Ever since seeing Beijing’s punk poster-boys Reflector at Xining’s Material Life Music Bar, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about tattoos.  This Material Life Music Bar was full of inked Chinese and foreigners; it was the highest volume of tattoos I’d seen in a while and the inspiration for the following rant.

There are two topics I’ve been thinking about: i) Having Tattoos in China and ii) Getting Tattoos in Foreign Languages (especially Chinese or Tibetan).

Tattoos in China

Even though in recent times tattoos have become slightly more acceptable in the Chinese mainstream, tattoos still carry a social stigma.  This article from China Daily showcases the growing trend of tattoos among China’s young people, but also hints at the slow-changing tattoo-wariness shared by the traditionally minded.

The wariness is easy to understand given the sordid history of tattoos in China. In his article “Street Scenes of Subalternity,” Michael R. Dutton explains some philosophical and historical background about why tattoos remain subversive in Chinese culture:

The body, it is commonly said, is a temple. In traditional China, it was thought to be an unmarkable altar to family and lineage descent. To mark the body was to mark the family out. Employing this taboo for their own ends, successive dynastic governments used the “ink punishment” (moxing) to stigmatize both criminal and family. It was a punishment that transcended life itself for, in the afterlife, even one’s ancestors may have difficulty recognizing a body that was marked. To mark the body, therefore, was a serious social transgression.

Dutton continues by describing how gangs of criminals adopted tattooing as a way to forge group identity and to “mark [themselves] outside the society.”

To sum up, tattoos have traditionally been the mark of outcasts and organized criminals. I’ve also heard it said that prostitutes also favor having tattoos, possibly as group identifiers or, more innocuously, as preferred ways for covering up unsightly scars.

That being said, here are the two most important tips for the newly inked or the new-in-China-and-previously-inked:

  1. You’ll receive your fair share of unwanted (or wanted) attention if you’re visibly foreign.  Visible tattoos will only make local people stare more.
  2. Greater China is not a Reflector show or a Tattoo Convention.  Most Chinese probably still associate tattoos with seedy underground activities.  Be aware of what image you might be projecting.

Tattoos in Chinese/Tibetan: Not Just Stupid, Also Potentially Offensive

Our friends at hanzismatter have done an admirable job documenting the woes of getting tattoos of Chinese characters.  Besides the obvious blemishes of getting an incorrect tattoo or not being able to pronounce your own tattoo, people really need to consider the ramifications of getting a tattoo inspired from somebody else’s culture.

I don’t have the time or energy for a full rant about the commodification of culture inherent in a non-Chinese person getting the character for “strength” tattooed on their bicep.  But I will sum up with an argument that I first heard on the student film “Yellow Apparel: When the Coolie Becomes Cool”:

If you are a Westerner with a Chinese tattoo you are not only wearing a Chinese cultural symbol as a fashion statement, you are also wearing the evidence of a long-existing (though potentially changing) un-equal power dynamic.  This is troublesome because you are adopting this cultural symbol without acknowledging this power dynamic or, and this is crucial, the racial discrimination present in your home country that is directed at people of Chinese descent.  You get to cover up your tattoo or laser it off when it suits you.  Chinese Americans (or Europeans or Australians) cannot cover up their Chinese-ness, change their phenotypes, or erase the legacy of anti-Chinese sentiment or legislation that they’ve been dealt.  Think about it.

Besides being swayed by this argument, I’ve also been kind of shocked at how mindlessly people tattoo themselves with potentially offensive or politically charged tattoos.  If you MUST get a tattoo in Chinese or Tibetan or Mongolian or whatever, please consider the political message you might be advertising.  You might think “om mani padme hom” looks sweet in Tibetan script, but people who see your Tibetan tattoo might mistake you for a separatist sympathizer or agitator, regardless of your political leanings.

Lastly, do some research about the appropriateness of your tattoo choice.  I have a good friend who tattooed the above Tibetan Buddhist mantra on his shin, only to move to a Tibetan area of China and realize that Tibetans think it’s insulting to mark holy words on the lower half of your body.  Whoops!

Parting Shot: I think people have the right to tattoo whatever the heck they want to on their own bodies, but just because you can or “it looks cool” or “it has deep personal significance” doesn’t mean you should.

Full disclosure: Ligaya has one tattoo from a culture that is not her own.  She’s glad it’s pretty much unrecognizable, even to those from said culture, but she wishes she had thought more about it before she went to the needle.

Profile photo of Ligaya

About Ligaya

Ligaya moved to China to prolong her adolescence. She's only been on the mainland for little over a year, but feels like everybody can benefit from her opinions. She's a full-time teacher and a part-time pro-bono editor in Xining, Qinghai. She misses cheese the most.

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  1. thanks for posting this. i was having a conversation about the criminal underground aspects of tattoos in china just yesterday with a couple moms. id read an article on wiki or whatev about moxing but then didn’t think much of it again until yesterdays conversation (and now this).

    i never got any tats and now that i’m 26 i think that ship has sailed. the real reason i never did was the one thing i’d want was arabic calligraphy and whatever muslimness i still have after a mildly hedonistic year+ in china would be totally obliterated if i did. and glad i didnt anyway as my coworker is heavily inked and he definitely gets unapproving looks even from the younger generation.

  2. I find the idea that tattoos of Chinese Characters or Tibetan script demonstrates racial discrimination absurd and offensive. You don’t provide any argument or evidence to support this outrageous claim. Try turning it around: what if a Chinese person has an English tattoo — would you take that as an indication that they’re anti-Western?
    It’s worse than absurd, it’s harmful, in that it’s another example of one group’s hypersensitivity — finding discrimination where it doesn’t exist, which in itself makes the racial divide that much wider. Another example is the urban myth that pops up from time to time that the English words “Chinese” and “Japanese” are derogatory because of the “-ese” suffix.

  3. Yeah, I don’t think it’s anything to do with racism. It just looks fun and cool, I suppose. I never get offended when I see people with Chinese character tattoos although I do secretly laugh at them when I see silly ones. They had no idea!!

  4. while i agree that a white guy having 力 stuck on his chest (my old roomate for example) isn’t in itself offensive, i was thinking more along the lines of the tibetan on the shin. i know if i saw some non-muslim with qur’anic verse scrawled across their ass i’d surely be offended. and i know for a fact if i had uighur script or tibetan script anywhere visible in this part of chine they’d outright organise a lynch mob.

    ‘chinese’ as derogatory? who the hell says that? i’ve heard the theory on the ‘-ite’ suffix but never ‘chinese’

    as per racism, my old roomate f*cking hated asians unless they were girls he was sleeping with and then he only liked one part of them. he was a buzzcut shy of a skinhead. i cant speak for ligaya but i’d assume that was more her meaning than every single soul with some hanzi somewhere on their arm.

    @ klortho: i’m not sure it can really be turned around 100% since we don’t project so much of our culture into our written characters. no one is famous for writing a really bitchin’ “R” two thousand years ago.

  5. First, Ligaya, welcome to Lost Laowai, and a fantastic initial post.

    I’ve two points (and, full-disclosure, I have several tattoos and many involve hanzi – all of it correct in meaning).

    The first point is that there is a reason greater than the cultural (in)significance of hanzi for people of other cultures to incorporate Chinese characters into their tattoos. They are logograms, or essentially simplified pictures that carry a larger, more complex meaning – in this regard, they perfectly fit the entire concept of what a tattoo is (for many people at least), and so are a logical language to turn to for tattoos.

    Second – no one owns a language. Though much of academia may disagree with this (particularly cultural anthropologists, literature traditionalists, etc.) owning a language is about as absurd as owning a culture. People, governments and nations all try to, but it’s an exercise in futility.

    Languages and cultures evolve, quite independent from the original source of either of them, and the world is a better, more diverse place because of it. That people outside of China are incorporating and interpreting parts of what has been traditionally “Chinese” culture or language into their own meanings, rituals, and cultures is how new cultures are created.

    Traditionalists always call this a “bastardization” of the language, the culture, the values, etc. – but traditionalists are largely assholes anyway. 😉

  6. If Ligaya was hinting at Orientalism and the fetishisation of the deep, mysterious East (and “indigenous” cultures, too, that’s another big one- witness the number of people with only the slimmest connection to New Zealand bearing Maori tattoos) combined with old geo-political power relationships which are only now starting to change, then I think the charge of racism has some merit to it. Clearly this does not apply to all those with Chinese tattoos, or even the ‘group’ of those with Chinese tattoos, but it is something that needs to be examined.

    Having said that, Ryan, I agree, self-contradictory as that may sound.

    Getting off my soapbox, getting lunch.

  7. Thanks everybody for giving me some food for thought.

    @Klortho: I totally agree that calling “racial discrimination” when there isn’t any is harmful. I don’t think having hanzi tattoos demonstrates racism. I do think that it demonstrates a certain lack of consideration i.e., of racial dynamics, geo-political power dynamics, of Orientalism and fetishisation (Thanks Chriswaugh_bj, that was exactly what I was hinting at!)

    @Ryan- I also agree. I have no problem with the so-called “bastardization” of language or culture. That’s just the way it goes. But I still think there’s something kind of British-Museum-of-Art-ish about Westerners collecting tattoos from other cultures or indigenous peoples. My forearm tattoo is of an African river spirit. When I got it I was thinking, “Gee, I lived in Africa for seven years, I’m pretty invested in this symbol and want something to mark this time in my development, blah blah blah.” But here’s the thing. I get to sport this tattoo, but I don’t have to deal with any of the baggage that comes with, say, actually being South African. I just didn’t consider.

    @Kellen – you’re 26! The ship has not sailed!

  8. I’m 46, and my ship hasn’t sailed. I’m thinking of getting “傻屄” on my forehead — somebody told me it means “smart fellow” — what do you think?

  9. “If you are a Westerner with a Chinese tattoo you are not only wearing a Chinese cultural symbol as a fashion statement, you are also wearing the evidence of a long-existing (though potentially changing) un-equal power dynamic. This is troublesome because you are adopting this cultural symbol without acknowledging this power dynamic or, and this is crucial, the racial discrimination present in your home country that is directed at people of Chinese descent. You get to cover up your tattoo or laser it off when it suits you. Chinese Americans (or Europeans or Australians) cannot cover up their Chinese-ness, change their phenotypes, or erase the legacy of anti-Chinese sentiment or legislation that they’ve been dealt. Think about it.”

    I thought about it and I have to agree with other posters, its a load of crap not supported by any facts whatsoever. I can assure you that it does not make me a racist because I have my Chinese wife’s name tattooed over my heart in Chinese.

  10. When it comes down to it, people get tattoos in another language for coolness sake. Trying to deride negative meaning and intent that doesn’t exist is wrong and hurtful, and kinda pathetic. Ask somebody who got the tattoos, they’ll tell you because it looks cool.

    And this coming from a guy whose only tattoo attempt was the temporary sticker found in a box of poptarts, it was funny for about a day, but then again it only lasted a day too.

  11. and by the way, the accusation behind this post aimed at tattooers only goes to add to the “power dynamic” that the poster is so nervous about, a power dynamic that frankly doesn’t exist. Trying to cover-up “chineseness”? Anti-chinese legislation? are you kidding me? What century are you living in?
    Save your ranting energy for some real issues.

  12. Firstly, great article.

    I got more tattoo’s than I can bother to count right now, and apart from them being inspired by all the different cultures and places I have lived in they each represent a different time and place for me in my life. Some of them are just plane stupid as well.

    When you are immersed in tattoo culture, they do sometimes become a personal form of belief and expression, like religion or politics. But just because you seem to wear your beliefs on your sleeve does not necessarily mean you invite confrontation. This world is full of highly opinionated pricks who feel it is their self appointed duty to confront strangers with their objections. So be it. I for one cant be bothered with them.

    If you get a tattoo with the sole intention of having a pretty butterfly on your shoulder to impress the lads, you will one day be disappointed. In about 10 years it will fade, colors will blend, and skin will sag. Then you ask yourself, ‘what does that ink mean to me?’

  13. I guess I have to carry the torch for us heavily-inked foreigners. I’ve gotten over 20 tattoos since I’ve been in China, though only 4 are Chinese words and represent very personal beliefs. I am a university teacher and though most of my tattoos are covered when I go to class, several are still visible on my lower arm (I’m in Xiamen where short-sleeve shirts are mandatory, even in November). Before I took the job I was up front with my bosses and told them that I wouldn’t wear a T-shirt to class (I wouldn’t anyway, tattoos or not) and wouldn’t make an effort to exhibit my ink. They had no problem with it and were in fact intrigued by my designs.

    That being said, I have gotten more than the usual amount of stares when I go strolling down the street, and I hear clucks of disapproval from elderly matrons and such, but I think most of them just chalk it up to my bizarre foreign-ness. As foreigners, we aren’t as bound by Chinese cultural constraints as Chinese are, though we shouldn’t try to push the limit. I get inked because I like the pictures and it’s fun, and everything I have is my own design. I’m not getting Chinese dragons or goldfish or other cultural emblems to try and identify with China, and the characters I have are simply for aesthetic purposes, since getting the words in English would be unwieldy.

    I knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to go for heavy ink and I know that some people will be uncomfortable, but I just make extra effort to break the stereotype in their minds by being as nice a person as I can, and my tattoos have been great starting points for conversation and friendships. One final thing: no one has ever expressed disapproval for choosing Chinese character tattoos, in fact it has always been the opposite.

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