It is summertime, it is hot, the keyboard keys are melting because of the great amount of writing and that is the reason why we postponed this text a bit. What can you do, Ali Baba and his 40 thieves (couriers) are rather slow with their keyboard deliveries (this introduction was written during the summer heat, author’s comment). Today we have prepared a real treat for you, especially for all the weeaboos and those who lie (to themselves) that they are not, and that is a text about traditional tattoos in China, South Korea and Japan. Uwu! Prepare yourselves for a healthy dose of cringe since any contemporary text regarding Japan (and South Korea) inevitably brings numerous meme references on anime and general Japanese internet identity. At least the texts written by yours truly. I am joking, of course. Or am I? Yeah, I kid. Or am I? …Ok.
China, Koreas and Japan, countries that collectively belong to our definition of the Far East, are countries with long and rich culture and tradition. Oldest written records from China date back to as far as 1200 BE. Far East was rich with culture and art, from painting, sculpting, and numerous inventions we still use to this day, to poetry, science, and some forms or agriculture. Not only that, Far East lands had also had developed spirituality – form Buddhism and Shintoism to various, less common types beliefs throughout China. Then we also have acupuncture and yoga which are a sort of combination of medicine, workout and spirituality. And above all that, Japan was practically closed for the rest of the word up until mid-19th century. Why am I saying all this? Well, see… We have countries with developed culture who appreciate are, spirituality and medicine. They are also familiar with needles, colours, skin puncturing and are (figuratively speaking) enclosed in the own microcosmos (let us recall Maori people). With those conditions in mind, one might assume that tattoos in such society is not something foreign. Moreover, one might assume that tattoos are much appreciated, complex and common. Well, one’s assumptions might also be f*cked! Traditional tattoos in the Far East is mostly reserved for the sludge of society (Croatian idiom, cannot find adequate translation), for thieves, thugs, outlaws and generally for people who tend to break the law. I said mostly because the area is both geographically and culturally extremely big and diverse. First thing’s first…
“China!” Chinese state, the contemporary one and all sorts of states from the past, mostly did not use tattoos to decorate bodies, nor as some sorts of traditional, spiritual or other types for statements. To them, a tattoo was seen as a defamation of body and was hence undesirable. Their mythology has several stories about tattoos (btw, Chinese term for tattoo is Ci Shen or Wen Shen, which literally translates as “puncture the body”), and the most famous one is the story about Chinese general Yueh Fei.
Yueh Fei was serving during the South Song dynasty (mid-10th to mid-12th century AD). During the battle with enemies from the North, filed marshal under whom Fei served decided to defect and went over to the enemy. Revolted and angry, Yueh Fei resigned and went back home. At home, his mother grew angry with him and she told Fei that his duty was first and foremost to the country, despite all else. In order to remind him of that, she used sowing needle to tattoo his back with four signs. Those signs, jin zhong bao guo, are difficult to translate, but mean something along the lines of “Serve your country with ultimate loyalty”. (image 1)
Despite those legends, Chinese society usually used tattoos to brand criminals. Such tattoo was placed on the forehead, and the person would be exiled to far away lands. Even if the person would come back, he/she was clearly marked as a person who cannot be trusted. In today’s Chinese society tattoos still carry social stigma and are associated with criminal organisations and acts.
However, China is a lot more complex than the formal state narrative (both present and past), in regards that they have a lot of minorities with their own customs, traditions, and values which results in a different attitude towards tattoos. Some of those minorities are Dulong people, Dai people and Li people. With Dulong people (located along the Dulong river in the southwest China, near the Myanmar border) it is especially interesting to observe how the tattoos outgrew their role of a bear necessity and became something traditional. Women of the Dulong people started to get tattoos some 400 years ago, at the end of Ming dynasty. Dulongs were attacked by the neighbours who then captured their women and sold them or took them as slaves. Reaction to that was that the women started to tattoo their faces in order to make themselves less attractive and consequently to avoid rape or kidnapping. That practice continued to this day even though they are not at war anymore. Instead, it continued as a tradition. More precisely, tattooing faces of young girls (12 to 13) became a rite of passage and a proof they reached maturity. (image 2)
Dai people (located in south China, near borders with Myanmar and Laos) have a long traditions of tattoos where both genders undergo the process. Women are tattooed on the backs of their hand, their arms, or have a small dot tattooed between their eyebrows. With men, the tattoos are a sign of strength and masculinity, and they are mostly placed in such manner that they accentuate muscles. Some common motifs are dragon or tiger.
Li people (aka Hlai, located on the south shores of China and the island Hainan) also have a long tradition of tattoos. Women mostly get tattoos, and men usually get three blue circles around their wrists, for medical reasons. As with Dulong and Dai people, Li people also consider tattoos as a rite of passage into the adulthood and maturity. Girls would firstly get tattoos on their nape, throat and face and it would take for four to five days. After that, through the period of three years, they would also tattoo their arms and legs. Fist tattoos were reserved exclusively for married women.
Let us now travel to another island, or better say islands, which are a bit more to the east. To the land of the rising sun, anime, sushi, Nintendo, ninjas and Yakuza…. To Japan. We all know about Japan, we know it is an amazing land considering everything they’ve been through. From the historical aspect, Japan has some ambivalent attitudes towards tattoos, with regards to various periods. For the Jomon period (10,000 BC to 300 BC), there are some archaeological evidence about tattoos, primarily on clay figurines who had decorated faces. Even in the later period named Yayoi (300 BC to 300 AD) when the first cultural revolution (figuratively speaking) took place, there is also evidence that the farmers had tattooed faces in order to communicate their social status (see Maori), and also partly as a protection from evil spirits.
However, in the following period called Kofun (300 AD to 600 AD), a certain reversal occurs towards the meaning and the interpretation of tattoos as a consequence of society stratification. Japan was under the great influence and even jurisdiction of China at that time so the tattoos became something undesirable, subversive and associated with criminal since the outlaws were branded with tattoos. And here we can see one extremely interesting thing: tattoos as punishment can be easily related to tattoos as decorations since, as well as in many other places where tattoo was a punishment, the criminal underworld would often modify their tattoos in order to hide their original meaning, and with that process they would create decorative tattoos (DeMello, 2007). Such negative attitude towards tattoos lasted until the late Edo period (1603. To 1868.).
During the mid and towards the end of 19th century horimono (image 5) is developed in Edo (today Tokio), which is a contemporary decorative full body tattoo. It is also a term used for engraving Japanese swords, primarily katana and tanta. Before that period, tattoos were mostly used by courtesans, prostitutes and lovers who would often tattoo the name of their lovers together with kanji sign for life – inochi, which would symbolise an oath of eternal love. Regardless, the greatest influence to the complex horimonos was from the ukiyo-e artists. Ukiyo-e is a famous Japanese art school developed in the 16th century which lasted until the 18th century. In Buddhism, that term refers to the floating world, which can be roughly interpreted as a world of pleasures, and therefore it contains such motifs. Some ukiyo-e artists were also a tattoo masters which developed a technique called tebori (to crave by hand), where they would pierce the skin with a bamboo stick which had a bunch of needles on one end. (image 6) But, unlike the Polynesians, they did not use a mallet.
At the end of Edo period, irezumi is also developed (at that time it was also a term for a whole body tattoo, primarily front and beck of the torso, arms and legs, while today it is a general term for any tattoo). (image 7) Main characteristic was the untattooed “river” in the middle of torso which would be visible in case of unbuttoned shirt. Today’s price of those tattoos would be between 20.000 and 50.000$, and the making process would take between two to five years. Motifs varied from traditional themes and heroes to styled and symbolic images of fish, dragons, floral designs, and religious icons.
Although tattoos were not strictly forbidden, still a rather small percentage of population decided to get one. One group that stands out are firemen who tattooed themselves out of group solidarity. With the arrival of Meji period (1868. until today) and Japan’s opening towards international cooperation and exchange, the government decided to ban tattoos so the Japan would not seem backwards and undeveloped to the new guests. Seems like the stigma from the Kofun period survived. That is pretty ironic since the country’s opening also led to increased interest for their traditional tattoos. Despite the ban, many gamblers, criminals, especially Yakuza, continued with tattooing.
Tattoos were finally legalised in 1948. as a consequence of general westernization of Japan, but prejudice about tattoos were deeply buried within the society’s fibre and therefore the interest about tattoos remained low. Some improvements can be tracked from the 80’s, though. And we must again reiterate this interesting and contra intuitive fact that the country with so rich and long history, so complex and wide artistic expression, gave so little attention to the oldest form of permanent body modification.
And finally we are back on the mainland, a bit west from Japan, and that is peninsula Korea. So yeah, peninsulas name is Korea, and the division on countries of North and South Korea is in place since the end of WW2. With that in mind, I will write “Korea” in the following text, in order to include the entire peninsula as a long lasting historical unit.
So, regarding Kroea, we have transposed attitude towards tattoos, similar to Japan and China. Like literally, copy-paste. In pre-modern times, up until 900. AD, fishermen used tattoos as talismans, and the common motifs were dragons and various sea monsters. For example, they believed that dragons hate and attack anyone who is not of their kin. So when they would see dragon tattooed on fishermen’s body, they would consider him as one of their own and hence would not attack. This belief is actually recorded from Korea to Vietnam. It was also common, during epidemics, to tattoo pregnant women in order to save the baby.
As the Chinese influence grew, Korea also adopted their administration model, and even Buddhist and Confucian ideologies, while the tattoos were slowly marginalised and vanished from society. More specifically, Confucian ideology was characterized by “harmony, prosperity and filial piety (hyŏ), the basis of love, duty and devotion (especially towards one’s parents and the state), embodying the basis of benevolence. These moral principles were not only strongly reflected in society, administration, and education but also primarily in the family structure. In accordance with the Book of Filial Piety (Hyogyŏng), the phrase “Our bodies – to every hair and bit of skin – are received by us from our parents, and we must not presume to injure or wound them. This is the beginning of filial piety”, refers to beginning of filial piety which instructs not to hurt or fail one’s parents and what they have given us. By receiving a tattoo, which initially and intentionally harms and damages the body (that a parent gives their child), a tattooed individual undoubtedly shows lack of respect towards his or her parents and becomes invalid in consideration with the discourse of filial piety. Therefore, any type of moderation or damage on the body, including tattoos, was and still is, to a certain degree, regarded as a form of disobedience and thereby, a lack of filial piety towards one’s parents.” (Glietsch, 2020). My apologies, but I just had to cite this for not even I could explain this better, and it was necessary for you to understand where such animosity towards tattoos comes from, and to better understand today’s attitude towards tattoos.
During the Kroyo (Goryeo) dynasty (which ruled Korea from 918. AD to 1392. AD), and even in Choson (Joseon) dynasty (1392.-1897.) tattoos were a form of punishment. Interesting fact is that thieves and animal murderers were most frequently punished. Working animals were extremely valued and therefore stealing or murderer of such animals was strictly forbidden. The tattoos were primarily textual and they stated the exact crime and punishment received (along with the tattoo, offenders would also get some form or physical punishment, like whipping or strikes with bamboo stick). War prisoners would also be tattooed and would then become slaves to noble families. However, during the Choson dynasty, voluntary tattoos appear under the name Yonbi, which are identical as Japanese inochi.
With the arrival of modern times, attitude towards tattoos is the same as in Japan. Mostly criminals and outlaws are tattooed as a sign of commitment and affiliation. In contemporary Korea (here I mean South Korea because, you know… North Korea… No data) tattoos are legal, but still under great social stigma.
I am sorry that the end of this story might seem a bit anticlimactic, but really it is basically same as in Japan. Who would’ve thunk, like those two (three) countries are close geographically, culturally and spiritually. Makes you wonder! Anyway, hope you liked the story about tattoos and tattooing in the Far East and that you learned something new. Our next destination is southeast Asia and India and I truly hope we will get there sooner than you think.
1) Donald Trump,
2) M. DeMello: Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. Greenwood Press, London, 2007.
4) F. Glietsch: Korean Tattoo Culture: An Historical Overview on the Development and Shift of Perception on Tattoos in Korean Society. Stockholm Univeristy, 2020.