McClatchy has an interesting piece up about the increasing popularity of tattoos in China in recent years (h/t to Danwei). It’s a pretty interesting read, and apparently lots of Chinese people are getting tattoos in foreign languages, so hopefully in a few years we can look forward to seeing English tattoos that make as little sense as the English t-shirts everyone is wearing — or as little sense as most of the Chinese tattoos back home.
Wanting to provide some background, the author (Tim Johnson) delves a bit into the history of tattoos in China [emphasis added]:
Tattoos have been around for nearly a millennium in China. Perhaps the most famous one graced the back of Yue Fei, a famous general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) whose back read: “Serve the country loyally.” Legend has it that his mother ordered the tattoo as inspiration. Under recent decades of Communist Party rule, however tattoos have been largely taboo. Soldiers and police officers must be ink-free. Sports stars rarely have them. And employers discriminate against those with tattoos, thinking they signal a criminal bent.
This is, at best, extremely misleading. Johnson gets points for knowing about Yue Fei, but then strongly implies that the reason tattoos have been taboo in recent years is because of “Communist Party rule”, and that before the CCP, they were popular. That isn’t true at all.
Tattoos have existed in China for millennia, yes, but they were never a very popular form of aesthetic expression. Why? Because they were primarily a form of punishment used to mark convicted criminals. What makes Yue Fei’s tattoo so famous is, among other things, that it was so out of place at the time. The cool kids didn’t have tattoos back in Yue Fei’s day, or at any time between then and now.
If association with criminals wasn’t bad enough (in modern times, many Chinese gangs help perpetuate this negative association via gang tattoos shared by their members), there are other aspects of Chinese culture that make tattoos taboo without any help from Communism. For example, as traditionally one’s body is considered as having come from one’s parents, intentionally marking it with tattoos is considered a sign of disrespect by many, even today.
Johnson’s piece implies that some sort of change in cultural perceptions about tattoos came along with the CCP, but one suspects a statistical comparison would find there are more Chinese people with tattoos now than there were in 1948. The CCP censors plenty, but Tim Johnson missed the boat completely here — this isn’t a censorship thing, it’s a cultural thing. The CCP and its tattoo policies undoubtedly have much less to do with tattoos being taboo than these longstanding cultural beliefs, but nothing sells a story quite like the Communist Party doing something creepy. Never mind that, this time, they didn’t really do anything at all.