Tattoos & China: History, Meanings and Modernity

Tattoos & China: History, Meanings and Modernity
Jan 02, 2018 By Lewis Schwinn ,

There’s nothing quite like a tattoo to annoy your parents or show how deep you are. But first-time foreign visitors to China are often surprised by the wide variety of responses they receive to their tattoos. The reactions can range from “Why would a nice young person like you get one?” to “Let me show you the twenty-five dragons on my arm.”  Why do some Chinese people loathe tattoos and others love them? Here we bring you everything we know about tattoos in China.


Confucius was kind of a big deal in ancient China. Writings and thoughts attributed to him have formed the core of Chinese thinking for thousands of years and tortured Chinese students for almost as long. One of the main tenets of Confucius was the strict observance of hierarchy and social framework, from the smallest household to the largest state. While this had a wide variety of effects on Chinese culture, one of the most apparent was the devotion of the child to the parent. The devotion was so strong in fact that the child was almost considered property of the parents. So, for a parent to come home and see that their child had tattooed part of their body was somewhat akin to coming home and seeing your wall had been sprayed with graffiti. Due to the large and lasting power parents held over their children in traditional Chinese culture, tattoos are often still considered taboo and a direct insult to one’s family.


If there’s one thing old Hong Kong Kung Fu movies have taught me, it’s that criminals in China often have cool tattoos. (Also, that they have giant metal claws and know Kung Fu.) The link between criminality and tattoos in Asia is a strong and longstanding one rooted in China. Criminals have been intermittently punished with identifying tattoos since the Han dynasty. It therefore figures that tattoos soon began to be associated with criminals in general, with some gangster groups eventually adopting their own tatts as a sign of membership.

The most famous examples of these gangster groups are the Triads. A secret organization that emerged hundreds of years ago, the Triads now operate both criminal and legitimate activities in and around China. Those of you who have visited Chinese art museums will be delighted to discover that many of the symbols and meanings found in said art can also be found on the torsos of Chinese Triad members. For example, turtles symbolize longevity, while phoenixes and dragons are often respectively used to symbolize the popular yin (light energy) and yang (dark energy) concept of Daoism.

In addition to art museums, Triads are also apparently big fans of math. Their tattoos often contain numbers that symbolize  a concept or story significant to the group. It’s like if you and your friends tattooed your favorite inside joke on your body, only instead of being a light-hearted reference to that night in Berlin, it would symbolize some grizzly moment within a violent criminal organization.


Over the last 200 years, China has had a love-hate relationship with foreign culture. The early 20th century saw the Chinese embracing foreign trends in literature and art, while the subsequent 50 years saw them completely rejecting outside influences to create art and writing in line with contemporary political thought. But the meeting point of cultures was always in specially designated port cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. And what kind of foreigners would one expect to meet in a port city? Mostly sailors and military men. And what do sailors and military men like to get to show they are tough? Big, ugly tattoos.

Now imagine you’re a local Chinese person in one of these cities, witnessesing rough, hard-drinking and probably not entirely polite tattooed sailors. It’s not hard to imagine that they would have associated tattoos with the bad behavior of foreignness. This helped foster an unsavory perception of tattoos as foreign, and therefore low class and even anti-Chinese.

Modern Trends

If we take the traditional Confucian element of parental respect, the association of tattoos with danger and foreignness, and mix in a modern society with an increasingly individualistic youth culture, what do we get? A list of things that is way too long. We also get a recipe for youthful rebellion and personal freedom, both of which we’re seeing more of in China.

For a long time, conformity has been the encouraged norm in Chinese society. But as the country becomes more industrialized and opens up to outside influences, the youth are getting more room to express their personalities and differentiate themselves from their elders. Tattoos offer the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Words in English and other foreign languages, traditional Chinese art and meaningful symbols have exploded onto the skin of young Chinese bodies in recent years, leading to an emerging tattoo culture in the country’s big cities. According to a CNN article, one tattoo parlor owner in Beijing reported a tenfold increase in his annual income over the last six years. Wish I could say the same!

These days it’s hard to go to any major Chinese city without seeing a rose on some girl’s ankle or a dragon peeking out from a guy’s shirt. Tattoos, like Louis Vuitton and Starbucks, are now a part of the modern culture of China.

Having tattoos in China can still cause you problems, however. There are still some companies in that won’t provide health insurance or employ you if you have a visible tattoo. Once again we see that even as China changes there remain tensions with tradition.

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Keywords: Chinese tattoos tattoos in China


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looks more like decadence than modernity to me

Jan 14, 2018 13:28 Report Abuse