Tattoo Encyclopedia: “Tattooing In Early China”

Tattoos In Early China

Although the study takes a widely cross-temporal view, covering texts from the Zhou to the Ming dynasties, its organizing focus is the twenty-five entries on tattoo found in the ninth-century miscellany, Youyang zazu. The author of this work, Duan Chengshi (c. 800-863), is remarkable because of his extraordinary interest in all types of tattoo, but particularly for his meticulous description of the voluntary decorative tattoos of his contemporaries. Given the fact that in China permanent body-marking was highly stigmatized, and cause for social ostracism, the information given in the Youyang zazu and other texts on tattoo is thought-provoking and valuable.

An aggressive Lord who wants to rise in power will be forced to employ his own people. They will then love me with the love of parents, and will find my scent like that of the iris and epidendrum. They will turn from their lord and look upon him as if he were tattooed, and as if he were their sworn enemy Xun Qing (ca. 313-ca. 238 B.C).

Tattoo is represented in several types of early Chinese texts, including early prose works such as the Shang shu historical works such as the Shiji and later dynaslic histories, dynastic penal codes, zhiguai and biji works and miscellanies. This paper introduces a selection of representative passages from Chinese texts that mention tattoo and is intended partly to serve as a starting point for further study of this largely neglected topic. The twenty-five entries on tattoo found in the ninth-century miscellany, Youyang zazu are both stimulus for and focus of the paper; it is, in fact, their content that determines the types of tattoo to be considered. The author of Youyang zazu, Duan Chengshi (c. 800-863), deserves our gratitude be cause of his extraordinary interest in all types of tattoo, but particularly because of his meticulous description of Tang-dynasty figurative and textual tattoo. His beautiful descriptions of full-body tattoo raise many questions, questions of immense interest for students of Tang life and culture, as well as of informal narrative literature. What do we learn from the entries in a collection of informal narratives, such as a miscellany, that we do not learn from other types of texts? In what way does this collection of entries augment information already available? Besides communicating fascinating and educational data about the socio-cultural world of his time, Duan’s tattoo entries may reveal something of Duan’s own interests and world-view in general. Their place in his larger collection is of interest–why did he place them where he did, in Juan eight, with entries on dreams and lightning?

For the sake of organizational convenience, the paper treats separately several types, or modes, of tattoo, with some inevitable overlapping of types. The specific Youyang zazu entries that represent each type are presented after a brief discussion of that type. Since the pieces do not appear in their original order, I have given the entry number of each for easy reference.

The types of tattoo that are most often mentioned in early Chinese sources are: tattoo as one defining characteristic of a people different from the majority population, tattoo as punishment, tattoo of slaves, tattoo as facial adornment, tattoo in the military, and figurative and textual tattoo. Although the last two types are not always related, in Youyang zazu they seem to be taken up together and so they will not be treated separately here.

As this study takes a widely cross-temporal view, and since the original texts describe tattoo of many peoples and places, naturally the terms found used for tattoo vary widely as well. There is not great consistency in terminology; it is not the case, for example, that tattoo as punishment is always called by one name and tattoo as decoration by another name. Nor is it the case that one term is exclusively used in one era and a different term in a later period. Some of the terms encountered in these early texts are qing (to brand, tattoo), mo (to ink), ci qing (to pierce [and make] green), wen shen (to pattern the body), diao qing (to carve and [make] green), ju yan (to injure the countenance), wen mian (to pattern the face), li mian (to cut the face), hua mian (to mark the face), lu shen (to engrave the body), Iu ti (same), xiu mian (to embroider [or ornament] the face), ke nie (to cut [and] blacken), nie zi (to blacken characters), and ci zi (to pierce characters). These terms are sometimes used together, and there are numerous further variations. In general, if the tattooing of characters appears in the term, it refers to punishment, but this is certainly not true in every case. Likewise, if a term literally meaning “to ornament” or “decorate” is used, it does not necess arily mean that the tattoo was done voluntarily or for decorative purposes.

All of the types of tattoo are usually described as opprobrious; people bearing them are stigmatized as impure, deviant, and uncivilized. There does not ever seem to have been a wide-spread acceptance of tattoo of any type by the “mainstream” society; this was inevitable, partly due to the early and long-lasting association of body marking with peoples perceived as barbaric, or with punishment and the inevitably subsequent ostracism from the society of law-abiding people. Another reason, of course, is the belief that the body of a filial person is meant to be maintained as it was given to him by his parents.

The exception to this negative textual assessment lies in the collection of informal narratives of Duan Chengshi, a collector of curious information who usually simply observes and records, who occasionally allows himself openly to reveal his sense of wonder. Tattoo does not give rise to revulsion in this unusual man; like much of what he observed and recorded he finds it fascinating and marvelous; an aberration, perhaps, but a lovely one, often skillfully done and worthy of attention, and even of admiration.


The first kind of reference to tattoo to be discussed is probably the most widely known among sinologists. We know from historical records, poetry and other sources that many peoples in the areas surrounding the “central kingdoms” tattooed their bothes. Most of the records refer to Man or Yi barbarians, broad terms that refer to various tribes located mostly in the regions south of the Yangzi river, such as present-day Guangzhou, Zhejiang, and northern Vietnam. One commonly mentioned group is the Yue ; this is again usually understood as a general term for the non-Chinese peoples south of the Yangzi, extending all the way to Guangdong and Vietnam to the south, and to Zhejiang, and Jiangxi to the north. [5] In some cases the comments made by Chinese literati about these people indicate a fairly disinterested curiosity, and sometimes they are straightforward records of the important details that separated these peoples from the majority (viz., civilized) people. Sometimes the tattoo is information peripheral to an anecdote or lesson of some kind. In the first section of Zhuangzi, a text of the third or fourth century B.C., for example, we read of the futility of a man of Song attempting to sell ceremonial caps to the short-haired, tattooed men of Yue. [6] The Hanshi waizhuan contains an amusing anecdote about an emissary sent by the King of Yue to Jing . [7] A certain official of Jing asked to be allowed to receive the Yue emissary first, since the Yue were a barbaric people. The Jing official instructed the Yue envoy that he would have to wear a hat if he wanted to have a proper authence with the king of a civilized land. The Yue envoy countered that the Yue people had originally been compelled to settle in a riverine environment, and presently associated not with great and civilized people, but with various water creatures. He co ntinued that the Yue people only settled there after tattooing their bothes and cutting off their hair (presumably as apotropaic aids to living in this dangerous environment). “Now I have come to your esteemed country and you insist on saying that I will gain authence only if I wear a hat. Since it is like this, how would it be if, when your noble country send an emissary to Yue, he for his part will have to cut off his nose, be branded, tattoo his body, and cut off his hair before being granted authence?” The King of Jing came out and, in full court regalia, granted authence to this intelligent and witty Yue envoy. [8] The Tang commentator Kong Yingda (574-648) notes that the Yue people have a custom of cutting their hair and tattooing their bothes as an apotropaic device, to ward off jiao dragons. [9] To do this they cut their flesh and darken it by rubbing red and green pigment into it. [10] There is mention of th is practice in some of the works contained in the great sixth-century literary anthology, Wen xuan , as well. Zuo Si (ca. 250-ca. 305 A.D.), for example, writes admiringly of tattooed peoples in his “Wu du fu” (Wu Capital Rhapsody) thus:

Warriors with tattooed foreheads

Solthers with stippled bothes

Are as gorgeously adorned as the curly dragon

And are a match for the kog and the tya. [11] In Yang Xiong’s (53 B.C.-18 A.D.) “Yulie fu” (Plume Hunt Rhapsody) the emperor orders swimmers from the tattooed peoples to catch water creatures for him. [12] It is not clear how the tattoo protected these swimmers; perhaps it functioned as a simple charm, but also possible is that the tattoo rendered the swimmer indistinguishable (and thus safe) from certain dangerous water creatures, as the function of a kind of sympathetic magic. The Wei zhi , compiled before 297, states that all of the men among the people of Wo (presentday Japan) tattoo their faces and bothes. According to the text, this was originally done for the purpose of warding off harm in the water, but now is also decorative. [13] More than seven thousand li to the northeast of the nation of Wo lies Wenshen guo (the Land of Tattooed Peoples), according to the Nan shi The bothes of the inhabitants are tattooed like animal skins. [14] In the Sui shu we read that the women of Liujiu guo similarly tattoo their hands with ink, in designs of insects and snakes, while the men remove all of their body hair. [15] The Xin Tang shu lists a number of peoples who practice tattoo–among them are three tribes of the southern Man barbarians: the Xiujiao (“embroidered feet”), who tattoo patterns from the ankle to the calf, the Xiumian (“embroidered face”), who tattoo their faces black, and the Diaoti (“carved forehead”), [16] wh o tattoo both face and body. Elsewhere in the same text we read of the Kirghiz, whose men tattoo the hands as a mark of valor, and whose women tattoo the nape of the neck as a sign of marital status. [17] Wang Bao (1st c. B.C.) writes that there are countries whose people braid their hair, scar their faces, blacken their teeth, and whose eyes are set deep, like the eyes of houlets. There are those that cut their hair, tattoo their heads, and go about with naked, tattooed bothes; all of these peoples “hasten to make tribute offerings to the Chinese empire, and take joy in returning allegiance to China.” [18] The specific customs described by the Chinese in these texts vary, but in most cases the purpose of recording the passages seems to be, as in this one, to highlight the separateness of the peoples who practice tattoo. This impression of otherness is heightened by the mention, besides tattoo, of activities such as eating with the hands, going about naked, wearing rings in the nose, and so on; from the point of view of a civilized Chinese, these are habits hardly distinguishable from those of animals. Tattoo is in fact the epitome of uncivilized practice, since it patterns the human body like the skin of an animal or water creature.

Among Duan Chengshi’s entries on tattoo, there are only four that focus on tattoo as a practice of non-Han peoples, but, like the other types that he takes up, their inclusion is crucial to his overall contribution, as I shall discuss later. In these pieces Duan Chengshi does not offer much new information; most of his sources are former records. In entry 290 he does mention his personal interest in the contemporary practice of tattoo by residents of the south, and his remarks indicate that the slaves to whom he talks might have come from among non-Han peoples who practice tattoo. Except in entry 303 Duan refrains, however, from making any comments that reveal his own opinion; in each of these four pieces he simply records a few brief lines of rather dry information, the likes of which will sound familiar to readers of the passages I have mentioned above. At the end of entry 303 Duan does mention his belief, revealed elsewhere in Youyang zazu as well, that ignorance about tattoo, as about anything, is a most shameful thing. Though he intimates that he is an educator, he then provides a disclaimer, saying that he is just recording these notes as amusement. In the original order, this entry is the final entry of the tattoo section.

Entry 290

The craftsmanship of men of Shu [19] is such that their tattoos are as clear as paintings. Some say that if one uses eyeblack, the color will be freshest; but I asked the slaves and they said you simply have to use good ink.

Entry 295

The Yue people are accustomed to being in the water. They always tattoo their bothes to avoid trouble from jiao dragons. Now, in the south the practice of tattooing the faces of men and boys is probably a practice inherited from the Diaoti tribe. [20]

Entry 299

Also, according to the Han shu, [21] Wang Wu and others were sent as envoys to pay a visit to the Xiongnu. According to the customs of the Xiongnu, if the Han envoys did not remove their tallies of authority, and if they did not allow their faces to be tattooed, they could not gain entrance into the yurts. Wang Wu and his company removed their tallies, submitted to tattoo, and thus gained entry. The Shanyu looked upon them very highly.

Entry 303

The Tianbao shilu [22] says that the Jiu mountains in Rinan country [23] are a connected range of who knows how many li. The Luo (lit., naked) people live there. They are descendants of the Bo people. [24] They tattoo their chests with a design of flowers. There is something like purple-colored powder that they paint below their eyes. They remove their front two teeth and think of it all as beautiful decoration. I am of the opinion that if a gentleman does not understand something he should he ashamed. Tao Zhenbai [25] always said it was deeply shameful not to know even one thing. How much more so when punishments of the “inking” sort, such as the lime that it was established by physiognomy that Qing Bu [26] would become king, or that on the licentious a red flower will always be marked, [27] are plain to see in classical documents. I have in my idle hours recorded what I remember, to send to friends of like mind. It will amuse them and serve to unfurrow their brows.


For most of recorded history tattoo was considered a highly effective means of punishment in China. Although we do not have verifiable information about the earliest times, we can infer from texts written in the Zhou (ca. 1100-256 B.C.) and the Han (206 B.C.- 220 A.D.) that the tattooing or branding of criminals was probably as widely used in ancient times as it was in dynasties possessing relatively reliable historical records. [28]

The effectiveness of tattoo and of other physically defiling punishments derived from the shame that a criminal felt upon re-entering society, having had a part of his or her body mutilated or even removed, and thus being permanently marked as a criminal. From early times until recently, there has been a strong stigma attached to failing to preserve whole one’s physical body; he is seen to have failed in one of the most important filial duties, and has brought shame on his family, past, present, and future. In the beginning of the Xiao jing Confucius tells his disciple Zengzi that filial piety is the thing most necessary for civilized society, and that the basis of filial piety lies in avoiding injury to the skin, hair, and body that is received from one’s parents. [29] This kind of weighty injunction rendered particularly fearful punishments such as the marking of the skin by tattoo or branding. [30]

There are several passages in the Shang shu that mention tattoo as one of the ancient physical punishments for crime. [31] In the section known as the “Tang shi” (The Oath of Tang), [32] Yi Yin states to Tang , the founder of the Shang dynasty, that there are nobles, high officials, and even princes who engage in activities such as drunken dancing and singing; they suffer from addiction to wealth, women, and hunting; they do not heed the words of the sagely ancients and are not filial. Ministers who do not remonstrate with this type of ruler, trying to change his behavior, should all be punished by branding or tattoo. [33] The mention of the possibility of fining or of symbolic punishments to take the place of tattooing and the other corporal punishments makes it clear that there was indeed a penal practice in ancient China of cutting off or into various parts of the body. [34] The Shang shu gives details about what kinds of fines to use if in doubt about a crime. Since crimes deserving of tattoo are the “lowest,” the fine substituting for it is the cheapest: six-hundred ounces (lit., one hundred huan ) of copper. [35] If the person deciding a case is not certain whether the criminal’s behavior warrants his feet or testicles being sliced off, he should fine the person three thousand ounces instead. The crimes that are usually punished by tattoo but that may, in doubtful circumstances, be substituted by the payment of money number one thousand, compared with five hundred crimes usually punishable by cutting off the feet, and two hundred crimes usually deserving of the death penalty. [36] This passage demonstrates the large numbers of crimes that were ordinarily punishable by tattoo, and also indicates a potential for leniency if a criminal were both wealthy and able to establish doubt as to his guilt.

In Shangshu dazhuan we read of another practice, that of substituting a cloth head-covering for tattoo and the other physical punishments. The text says that the “symbolic punishment under Yao and Shun” involved having criminals who committed various types of crimes wear an ochre-dyed cloth with no borders, hemp sandals, or a black cloth. The criminals should then be made to go live in their hometowns and suffer the shame of being looked down upon by the people. [37] There does not seem to be any way to prove that tattoo and other corporal punishments were widely used in remotest antiquity. The extant texts themselves are often difficult to date, and the customs that they describe are often difficult if not impossible to ascribe to any one particular people or time. Even if they were utilized widely, the desire to create an impression of a “Golden Age” makes it likely that writers in the late Zhou and Han would attempt to minimize the importance attached to the use of mutilating punishments and to emphasize the regular use of symbolic punishments in their stead. Suffice it to say that in the “Treatises on Punishment” {) and in other places in the dynastic histories from the Han dynasty onward there is confident mention of tattoo in “ancient times.” For example, the Han shu “Treatise on Punishment” says that there were five hundred crimes punishable by tattoo in the Zhou period. The text then states that tattooed criminals wer e sent to guard the city gates, those who had lost their noses were sent to guard the passes, and so on; the severity of the punishment was apparently in direct proportion to the distance from the center of “civilized life.” [38] Although theoretically tattoo was abolished along with the other mutilating punishments by Emperor Wen (reg. 179-155 B.c.) in 167 B.C., tattoo was apparently continued as a punishment during the Han [39] and the period of disunion following the Han. There is no mention of tattoo in the Tang penal code, though examples of the actual continuation of the practice are to be found in the histories. [40] It was reinstated as a legal form of punishment later, and there are many references to it in the Song, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. Tattoo was often combined with exile, ensuring that the defiled persons be removed as far as possible from law-abiding, civilized people. For example, the “Punishment treatise” of the Song shi states that there are two hundred crimes punishable by tattoo and banishment. Among these, in the case of relatively minor offenses, it was possible to modify the punishment to a lighter sentence involving only penal servitude or banishment, but without tattoo. However, if the criminal were to commit another crime, he was immediately tattooed and enlisted in the military. [41] A specific description of one type of punishment is given in the same text. We read that a ring should be tattooed (ci huan) behind the ear in all cases where a person is convicted of robbery or banditry. If it is a case where penal servitude or banishment is also in order, the tattoo should be square. If it is a case where flogging is also in order, the tattoo should be round. After three cases wherein a criminal has been punished by flogging, the tattoo should then be done on the face. In diameter each tattoo should not exceed five-tenths of an inch. [42] One of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) legal codes, the Yuan dianzhang , is a rich source for descriptions of specific tattooing punishments. In the section on illicit sexual relationships we read that, in general, on the first offense, the adulterous couple will be separated, but if they are “caught in the act” a second time, the man will be tattooed on the face with the words “committed licentious acts two times” () and banished. [43] Numerous examples are given to illustrate this type of punishment.

The Youyang zazu has, again, only four brief entries that pertain to tattoo as punishment. In these pieces Duan is mainly concerned with terminology and with re-recording interesting tidbits he had read in earlier works. In entries 296 and 301 he describes actual tattoos; the other two entries are concerned with substitute punishments. It is significant that there is no mention of current practice or of his personal familiarity with this type of tattoo.

Entry 296

There were five hundred [44] crimes punishable by tattoo as described in the Zhouguan (i.e., Zhouli). According to Zheng Xuan (127-200), first the face was cut, and then ink was used to stop up the wound. The person with tattoos made thus by putting ink in wounds was made to guard the gates. According to the (Shangshu apocryphon) Shangshu xing te fang , [45] the so-called “zhuolu” was a punishment wherein the person’s forehead was drilled into. The punishment called “qing” involved the use of a horse-branding iron to engrave people’s faces. Zheng Xuan said, “Those who suffered the zhuolu and qing were referred to by people of their day as ‘people of knife and ink.’” [46]

Entry 297

The Shangshu dazhuan [47] says that the “Yu Shun symbolic punishment” was to make people who had done a crime punishable by tattooing wear a black cloth instead. In the Baihu tong it says, “‘mo’ is tattooing on the forehead. It is an example of fire defeating metal.” [48]

Entry 298

The Han shu says that instead of the physical punishment, the person deserving of tattoo is shaved bald and shackled, and (if a man), made to do wall-building labor (chengdan ) for four years, or (if a woman), to do grain-pounding punishment (chong ). [49]

Entry 301

The Liang Dynasty Miscellaneous Regulations [50] says that for all people who are imprisoned but whose cases have not yet been decided, the character (jie, “robber, thief”) must be tattooed onto their faces.


In most cases in the early texts the passages that describe punishments seem to apply to commoners and slaves alike. There are a few special types of tattoo that naturally only pertain to slaves, such as the forehead brand identifying a person as someone who had attempted escape, or the facial brand of ownership. In addition there are some records that describe the tattooing of slaves or concubines because of jealousy. One particularly instructive case shows to what extent a jealous wife will go to ensure that her husband does not notice other women. In the Wei zhi Pei Songzhi’s (fl. 424) note to a passage in the biography of Yuan Shao (fl. 168-80) tells us that after Shao thed, his wife had all five of his concubines killed. Since she believed that the dead have consciousness, she then had their hair cut off and their faces branded, to destroy their appearance in the a fterlife, and to cause Shao not to wish to see them. [51] We see more of the tattooing of slaves or servants in four entries of the Youyang zazu. Entry 288 is reminiscent of the passage just described; again, the jealousy and pettiness of a primary wife is the focus, but Duan dwells on the gory details of the tattooing to create a vivid image of the procedure. It is one of the rare passages in early Chinese literature that mentions using different colors to produce a tattoo of shades other than the usual dark blue-green or black. Entry 293 attempts to explain the provenance of certain contemporary facial adornment fashions. Entry 300, a brief informational piece, describes the exact placement, size, and shape of tattoos to do in the case of escaped slaves, but it does not specify to what period of time it refers. In the eerie little anecdote in entry 286, Duan proves that the marks of tattoo penetrate to the very bone. He probably means this to be the primary lesson of his anecdote, since he placed the piece under the heading of tattoo, but in it he also subtly inveighs against treating the remains of the dead with disrespect, and indicates the good that can come from honoring the dead, whatever their status might have been in life. In this short piece Duan illustrates the mutual reliance of the dead and the living. giving central importance to the tattoo; originally a mark of shame that ended up benefiting both the dead man (by allowing him to be buried properly) and the living (by making him rich).

In the two entries on tattoo as a kind of cosmetic technique Duan again aims to explain current customs, but here there is no connection with punishment or slavery–the tattoo in entry 292 is originally caused by a seemingly innocent drunken accident. The second piece constitutes a simple explanation of a contemporary custom. It is clear that in some cases people were willing to overlook the negative connotations that tattoo carried; this second piece shows that there are people who actually marked themselves to look as if they were tattooed; although the exact reason for doing this is not clear, it appears that it might be some sort of attempt to benefit one’s descendants. The usual stigma of a tattoo mark on the face is not mentioned in either of these cases.

Entry 286

My cousin [52] Jang, during the Zhenyuan period (785-805) once stopped at Huang keng . [53] There was one among his entourage who was collecting bits and pieces of skull bones to use as medicine. On one of the pieces appeared the three characters (“escaped slave”). The marks were like light ink traces. It was then that they realized that tattoo penetrates all the way to the bone. In the night that man in my cousin’s group had a dream of a person whose face was hidden and who wanted the bones that had been collected. He said: “My shame is great. If you, honored sir, would bury them deep in the ground, I will bring you good fortune.” That man awoke in alarm; his hair was standing on end. He went immediately to rebury the bones, for the sake of the ghost. Later, whenever something was about to happen, the spirit would appear to him as if in a dream and tell him what to do. With this help, he amassed great wealth. At his death he had almost one hundred thousand (cash).

Entry 288

Fang Rufu’s [54] (second) wife was of the Cui clan. She was jealous by nature. [55] The slave girls around her were not allowed to wear thick makeup or high coiffures. Each month she gave each girl one dou of rouge and one coin’s worth of powder. There was one slave who had just recently been purchased. Her makeup was slightly finer (than the others’). Mrs. Cui angrily said to her: “So, you like makeup, eh? I will make you up!” Then she had someone slice the girl’s eyebrows off, and she used blue-green ink to fill (the wounds) in. Then she heated an iron bar and burned the skin (starting) at the corners of each eye. The skin scorched and rolled up wherever she touched. Then she tinted the wounds with vermilion. When the scabs came off, the scars left there were just like makeup.

Entry 293

The “flower seed marks” that women use to decorate their faces nowadays originated with the fashion of Shangguan Wan’er (664-7l0). [56] Prior to the Dali period (766-80), among the wives of the official class, many of those who were jealous and cruel would tattoo the faces of the slave girls and concubines who failed, even in small ways, to please them. This is how there came to be the so-called “moon spot” and the “money spot” (tattoo)

Entry 300

The Jin ling (The Jin Orders) [57] says, “When a male or female slave has escaped for the first time, do a tattoo with copperas [58] like ink. Tattoo the two eyes. Later if he or she escapes again, tattoo on the two cheeks. For a third escape, tattoo a horizontal line below the eye. All of them should be one and a half inches long. [59]

Entry 292

In makeup fashions of today, high value is placed on the facial “mole.” For example, there is the mole of a crescent-moon shape, which is called a “yellow star mole.” The fame of the so-called “mole inlay” derives no doubt from Lady Deng, wife of Sun He of the state of Wu. [60] Sun He favored her. Sun He was once dancing drunkenly and with abandon, when he accidentally cut Lady Deng’s cheek, drawing blood. Deng was delicate and weak, and became more and more miserable, so Sun He called the palace physician to mix some medicine. The physician said that he should be able to get rid of the mark if he could procure some bone marrow of white otter and mix it with powders of jade and amber. Sun He had to spend one hundred gold pieces to buy the white otter before they were able to mix the ointment. They added too much amber, however, so the ointment was inferior and the scar didn’t disappear. On Lady Deng’s left cheek there was now a red spot that resembled a mole. When people saw it they found her even more imbued with fascinating charm. Those of Sun He’s consorts who wished to gain his favor all marked dots on their cheeks with cinnabar. Only then would they gain his attention. [61]

Entry 294

Among commoners there are sometimes people who apply to the face a bluish mole that resembles a tattoo. There is an old saying that in case a woman thed in childbirth, her face must be marked with ink; otherwise, it would be unlucky for later generations.


A short anecdote by Kong Pingzhong (fl. 1065) draws our attention to several issues that are of interest to this study. It concerns two men, who are working together in the Bureau of Military Affairs in the Palace Secretariat. Apparently Wang Boyong “regularly teased his colleague Di Qing about his tattoos. He would say, ‘They are finer and brighter than ever.’ Di replied, ‘Can it be that you don’t like them? I was hoping respectfully to present you with a line (or column) of them.’ Wang was deeply ashamed.” [62] The meaning of the exchange is not absolutely clear but a few things can be learned from it. First, there was at least one official working in the military branch of the Palace Secretariat sporting decorative tattoos; these seem to have included lines of poetry, which suggests an appreciation of literature. The behavior of the tattooed man is such that the man making fun of him is ashamed of himself. Second, the very fact that his colleague “regularly made fun” of his tattoos is of interest. Of course we may guess that Wang personally found Di’s body markings unusual, but more likely this little exchange suggests that although this military official had tattoos, the practice was not common, and probably was not entirely acceptable, in polite society. It is very likely that a large percentage of tattoos, voluntary or not, after at least the Han dynasty were in some way connected with the military. Tattoo was used to brand men as part of a particular regiment, as a means of identification (dead or alive), to prevent recruits from escaping, and to mark prisoners of war. [63] Valiant individuals also tattooed themselves with oaths, proclaiming their wholehearted dedication to a particular nation, or to a certain military or personal cause.

Most of the readily available information on military tattoo comes to us from rather late Song and Ming texts, and most of them agree that the practice of military tattooing was either started or reinstated in the Later Liang Dynasty (907-22). For example, Su Xun (1009-66) tells us in his Bing zhi (Military Regulations) that during the Five Dynasties (907-60) period, Liu Shouguang (fl. 911) [64] reinstituted the rules of tattooing the face and hands. Thereafter “the entire realm took it as a common practice.” [65] In describing the general societal breakdown and rise of banditry in his own time Sima Guang (1019-86) tells us that there was a practice of seizing and tattooing of ordinary citizens, making them slaves of the armies. In his Lei shuo he elaborates at length on this practice, particularly as it occurred in Shanxi. [66] A passage in the Song shi details how the highways were filled with panic-stricken, terrified common people, who frightened each other with stories of the armies capturing people and tattooing them, in order to make up their quota. [67] Zeng Cao (fl. 1136-1147) names the person responsible for allowing this to occur. He says that the general custom of tattooing solthers’ faces was begun by the First Emperor of (Later) Liang (Liang Taizu , reg. 907-14). This is reiterated in a passage found in Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian , where we read that in the first year of the First Emperor of Later Liang (907) the emperor had all of his solthers tattooed with their military post and rank, in order to prevent escape and absenteeism. Sima continues that some of the solthers were homesick for their villages and attempted to escape anyway. Since the villagers did not dare to give refuge to the solthers, the escapees were either killed or were forced to gather in the mountains or marshes and become bandits. When this eventually became a major social problem, a general amnesty was granted through imperial proclamation, a nd the tattooed men returned to their home villages. In this way bandits were reduced by seventy or eighty percent. [68]

Tattoo was used by solthers in some armies as a way to demonstrate devotion to a cause. Usually a brief oath of several words would be tattooed on the arms, back, or chest; very likely the purpose was to instill a sense of strength and valor and to prove this valor both to others in one’s own regiment and to enemies. We read that the armies of Shu tattooed themselves with the shapes of axes to give themselves renewed courage when they learned that they were going to be attacked, [69] and that others tattooed characters on their chests, proclaiming dedication to the nation. [70] Undoubtedly the best-known example of a military man bearing a tattooed oath is the famous Song general Yue Fei (1103-41), tragic and heroic subject of many plays and stories that center on his attempts to recapture northern China from the Jurchen barbarians. Shen Defu even claims that the practice of tattooing oaths in the military originate d with Yue Fei, [71] though as we have seen this was a practice before Yue Fei’s time. Shen cites Yue Fei’s tattooed oath as a sign of the ultimate in loyalty. [72] Yue Fei’s official biography says that he had a tattoo on his back that read, “Jinzhong baoguo” (serve the nation with absolute loyalty.) [73] This bit of information was incorporated into many literary works, one of the most interesting of which is the chuanqi drama “Rushi guan” . It has a vivid description of Yue Fei’s mother crying as she pierces her son’s skin using an embroidery needle and rubs the ink into the fresh wounds. [74] A military-oath tattoo such as Yue Fei’s carries no negative connotation; on the contrary, the man bearing this type of tattoo is, at least in the popular imagination, considered positively heroic.

A late nineteenth century text records details for procedures that are followed during a coroner’s autopsy. In the examination of a dead body, two of the identifying marks to be looked for are tattooed characters, ci zi , and decorative tattoos, diao qing . In addition, any signs of tattoo removal by moxibustion were to be recorded. [75] The two types of tattoo are noted separately; the tattoo as a mark of punishment and that used as decoration are not considered to be the same.

Here we are concerned with the second type of mark looked for by the coroner in the above passage, that is, the figurative tattoo, which unlike the brand, was often done voluntarily. In a vernacular narrative work that traces the history of the Five Dynasties, Wudai shi pinghua , the portion of the text treating the life of Liu Zhiyuan , (Gaozu, reg. 947-48), founder of the short-lived Later Han dynasty (947-50), is of particular interest as an example of this kind of tattoo. The pinghua account is historical fiction rather than official history; it portrays the subject of Liu’s early life and career as it appeared in popular imagination starting at least in the Yuan dynasty. According to the pinghua story, in his youth, “Liu Zhiyuan went out, and hired a tattoo artist (lit., “needle-brush artisan” ) to tattoo his body. On his left arm he had the man tattoo an immortal fai ry maiden, and on his right arm he had tattooed a treasure-snatching green dragon. On his back was tattooed a “yaksa who laughs at Heaven.” This, along with his drinking and gambling, infuriated his family and Liu was kicked out of the house. Eventually Liu is humbled by a losing streak at gambling, and he sets out to reform himself His worth is recognized by Li Jingru a man skilled in physiognomy, who wants to help Liu to stay out of the army. Mr. Li, however, can only give Liu a job “in the back” feeding the horses, because of the unsightliness of his tattoos. Supernatural occurrences eventually convince Li of Liu’s special qualities, so in spite of the latter’s tattoos, he marries his daughter to Liu. This sets Liu Zhiyuan on the road to social rehabilitation and to his eventual seat on the dragon throne. [76] Liu Zhiyuan’s official biography makes no mention of any of this, and in fact, the first thing it points out when discussing Liu’s character is that “when the emperor was young he was not fond of amusements, and was serious and taciturn.” [77] Another literary treatment of tattooed heroes is that found in the sixteenth-century vernacular novel Shuihu zhuan . There are five tattooed men in the band of outlaws that gathers under the leadership of Song Jiang at Liangshan Marsh; they are Yan Qing , Lu Zhishen Shi Jin , Zhang Shun and Song Jiang himself. Song Jiang’s tattoo is a facial brand; those of the other four, however, are figurative tattoos. Shi Jin, for example, is known by all as the “Nine-patterned dragon” His father, eager to help young Shi Jin in his goal of becoming a great martial arts fighter, not only engages weapons experts, but also hires a tattooist to work on his son. Jin is tattooed on his shoulders, arms, chest, and belly with a pattern of nine dragons. [7 8] Later in the novel, another of the “decorated” heroes, Yan Qing, is obliged to cover his tattooed body with a cassock robe, so that he will not be recognized. [79] In another passage a woman named Li Shishi , whose support Yan is attempting to garner, indicates a desire to see his famous tattoos. “Li Shishi laughed and said, ‘I’ve heard that Elder Brother’s body is covered with beautiful tattoos; how would it be if I asked for a look at them?’ Yan Qing smiled and replied: ‘Although this humble man of lowly form does have some ornamental tattoos, in the presence of a lady how could I dare to remove my clothes and reveal my body?”‘ Needless to say, Lady Li’s will prevails: “Yan Qing had no choice but to strip naked. When Li Shishi saw his tattoos, she was greatly pleased. She caressed his body with her slender jade hands.” [80] The social inappropriateness and, in this case at least, the sexual allure of decorative tattoos is made abundantly clear. [81] Far and away the most comprehensive extant source for material on decorative tattoo in early China is the Youyang zazu. The eleven entries that describe figurative and textual tattoo are very informative for the scholar wishing to understand Chinese culture more deeply, particularly that of the Tang period. Duan Chengshi’s text reveals a world in which many kinds of people, of various social ranks, are tattooed with pictures or with literary texts, or both. Many of the descriptions are of people who lived during Duan’s own time, and some are of people with whom he was personally acquainted and whose tattoos he examined himself.

Although tattooed members of the official class are represented, many of the subjects of Duan’s entries are rather unsavory types, and are described as riff-raff and bandits. Duan describes the official reaction to these people as extremely negative. Their tattoos rendered them even more abhorrent to the authorities than their nefarious activities alone would have. Duan also tells of tattooed military men or of those who had been tattooed during their enlistment when young. Clearly solthers were not only tattooed as a measure against escape and as a brand of ownership; they were often decoratively tattooed of their own volition as well. It is important to note the connection between the tattoos used in the military for identification and punishment and those used for decoration. Probably tattoo was, of all Chinese social groups, most acceptable among members of the armies; perhaps in some cases decorative tattoo was employed as a way to cover or hide other types of tattoo. The problems associated with bearin g a tattoo in ordinary society were numerous, and tattoo could well lead to ostracism; this was, indeed, one of the primary reasons that it was an effective punishment. People thus shut out from proper society might naturally seek to associate with others like themselves, to create a new kind of fraternity or “in-group.” Bands of tattooed military men, outlaws, and street ruffians, then, can be seen to have partly arisen out of the prevailing attitudes and fears about tattoo.

Duan’s entries paint a picture of the streets of Jingzhou, Chang’an [82] and other cities that is not seen in such detail elsewhere. Duan pricks the reader’s imagination with these entries; particularly when he mentions cases like the man in entry 284, who holds a respectable position, but under whose concealing robes lies a full-body tattoo of an undulating snake. The reader cannot help but wonder if there were others like him, or if he was an anomaly. In his description of figurative tattoos Duan tells us that tattoo was sometimes known to endow the wearer with supernatural strength. The tattoo might be of a god who was believed to bestow his power on the person who bore his image; in other cases, the tattoo might be considered an effective apotropaic device.

Perhaps one of the most interesting types of tattoo is described in entry 282. There, the entire body of a street policeman is tattooed with thirty-plus poems of Bai Juyi (772-846). This is not the only example of the written language used as tattoo, but it is certainly the most unusual one, since no other example describes literary texts permanently inscribed on the body.

In a few entries Duan describes the fine quality of the tattoos that he saw. We do not know the exact technique by which some of the large and complex figurative tattoos were created, but in entry 291 Duan describes a simple stamping technique by which a small tattoo could be had instantly. This entry is truly astounding in its implications. The existence of a pattern book from which a client could order standard or specialized tattoos, and the capability of producing instant, high-quality tattoos by means of a needle-studded stamp, indicates a large demand for tattoos in some regions. We may speculate that the clients served by these tattoo artists were primarily local bullies, travelers, solthers, and so on, but there is a possibility that among the general population there was also some interest in this kind of fast, relatively painless body marking.

Entry 279

In the shopping streets of the capital (Chang’an) most of the young toughs are shaved bald and have their skin tattooed with the shapes of all kinds of things. They presume on their position in the various armies to beat others and steal by force. There are those who gather like snakes in wineshops [83] or beat people with the clavicles of sheep. The present Metropolitan Administrator, Lord Xue Yuanshang (fl. 827-46), after three days in office, [84] ordered the ward chiefs secretly to apprehend these (ruffians); approximately thirty men were beaten to death, and their corpses were exposed in the marketplace. All of the city residents who had tattoos destroyed their tattoos with moxibustion. At the time a strongman of Daning ward, Zhang Han by name, had tattooed his left arm with the words, “Alive, I do not fear the metropolitan administrator” and on his right arm he tattooed, “Dead, I do not hold in awe King Yama.” Also there was a man called Wang Linu, who had hired a tattoo artist for five thousand cash. On his chest and belly appeared mountains, pavilions, parks, ponds, and kiosks, grass and trees, and birds and animals. There was nothing that wasn’t included. The tattoo was so fine that it was as if it had been painted on with repeated fine washes of color. Lord Xue Yuanshang had both of these men beaten to death.

There was also the bandit Zhao Wujian who was marked with one hundred and sixty overlapping impressions of wheeling magpies and other birds. On his left and right arms he had tattooed the poem:

Wild ducks resting overnight on a sandbank,

Attacked by falcons morning after morning.

Suddenly in alarm they fly into the water,

Their lives spared until this morning.

Again, in Gaoling country [85] a man named Song Yuansu, whose body was tattooed, was arrested. He was tattooed in seventy-one places. His left arm said:

In days gone by, before my house was poor,

I wouldn’t begrudge a thousand gold pieces [86] to form a close friendship;

Now I’ve lost my way, and I seek those close friends,

Yet roaming over every pass and mountain, not a single one appears.

On his right arm was tattooed a gourd; from out of its top emerged a person’s head. It looked like a puppet in a string puppet show. A local official didn’t understand, and asked him what it signified. He explained that it was the spirit of the gourd. [87]

Entry 280

Li Yijian (756-822) [88] was in Shu at the end of the Yuanhe period (806-21). A Shu city (Chengdu) resident named Zhao Gao was always getting into fights and was often in prison. His entire back was tattooed with the Heavenly King Vaisravana. Whenever the constables were about to have him flogged they would stop short when they saw the tattoo. Relying on this, he gradually came to be a major problem for the ward market. His assistants reported this to Li Yijian, and Li became furious. He seized the tattooed man and took him in front of the court. He got a newly-made stiff club, three inches wide at the head, and violently ordered the caner to beat the Vaisravana tattoo, and stop only when it was completely gone. He applied more than thirty strokes, but the man still did not the. [89] After ten days, Zhao Gao went from door to door, with his upper garment removed, howling and begging for meritorious offerings to repai r the tattoo. [90]

Entry 281

The Lesser Commander [91] of Shu, Wei Shaoqing was Wei Biaowei’s (fi. 821-36) [92] paternal (older) cousin. When young, he wasn’t fond of studying; rather, he had a fetish for tattooing. His uncle once had him remove his clothes so that he could have a look at the tattoos. On his chest was tattooed a tree, on whose branches were perched several dozen birds. Below the tree hung a mirror; its central knob was fastened with a rope, which was being pulled by a person standing off to the side. His uncle didn’t understand and asked what it meant. Shaoqing laughed and answered “Hasn’t uncle read the poem of Zhang, Duke of Yan? [93] (One line of it) goes: ‘Pull the mirror, and in winter crows will come to gather.’ [94] That’s all it means.” [95]

Entry 282

Ge Qing a street patrolman of Jingzhou, was brave and valiant. From his neck on down he was completely tattooed with the poems of Secretary Bai Juyi. A Jingzhou resident, Chen Zhi, and I once summoned him so that we could have a look. We had him take off his clothes, and he could recite from memory even the poems on his back, and could put his hands behind his back to point to exactly where they were tattooed. When he came to the line, “Is it not that, of these flowers, I only love the crysanthemum,” [96] there was a picture of a person holding a cup of wine, standing near a cluster of chrysanthemums. Again (with the line), “By the carved-out hollows on the yellow dyeing blocks, even in the winter the trees have leaves,” [97] then he pointed to an image of a tree. On the three were hanging wood blocks for dyeing, and the carvings on the blocks were exceedingly fine. Altogether there were more than thirty poems tattooed on him, and on his body there was not a sing le bit of intact skin. Chen Zhi called him “A walking illustration of Bai Juyi’s poems.” [98]

Entry 283

Whenever my groom-servant Lu Shenting engages in tests of strength in the army (camps) he is able to chew dozens of pieces of gravel, can lift a stone step [99] and a basket [100] full of six-hundred catties of stone. The Heavenly Kings [101] are tattooed on his back. He says himself that he is imbued with the power of these spirits when he goes into the contest arena; with the help of the spirits his strength increases. On the first and fifteenth days of the month he always prepares milky gruel. He burns incense and sits with his tattoos exposed, and then he has his wife and children make offerings to the kings and worship them.

Entry 284

Cui Chengchong (n.d.) when young was an enlisted man who was skilled at donkey polo. When shooting or avoiding the ball he would wield his mallet so nimbly it was as if he were stuck to it with glue. Later he became the Surveillance Commissioner of Qiannan [102] When he was young he had had his entire body tattooed with the image of a snake. It started from his right hand, with the mouth gaping open between his thumb and forefinger. It circled his wrist and went once around his neck and then locked tightly around his stomach. It stretched out over his thigh, and the tail extended to his shin-bone. When facing guests and comrades, he would usually cover his hand with his robe, yet when he became intoxicated with alcohol he would strip down, posture with his arm and make a halberd of his band. He would grasp hold of the entertainers and would threaten: “The snake is going to bite you!” The entertainers would immediatel y scream and act as if they were hurt. In this way they would make a game of it.

Entry 285

During the Baoli period (825-27) a certain commoner had his arms tattooed. Several dozen people gathered to watch the process. Suddenly appeared a person wearing a white gown and a brimmed hat. He inclined his head, smiled a faint smile, and then left. Before the man had gone ten steps, the blood flowed from the commoner’s tattoos like that from a nosebleed, and he felt the pain penetrate to his bones. In just a short while he had lost more than a dou of blood. [103] The crowd of people suspected that it had something to do with the man who had looked at him before, and they told the tattooed man’s father to find him for help. [104] That person was not willing to take responsibility, and only after the father had made obeisance to him dozens of times did he finally scoop up a pinch of dirt and say something like an incantation. (Then he said), “You can put this on it.” When they did as he said, the bleeding stopped. [105]

Entry 287

In the military camp of the Shu general Yin Yan there was a solther who arrived half an hour late for evening muster. Yan was about to reprimand him. The solther was drunk, however, and explained himself in a loud voice. Yan became angry and had him beaten twenty times or so, to the point that he nearly thed. The younger brother of the solther was the camp jailer. He was friendly and kind by nature, but he considered Yan’s actions unfair, so he tattooed the words “Kill Yin” into his skin, and blackened them with ink. Yin Yan found out about it and had someone beat him to death on another pretext. Later, when the Southern barbarians invaded during the Taihe period (827-36), Yan employed tens of thousands of solthers to protect the Qiongxia pass. [106] Now, Yin Yan was stronger than anyone else, and he would often joke around with those near him, striking their shins with a knotted jujube staff. As he struck them, their muscles would swell up, but there would be no outward trace left by the staff. Relying on their strength, the entire army left the pass and pursued the barbarians for several li. The barbarians then launched a surprise attack from both sides, and Yin Yan’s army suffered a crushing defeat. Yin’s horse was upended, and Yin was killed, having been pierced by several dozen spears.

Earlier, on the day the army rode out of the pass, the jailer that Yin Yan had previously executed suddenly reappeared, going along at the head of the army. The man was carrying a round yellow board as big as the hub of a wheel. Yin Yan had a bad feeling about it, but when he asked those around him, none of them could see the spectre. In the end he thed on the battlefield. [107]

Entry 289

When Yang Yuqing (jinshi 810) was governor of the capital, [108] there was someone who frequented the marketplaces called “San Wangzi” who was so strong that he could lift up huge stones. His entire body was tattooed with pictures; there was not one piece of unmarked skin on his whole frame. He was sentenced with the death penalty many times, but he always took shelter with the army and thus managed to escape death. One day he slipped up, and Yang Yuqing commanded several of his personal followers [109] to capture and arrest him. They barred the gates and flogged him to death. The decision in this case reads: “He tattooed his four limbs, and he called himself ‘Son of the King’ (wangzi). What need is there to examine into it (judicially)? It is a matter of course that he is guilty.” [110]

Entry 291

In Jingzhou, during the Zhenyuan era (785-805) there were tattoo vendors in the street. They had imprinting stamps into which they would press needles closely together into the shapes of all kinds of things, such as toads and scorpions, mortars and pestles, or whatever people wanted. Once they’d imprinted the skin (with this needle stamp), they would brush (the pricked area) with black lead. After the wound had healed, the tattoo was finer than that on the pattern from which the customer had originally ordered.” [111]

Entry 302

In the Buddhist work Sanghika-vinaya [112] the so-called “black scar print” [113] is done when a bhiksu practices the rite of the Brahma King. They tear their flesh and, with the bile of peacocks and with copperas and other things, they paint on the cuts made in their bothes. They form written characters as well as the shapes of birds and beasts. They call it “print tattoo” .


Unfortunately, visual representations of tattoos from pre-modern China are not in abundance; [114] likewise, as prevalent as modem Chinese tattoo practices may be, they cannot be said to be a direct descendant of ancient Chinese practices. What we lack in pictures, we do have in texts, though. The sources examined in this paper describe a fairly broad range of uses, but naturally the glimpse they provide into the world of tattoo practice is limited, partly due to the generally negative connotation associated with permanent body marking by the class of literati. However, although these passages from zhiguai, novels, unofficial histories, etc., might not all be historically verifiable, they do at the very least reveal a valuable perspective on life in early and metheval China, as they indicate the existence of a many-sided culture in which people of various social classes practiced tattoo, for reasons sometimes, but not solely, connected with punishment or the military.

Tattoo in China in some ways seems quite limited, compared to the roles that it has taken in other cultures around the globe. It was not used in rites of passage into adulthood, as a mark of sexual maturity, marital status, or as a mark of identification in a special occupation. Tattoo as punishment, as facial cosmetic, as mark of bravery, as apotropaic device, and as personal body decoration are, on the other hand, among the uses that China’s tradition shares with some of these cultures. The tattoo practice that is not widely known to scholars is the figurative body decoration, and it is the type that lends itself most to conjecture. A person’s body decoration marked him as belonging to one of probably many subcultures–one of the most obvious being that of “street toughs,” made up of current or former military men, prisoners, or slaves. Another group of people used tattoo to draw divine protection or power. Why, though, did people mark themselves permanently, when they lived in a society in which such mark ing was highly stigmatized, and cause for ostracism? Does it indicate a changing attitude toward the physical (and social) body in the Tang, an attitude that continued into the Song and Ming (as suggested by the texts of those periods that describe tattoo)? Does it indicate a strong anti-establishmentarianism on the part of certain people, a willingness and even desire to identify with that which was perceived as barbaric, possibly exotic, and not a part of civilized Chinese society? These are tempting speculations, but we must remember that the available texts on this subject are few in number and not copiously supplied with useful historical details. Whatever the motives for body tattoo might have been, most texts do give a good picture of the strong and generally negative response to it, and also show that, due to this response, and for resulting practical considerations, the degree to which people were willing to reveal their personal attitudes varied widely. If necessary, robes functioned nicely to allow tattooed folk to remain in, and yet not of, the mainstream social group. Those in higher society may have judged the practice negatively, but many were also fascinated by it. Of course Duan himself may have been an extreme example of such a person, as he was the quintessential fascinated onlooker to everything “under the sun.” But his anecdotes are replete with spectators wanting to see that by which they are partly horrified; Duan was clearly not the only one who had a desire that the tattooed ones remove their robes and reveal the beautiful snake, the permanent clothing, the second skin, within. He was not the only watcher, or so he convinces us, but he was one of the only chroniclers–and we may presume that he hoped that readers would find the entries on tattoo thought-provoking and that his book would thus expand the circle of curious onlookers.

At the end of the last entry in the tattoo section of juan eight, Duan implies that the purpose for recording these entries on tattoo is to educate those who are shamefully ignorant of things that exist in front of their very eyes. The entire Youyang zazu, of course, may in a sense be seen as an eclectic collection of attempts to teach about one thing or another. Each such attempt has its own characteristic flavor, created by a complex set of variables, and each part derives some of its meaning from its relationship with the elements surrounding it. So, how is the section on tattoo enriched and given deeper meaning by its association with the other “ingrethents” in juan eight? However unlikely it may seem at first sight, there is very likely a connection for Duan between the three topics in that juan–tattoo, dreams, and lightning and thunder–and we may speculate about Duan’s understanding of and interest in tattoo by examining their unusual placement together. I believe that he saw tattoo in some sense as a social parallel to something that is explored on meteorological and psychological planes in the other sections. Juan eight is, in general, a record of three types of “boundary crossings”: the entrance into the human world of light, sound, wonder, and danger from the heavens; the entrance into the waking, conscious world of events and things from the sleeping unconscious; and the entrance into the realm of civilized, proper folk (both “human” and “conscious,” naturally) of the markings of the uncivilized or deviant. All of these types of boundary crossings recorded by Duan leave a mark on the world that they touch, in some way changing it permanently.

It is important that Duan included all of the types of tattoo, even though he was clearly most interested in figurative and textual body marking. Likewise it is crucial that the four types of records (tattoo of barbarian peoples, tattoo as punishment, as mark of slavery or as personal decoration by Chinese people) are not presented in linear, chronological, topical or other specific order. I believe that this is not simply careless disorder; it may in fact reflect the conviction that flux is inherently complex and at least seemingly disorderly. One of Duan’s favorite themes throughout his larger collection is this changing nature of life. He delights in showing that change, the crossing of borders between various states of being, whether physical, social or psychological, does not happen in a chronological, predictable fashion, and in fact is continually happening, always moving in different directions. In his twenty-five entries Duan defines by example the different type of tattoos, and also shows that thei r movement–from the barbaric, low-class, and deviant realms of their origin to the world that ordinary gentlemen can see everyday–is ongoing, and is as ubiquitous, frightening, inevitable, and marvelous as various weird manifestations of lightning and dreams, that regularly cross the thresholds of the heavens and unconsciousness into our world. Tattoo for Dunn is thus a fitting “educational topic,” worthy of recording because it is representative of phenomena that require us to ponder, marvel, and re-evaluate, simply because they enter our world, exist here, and change it by leaving a mark.

I thank Professor Stephen H. West of the University of California, Berkeley, for numerous suggestions and corrections on an earlier draft of this paper.

(1.) Wang Xianqian (1842-1917), ed., Xunzi jijie (Taibei: Lantai shuju, 1972), 5.32. Cf. Xunzi (Sbby), 5.11b.

(2.) The dating of the various parts of this text is controversial. Some parts probably date from as late as the fourth century A.D., and some from as early as around 1000 B.C.

(3.) Dating from 100 B.C.

(4.) Youyang zazu, ed. Fang Nansheng (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1981), 8.76-80. As all of the entries appear on these four pages, and are clearly numbered, I will not footnote them separately in the pages below.

(5.) For a readable, brief introduction to the various southern tribal groups, see Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: Tong Images of the South (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1967), 9-17, 48-78. Also see Heather Peters, “Tattooed Faces and Stilt Houses: Who were the Ancient Yue?” Sino-Platonic Papers 17 (April, 1990).

(6.) Zhuangzi (Sbck), 1.14b. The Huainanzi , a collection of essays dating from before 139 B.C., is another early text that attests to the tattooing of the body with images of scaly creatures, practiced by the southern barbarians of Yue. See Huainan honglie jijie , ed. Liu Wendian (Taibei: Wenshi zhe chubanshe, 1992), 1.19.

(7.) In the Zhou period, Jing was the area later to be referred to as Chu . This was the largest of states in the Warring States period, comprising parts of modern-day Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Jiangsu provinces.

(8.) Han Ying (Han dynasty), Han shi waizhuan (Xuejin taoyuan), 8.1a.

(9.) On the jiao dragon, see M. W. de Visser, The Dragon in China and Japan (Amsterdam: Royal Academy of Sciences, 1913). Also see Schafer, Vermilion Bird, 217-21.

(10.) Liji zhengyi 12.16b. Pei Yin’s (fl. 450) note to a Shiji passage reiterates this information; Shiji 4.115. Also see Liu Xiang (77-6 B.C.), Shuo yuan Shuo yuan (Sbby), 11.5b. Also see Fan Ye (398-445), Hou Han shu (Zhonghua shuju, 1965), 76.2861.

(11.) Xiao Tong (501-31), comp. Wen xuan (Taibei: Zhongwen, 1971), 5.75. Translation is from David R. Knechtges, Wen xuan, or Selections of Refined Literature, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), 419. It must be remembered that however admiring this is, the praise is of the type given to animals and fantastic creatures, not to people.

(12.) Wen xuan, 8.134.

(13.) Chen Shou (233-97), Sanguo zhi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 30.854-56. For a translation of this Wei zhi passage, see Robert van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982), 247. For a concise study of the history of tattoo in Japan, see Iizawa Tadasu’s essay, Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan ed. Iizawa Tadasu and Fukudo Katshuiga (Tokyo: Haga shoten, 1973), 155-71, which also mentions (p. 159) the Wei zhi passage. Also see Eiichiro Ishida, Japanese Culture: A Study of Origins and Characteristics (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1974), 43. See Donald Richie and Ian Buruma, The Japanese Tattoo (New York: Weatherhill, 1980), for a concise treatment in English of the Japanese tattooing tradition.

(14.) Li Yanshou (fl. 629), Nan shi (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1975), 79.1975.

(15.) Wei Zheng (580-643) et al., compilers, Sui shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1973), 81.1824.

(16.) The Diaoti appeared in the “Wudu fu” passage above. The Diaoti people (or perhaps the practice of tattooing the forehead) are also mentioned in the Chuci poem “Zbao hun” The speaker in that passage wonders why the soul would want to go to an inauspicious place where blackening the teeth, tattooing the forehead, and human sacrifice are practiced. See Chuci buzhu , 9.328. See also Taiping yulan , ed. Li Fang et al. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1992), 790.3501.

(17.) Xin Tang shu, 217B.6147. Also see Xin Tang shu, 222C.6328 for description of other tattooing practices.

(18.) Wen xuan, 51.710.

(19.) Modern-day Sichuan.

(20.) See also Taiping guangji , ed. Li Fang et al. (Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1991), 482.527.

(21.) Ban Gu (32-92), Han shu [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 94A.3772.

(22.) According to Xin Tang shu, 58.1472, there was a book called Xuanzong shilu , and in Tuo Tuo (1313-55) et al., Song shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977), 203.5088, there is a notice of a book called Tang Xuanzong shilu, both in 100 juan. This Tianbao shilu could be a record no longer extant of the Tianbao period (742-56) of Xuanzong’s entire reign (reg. 712-56).

(23.) The Tang country of Rinan was in the northern part of present-day Vietnam.

(24.) The Baimin, or Bomin [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] were a legendary people mentioned in texts such as the Shanhai jing and the Bowuzhi. They had “white” (transparent) bothes and disheveled hair. See, for example, Shanhai jing 7.42a. Imamura Yoshio takes this, however, to mean pingmin [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (also pingding [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or botu [CHINESE CHARACTERS NOT REPODUCIBLE IN ASCII], terms used to denote untrained solthers.

(25.) This refers to Tao Hongjing (456-536) of the Liang.

(26.) This refers to Ying Bu (?-196 B.C.). As a youth he was told by a physiognomist that, once punished, he would eventually become king. He was in fact later punished and marked with tattoo, whereupon he fled to the hills to become a bandit. During the chaos at the end of the Qin, he was able to rise to power and eventually, in the Han, was “rehabilitated” and became king of Huainan. See his biography in Shiji, 91.2597-2608.

(27.) This section is not clear, and I am not sure how to translate it.

(28.) It has been speculated that the character often used for tattoo ( wen) in fact originally was a representation of a person with a tattooed chest, and the other meanings of this character were derived from this original meaning. See van Gulik, Irezumi, 5. Also see Jiaguwen bian (Beijing: Zhongguo kexueyuan, 1965), 372-73. This is refuted by Mizukami Shizuo in Kokotsu kinbun jiten (Tokyo: Yuzankaku shuppan, 1995), 590; he says that (wen) was originally a representation of a pattern or decoration on a person’s clothing. For a discussion of the ancient penal use of tattoo (as well as a brief treatment of the etymologies of certain other terms meaning “brand” or “tattoo”) in a study of the inscription on a ninth-century bronze vessel, see Sheng Zhang “Qishan xinchu Ying yi ruogan wenti tansuo,” Wenwu 1976.6: 40-42.

(29.) Xiao jing zhushu (Shisanjing zhushu) (rpt., Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1979), 1.2545.

(30.) For a good, brief discussion of this, see Anders Hansson, Chinese Outcasts (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 22.

(31.) Several examples are to be found in Shang shu zhengyi (Shisanjing zhushu), 3.130, in the “Shun dian,” and in 4.139 in the “Gaoya mo.”

(32.) The dating for this text is not clear, but it was written sometime during the Zhou dynasty.

(33.) Shang shu zhushu (Sbby), 8.9a.

(34.) For further information on corporal punishment and penal tattoo, in particular, see Derk Bodde and Clarence Morris, Law in Imperial China: Exemplified by 190 Ch’ing Dynasty Cases (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), 76, 96-97.

(35.) Following Legge on using “copper.” See James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1865), 604-6.

(36.) See Shangshu zhushu 19.1 5a; Shangshu zhengyi 19.249. This passage is from the “Lu xing” (Punishments of Lu), a text that probably dates from the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.).

(37.) See Shang shu dazhuan, attrib. Fu Sheng (2nd-c. B.C.) (Sbck), 1B.8a-b; also Xunzi jijie, 12.9, where this passage is quoted.

(38.) Han shu, 23.1091-92.

(39.) For example, see Han shu, 23.1097.

(40.) Empress Wu Zetian’s (reg. 684-705) tattooing of the female official Shangguan Wan’er (664-710) is an example of the actual continuation of the practice of tattooing as a form of punishment. See Liu Xu (887-946), comp., Jiu Tang shu , 51.2175, and Xin Tang shu, 76.3488.

(41.) Song shi, 201.5008.

(42.) Song ski, 201.5020. For specific descriptions of tattooing and exiling, see 30.561, 30.576, 33.630, 33.635, 33.742, 34.641, 63.1382, 181.4415, and 201.5016-18.

(43.) Da Yuan sheng zheng chao dianzhang Song fen ski congkan (1917), 45.16b.

(44.) Following the “Maoben” (Mao Jin’s [1599-1659] edition of Youyang zazu [found in the Xuejin taoyuan and Jin-dai mishu collectanea]), rather than the “Zhaoben” (Zhao Qimei’s [1563-1624] edition, found in Sbck), which has “three hundred.” The Zhouli has “five hundred” as welt. See Zhouli zhushu (Shisanjing zhushu), 36.242.

(45.) Following Taiping yulan in reading fang instead of kao . This book is one of the apocryphal texts, and is not extant.

(46.) See also Taiping yulan, 648.2898.

(47.) Shangshu dazhuan, 1B.8a-b. For this quotation, see also Taiping yulan, 648.2898.

(48.) Following Taiping yulan, which has , instead of the Youyang zazu texts which have This tine is difficult to understand. It is possible that the dominance of the fire “element” in the Han is credited with a greater use of tattooing over other cutting punishments, favored in other times.

(49.) This refers to Emperor Wen’s abolition of the corporal punishments of tattoo and slicing off the nose and feet. See Han shu 23.1099.

(50.) Liang chao zalu . Sui shu, 25.697-98 describes a work called the Liang lu , in twenty sections. Perhaps this is the same work. Sui shu, 25.699 says that the character is tattooed on the face in cases of serious crime. Also see Taiping yulan, 648.2898.

(51.) Sanguo zhi, 6.203.

(52.) “Cousin” here is (san zong); he was a relation with the same great-grandfather as Duan Chengshi.

(53.) I am not clear to what place this refers. In Fujian province, Longyan county , there is a Huangkeng mountain . Perhaps this is what is meant. See Imamura Yoshio, Yuyo zasso, 2: 91. However, it is possible that this is simply a local term for a real pit, or a tomb. In this piece, the latter speculation seems to make more sense.

(54.) Fang Rufu (753-94) was the son of the Prime Minister Fang Guan (696-763). See Jiu Tang shu, 111.3325.

(55.) Ms. Cui, the second wife of Fang (Fang had earlier harassed his first wife, nee Zheng, to death), was famous for her cruel and jealous behavior. Fang’s Jiu Tang shu biography mentions her whipping two servant girls to death out of jealousy, and having them buried in the snow. Although Fang, as the Prime Minister’s son, had not been inconvenienced by the death of his first wife, this new scandal caused him to be demoted, and to live separately from his wife.

(56.) For the relevant story about Shangguan Wan’er, the female official who was tattooed by Empress Wu Zetian, see Duan Gonglu, Beihulu (Baibu congshu), 3.13b-14a.

(57.) Jin ling a book in forty juan that is not extant. See Jiu Tang shu, 46.2009.

(58.) Copperas is a green hydrated ferrous sulfate.

(59.) Also see Taiping yulan, 648.2898.

(60.) Sun He (224-53) was the son of Sun Quan (d. 252), first ruler of the state of Wu (Wu Dadi [reg. 222-52]).

(61.) A version of this story also appears in Beihu lu, 3.13b. Also see Taiping guangji, 218.425.

(62.) Kong Pingzhong (fl. 1065), Kong shi tanyuan in Wu Shenglan (jinshi, 1778), ed. Yihai zuchen vol. 2 (Taibei: Yiwen, 1968), 2.13b.

(63.) Iizawa Tadasu suggests that on a battlefield, where bothes are sometimes stripped of all belongings, a tattoo is a very valuable form of identification. See Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan, 160.

(64.) He was one of the sons of Liu Ren’gong. Perhaps Su Xun is confusing the son with the father, since Liu Ren’gong is noted elsewhere as responsible for the reinstitution of tattooing.

(65.) Bing zhi (Changsha: Shangwu, 1939), 5.44-47.

(66.) Sima wengong wenji (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1937), 5.120-21.

(67.) Song shi 193.4806. Also see Shen Defu (1578-1642), Yehuo bian buyi (1869 ed.), 3.4a. This Ming author simply records that Song solthers had their faces tattooed to prevent desertion.

(68.) Zizhi tongjian, (Sbby), 266.14b-15a.

(69.) See Lu You (1125-1210), Lao xue’an biji in Biji xiaoshuo daguan vol. 3 (Taibei: Xinxing, 1974), 1.14b.

(70.) For example, see Chen Fu (1240-1303), An’nan jishi shi (Skqs 2.32a/b. Also see Bi Yuan (1730-97), Xu Zizhi tongjian (Sbby), 86.9a.

(71.) Yehuo bian buyi, 3.2b-3a. Also see 3.4b for more discussion of this practice.

(72.) Bizhou xuan shengyu (Taibei: Guangwen, 1970), 1.43.

(73.) See Song shi, 365.11393 and 380.11708. For another example of the same tattooed oath, see Ming shi, 272.6984.

(74.) This chuanqi drama is attributed to the Ming playwright Zhang Dafu (n.d.). See Du Yingtao, ed., Yue Fei gushi xiqu shuochang ji (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi, 1981), 246-50, esp. p. 249.

(75.) Huang Liuhong (fi. 1874-79), Fuhui quanshu (Baohan Iou 1879), 15.8b-9a.

(76.) Anon. (Yuan), Xinbian Wudai shi pinghua (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1926), 1.4.

(77.) Jiu Wudai shi 99.1321-41. Presumably this statement is meant to counter popular opinion to the contrary.

(78.) Shuihu zhuan (Shanghai: Shangwu, 1932), 2.28. Perhaps the tattoo gave him a kind of spiritual strength, which completed the physical martial arts training received by the youth. For another description of Shi Jin’s tattoos, see Shuihu zhuan, 2.25.

(79.) Ibid., 74.90.

(80.) Ibid., 81.7. It has been suggested elsewhere that the popularity of and fascination for figurative tattoo amongst certain social groups in Japan is a cultural phenomenon that has prevailed since the seventeenth or eighteenth century, as a direct result of the popularity of this novel in Japan. In particular, the responsibility lies with the famous woodblock-print artist Hokusai (1760-1849) and his pupils. They to a large extent created the visual images associated with the novel in Japan, which were later imported back to China. These artists portrayed as tattooed more heroes than those originally described as such in the novel; the gorgeous full-color illustrations in Japanese editions helped to fuel a tattoo craze in Japan. For a fascinating discussion of the influence of Shuihu zhuan on tattoo culture in Japan, see Robert van Gulik, Irezumi: The Pattern of Dermatography in Japan, 44-52. Also see Genshoku Nihon irezumi taikan, 162. The Ming dynasty bibliophile Hu Yinglin also mentions the tattooed her oes of Shuihu zhuan, saying “while the work is not reliable history, at least it can prove that at the time the custom was practiced.” See Hu Yinglin Shaoshi shanfang bicong 20.7a.

(81.) For more examples of literary descriptions of hulking, brave tattooed men or tattooed scofflaws, see Meng Yuanlao (fl. 1126-47), Dongjing menghua lu (Xuejin taoyuan), 7.12a. Also see Shi Hui (Yuan), Yougui ji (Xiyong xuan congshu), l.23a; and Anon. (Yuan), Xuanhe yishi (Sbby), A.22b.

(82.) Note particularly that Duan does not only describe figurative tattoo in southern localities. The capital cities of the north had their own tattoo culture, we learn.

(83.) Or, “gather in wineshops because of the snakes” (in the wine, for example), or, “carrying snakes into wineshops.”

(84.) Following the Taiping guangji, which says .

(85.) In present-day Shaanxi province.

(86.) Following Taiping guangji: .

(87.) . This may be a pun on , which means to laugh or sneer at. Other compounds with mean muddled, or confused. So here, “spirit of the gourd” could mean something like “sneering spirit,” or “muddled spirit.” Also see Taiping guangji, 263.4.

(88.) For Li’s biography, see Xin Tang shu, 131.4509-11.

(89.) Following Taiping guangji: .

(90.) Immamura Yoshio suggests that Duan Chengshi was poking fun at Zhao here, hinting at the irony in the picture of a man begging for money to restore the efficacy of a money-making tattoo (since Vaisravana is the god of wealth). See Immamura Yoshio, 2: 84. Duan might just be interested in the perceived sacred character of the tattoo’s image, the restoration of which might earn contributors the same kind of merit as the restoration of a sacred building. Also see Taiping guangji, 264.6.

(91.) Xiaojiang . I am not sure how to translate this term.

(92.) A Tang scholar-official, who, for a time, was a Hanlin academician. Wei Biaowei’s son, Wei Shan (fi. 860), was a friend of Duan Chengshi, and Duan might have heard this information from Shan. For Wei Biaowei’s biography, see Xin Tang shu, 177.5274-75, and Jiu Tang shu, 189 B.4979.

(93.) Zhang, Duke of Yan , is the famous poet and official Zhang Yue (667-731).

(94.) I cannot find this line in Zhang’s poems included in Quan Tang shi.

(95.) See Taiping guangji, 264.6.

(96.) This line is a slight misquote of a line from a poem by Yuan Zhen , a friend of Bai Juyi’s. The original reads: “It is not that, of the flowers, I love only the chrysanthemums.” See the poem “Chrysanthemum,” in Yuan shi Changqing ji (Sbby), Bai Juyi possibly referred to chanting Yuan’s “Chrysanthemum” poem in his piece entitled “Jinzhong jiuri dui ju hua yi yuan jiu”; see Bai Xiangshan ji (Beijing: Wenxue guji kanxing she, 1954), 13.68.

(97.) This is a line from Bai Juyi’s poem entitled “Fan Tai hu shushi ji wei zhi,” Bai Xiangshan ji, 54.66.

(98.) Also see Taiping guangji, 264.7.

(99.) I emend (stone parasol) to (stone step), though a stone parasol is not entirely inconceivable.

(100.) I am not sure how to translate this difficult passage. Here I emend sa (to drag the feet, sandal) to ji (book box, basket). An alternate rendering is, “he was able to carry a stone step and drag six hundred catties of stones behind his feet.”

(101.) They are (Dhrtarastra) (Virudhaka), (Virupaksa) and (Dhanada, or Vaisravana).

(102.) Probably Qianzhou in Sichuan.

(103.) Hyperbole for a large quantity, not a literal “gallon.”

(104.) Or “try to implore him to stop it.”

(105.) See also Taiping guangji 286.151.

(106.) The Nanzhao invasion of Shu lasted five years, starting in 829. Duan Chengshi’s friend and mentor Li Deyu took over the reconstruction and repair of the pass in 832. See Zizhi tongjian, 244.1679.

(107.) Also see Taiping guangji, 122.674.

(108.) He took this position in 835 and was demoted only two months later to the position of Revenue Manager of Qianzhou , where he thed shortly thereafter. See his biography in Jiu Tang shu,.176.4561-63, and Xin Tang shu, 175.5247-49. The reasons for his demotion were apparently unrelated to the incident described here.

(109.) Following Taiping guangji:

(110.) See also Taiping guangji, 264.6-7.

(111.) See also Taiping guangji, 263.5.

(112.) This is an abbreviation for Mahasanghikavinaya, translated into Chinese by Faxian (fl. 399-416) in forty Juan).

(113.) Reading (scar) for (coiled).

(114.) I have seen no such paintings or other visual representations; this is not to say that they do not exist, of course.

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