live in exile. This practice is called Ci Pei in Chinese.
Even in modern China today, tattoos are considered to be connected with the underworld and triads somehow, although this attitude is slowly changing. Despite the dubious attitudes towards tattooing, there is some evidence that tattooing and other body art are making inroads among Chinese youth today.
Chinese Tribal Tattoos
The Chinese tattoo doesn't have a very interesting history, but there are several ethnic minorities in China who do have a strong tattoo tradition. The most important ones are the Drung, Dai and Li tribes.
The Drung are an ethnic group that live in the Yunnan province.
The woman of the Drung tribe used to tattoo their faces when they reached the age of 12, as a symbol of maturity. The tattoos were done between the eyebrows and around the mouth, resembling a butterfly or diamond design.
About 3 centuries ago, the women of the Drung tribe were often attacked by other ethnic groups and to avoid being raped, they used tattoos to make themselves less attractive. Some of these tribal tattoos resembled moustaches.
Of course, modern tattoo equipment was not available 300 years ago, thorns were used to puncture the skin and charcoal was used instead of tattoo ink.
The Dai are also an ethnic minority living in southern Yunnan. Children as young as 5 were tattooed, and then again at the age of 14, as a symbol of maturity.
The people of the Dai tribe used their tattoos as a talisman, to keep monsters away.
The Li are an ethnic group living in tribes on Hainan Island. Tattoos play an important role in the Li women's life and their tattoo tradition can be traced back to 3000 years ago.
When girls reached the age of 12, they receive their first tattoos on the neck, face and throat. Over the next several years, the girl's arms and legs were tattooed as well. The tattoos meant that they were ready for marriage, they were a rite of passage.
Men were tattooed as well, but for medicinal purposes.
Chinese Dragon Tattoos
Chinese dragon tattoo
Chinese characters tattoos are not the only type of Chinese tattoo that is popular today. Chinese dragon tattoos are very popular as well.
The Chinese dragon is a long snake-like creature, usually with 5 claws and without wings.
As opposed to Western beliefs, the dragon in Chinese culture is a benevolent creature that wards of evil spirits. It symbolizes good luck, fertility, happiness and immortality.
In Chinese culture there is the belief that wearing the image of a dragon on you is considered very unlucky. The Chinese symbol for dragon on the other hand is considered lucky.
Sometimes you see a person with a tattoo of a dragon combined with the Chinese dragon character. This always reminds me of these picture books that are used to teach children how to read. Imagine a tattoo of an eagle with the English word 'Eagle' below it, kind of silly, not?
Chinese Tiger Tattoo
Chinese Symbol Meaning "Tiger"
Here are some supposed characteristics of people born in a tiger year:
- Lack of attantion and care
Chinese Phoenix Tattoos
Chinese Phoenix Tattoo
The phoenix (aka firebird) is a Chinese mythological creature (it also exists in Greek mythology). In Chinese culture the phoenix is known as Fenghuang and was used to represent the empress.
Chinese phoenix tattoos symbolize:
- High virtue and grace.
- The union of yin and yang.
- A phoenix tattoo combined with a dragon symbolizes the union between husband and wife (yin and yang).
The Yin Yang Tattoo
Yin Yang tattoo art is popular in the West and again it's easy to see why: the symbol is simple yet dramatic and can easily be combined or incorporated in other tattoo designs.
Popular yin yang tattoo combinations:
The yin yang symbol is called Taijitu in Chinese and is a Taoist symbol.
The meaning of the yin yang symbol: yin and yang are the 2 contrary elements of the universe that form a union together (unity of opposites):
- Yin: the black part, female, passive, night, water and earth.
- Yang: the white part, male, active, day, fire and air.
Yin and yang only exist in relation to each other, everything has 2 aspects. This is symbolized by the black dot in the white part and the white dot in the black part of the Taijitu.
Many people are interested in Eastern spirituality nowadays and the yin yang is a meaningful symbol of balance and harmony. The yin yang symbol can be rendered in almost any size – a small yin yang tattoo the size of a quarter or even smaller is very tasteful, while still making a strong statement.