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China's Army Lifts Ban on Tattoos


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Interesting new info:

Tattoos are no more taboo for China military

Michael Wines, NYT News Service | Nov 4, 2011, 06.36AM IST

BEIJING: Seeking to broaden its appeal to China's better-educated and perhaps more hip youth, the People's Liberation Army has dropped a longtime bar to enlisting in the service: now, recruits can sport tattoos on their faces and necks. Moreover, enlistees may be chubbier or thinner than the rules had previously allowed.

The defence ministry announced the changes on Wednesday, five days after China's legislature, the National People's Congress, approved a relaxation of the rules for military service.

Recruits with facial or neck tattoos will now qualify for service if the decorations are no larger than two centimeters wide, or about 0.8 inches. The new weight rules permit a recruit to weigh as much as 25% more or 15% less than the army's standard, as opposed to 20 and 10% in the past.

The ministry also began an effort to lure more university students to the military, offering them a 6,000 renminbi discount on annual tuition - around $944 - if they take a break from their studies to enlist. Although military service is technically compulsory , the draft is seldom needed because there are more than enough volunteers to fill the ranks of the 2.3-million member force.

The newly relaxed rules seek to attract better-educated recruits for a military that increasingly relies on technically sophisticated weaponry.

Tattoos, in particular, were once scorned, but they have become faddish among the savvier urban youth that the People's Liberation Army hopes to attract. There is a precedent: China's most famous tattoo belonged to a Southern Song dynasty general, Yue Fei, who served in the 12th century . Folklore states that he once quit the army and returned home after his field marshal deserted, only to be berated by his mother for turning his back on his country.

On that back, she then tattooed the words, "loyalty to the nation." Yue Fei returned to battle and became one of the nation's most celebrated warriors before being framed by a rival and executed.

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@ Lochlan: This is interesting. Do you know if other tattoos were allowed earlier? Like non-visible tattoos on arms etc. I always thought they had a complete ban on tattoos in the Chinese army and police force. When I was in China, it was really rare to see people with tattoos in general.

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@Henrik when I initially read the article I did some reading on the above mentioned Yue Fei and found the following variation of info on multiple sites though don't know overall:

According to historical records and legend, Yue had tattooed the four Chinese characters jin zhong bao guo (simplified Chinese: 尽忠报国; traditional Chinese: 盡忠報國; pinyin: jìn zhōng bào guó; literally "serve the country with the utmost loyalty") tattooed across his back. The Biography of Yue Fei says after Qin Hui sent agents to arrest Yue and his son, he was taken before the court and charged with treason, but

Yue ripped his jacket to reveal the four brush-stroke characters of "serve the country with the utmost loyalty" on his back. This proved that he was clearly innocent of the charges. (飛裂裳以背示鑄,有“盡忠報國”四大字,深入膚理。既而閱實無左驗,鑄明其無辜。)

It does not comment when and who gave him the tattoo, though. Later fictionalizations of Yue's biography would build upon the tattoo. For instance, one of his earliest Ming era novels titled The Story of King Yue Who Restored the Song Dynasty (大宋中興岳王傳) states that after the Jurchen armies invaded China, young heroes in Yue's village suggest that they join the bandits in the mountains. However, Yue objects and has one of them tattoo the aforementioned characters on his back. Whenever others want to join the bandits, he flashes them the tattoo to change their minds.

The common legend of Yue receiving the tattoo from his mother first appeared in Shuo Yue Quanzhuan. In chapter 21 titled "By a pretext Wang Zuo swore brotherhood, by tattoos Lady Yue instructed her son", Yue denounces the pirate chief Yang Yao (杨幺) and passes on a chance to become a general in his army. Yue Fei's mother then tells her son, "I, your mother, saw that you did not accept recruitment of the rebellious traitor, and that you willingly endure poverty and are not tempted by wealth and status ... But I fear that after my death, there may be some unworthy creature who will entice you ... For these reason ... I want to tattoo on your back the four characters 'Utmost', 'Loyalty', 'Serve' and 'Nation' ... The Lady picked up the brush and wrote out on his spine the four characters for 'serving the nation with the utmost loyalty' ... [so] she bit her teeth, and started pricking. Having finished, she painted the characters with ink mixed with vinegar so that the colour would never fade."

The Kaifeng Jews, one of many pockets of Chinese Jews living in ancient China, refer to this tattoo in two of their three stele monuments created in 1489, 1512, and 1663. The first mention appeared in a section of the 1489 stele referring to the Jews' "Boundless loyalty to the country and Prince." The second appeared in a section of the 1512 stele about how Jewish soldiers and officers in the Chinese armies were "boundlessly loyal to the country

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The story of Yue Fei is probably one of the few examples where tattoos in China has not been associated with criminal activity. I found this article which sheds some more light on the history of tattoos in China, if interested: Skin Deep - The art of tattooing in China - All about China | Radio86.com

Since ancient times, people have decorated their bodies with tattoos. In those times, this type of skin art was not limited to any particular geographical area, but was very common among primitive peoples around the world. Despite its long history, modern civilizations have regarded tattooing as something that only savage jungle people or criminals practiced. Today, it has become a popular way for especially young people to show off their individuality.

In China, tattoos have traditionally been associated with prisoners or members of criminal gangs. Against this background, it is understandable that some Chinese elders still view this form of body art with a certain degree of contempt. But in addition to tattoos being considered the mark of a convicted man, they have long been part of tribal rituals, in southern China in particular. Eventually, the tattooing practices of some of China's indigenous people spread west along the Silk Road, which stretched from Xi'an in central China all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Tattooing remains a long-standing tradition among China's Drung and Dai minorities. According to custom, Drung girls are tattooed at the age of 12 or 13 as a symbol of their maturity. Typically, the tattoo consists of lines drawn between the eyebrows, on the cheeks and around the mouth in such a way as to form a butterfly. According to ancient practice, the tattoos are made by first drawing on the skin using coal-blackened water and by puncturing the skin with a thorn. Once scabs form, the tattoo becomes permanent.

Traditional tribal tattoos.

The tradition of tattooing women was born during the Ming dynasty when villages were often attacked by rival ethnic groups, who would kidnap and rape the village women. To avoid this fate, women tried to make themselves uglier by tattooing their faces. Today, the practice of facial tattooing still persists among the Drung people, but only as a coming of age ritual.

Dai women have traditionally sported tattoos on the back of their hands, arms or between their eyebrows. For men, tattoos served to show off their muscularity, which is why most tattooed their biceps, backs or chests. The designs were mostly animal-themed and made using black plant extract. Dai people believed tattoos would protect them against attacks by mythical creatures, as black skin would scare the monsters away. Today, tattoos are mainly used to symbolize female beauty and male bravery. They are also a useful means of recognizing members of the same ethnic group.

Historic tattoos

The most famous tattoo to appear in Chinese history is that of Yueh Fei, a renowned general from the South Song Dynasty. When he joined the military forces fighting off the enemy from the north, his trusted troop leader suddenly jumped ship and joined the enemy ranks. Disgusted by this treachery, Yueh Fei resigned and returned home to care for his mother.

At home, Yueh Fei's mother was displeased with her son's decision to leave the fighting fields in the midst of war and lectured him about how a soldier's first duty was being loyal to his country. To make sure her son would never forget this principle, she tattooed on his back the words jĭn zhōng bào guó, 盡忠報國 (simplified: 尽忠报国 ), which translate into 'ultimate,' 'loyalty,' 'serve,' 'country.'

Now carrying a tattoo on his back, Yueh Fei went back to war and advanced the ranks to become a respected general. And still today, Yueh Fei's tattoo is evoked in an opera recounting his feats.

Making a mark

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong banned tattoos in China, calling them a manifestation of impurity and roguery. This attitude still persists today, as military personnel, for example, are still forbidden to have tattoos. Similarly, some enterprises have a policy of not hiring people who have tattoos or other body ornamentation.

Chinese authorities tend to be prejudiced against people boasting tattoos on their skins, as they are considered to be affiliated with people engaged in illegal or anti-social activities. In the past, some judges ordered convicted rapists and murderers to have their faces tattooed, and banished them from their hometowns. This practice has undoubtedly reinforced the impression that tattoos usually adorn the skin of criminals.

These negative associations are deep-set in Chinese culture, where people with tattoos are still frowned upon. According to Small Swords Magazine, the Beijing Olympic Committee said as recently as this year that it will not consider people with tattoos for hosting the opening and medal ceremonies at the 2008 Games, because it did not want to upset the athletes by having "sleazy" looking people around them.

But judging by the turnout at the China Tattoo Show Convention 2007 last June, prejudices are gradually being laid to the side as more and more people develop an interest in tattoo art.

Giving old prejudices the boot

China's young people have adopted tattoos and piercings as part of their fashion, just like their Western counterparts. And just like with fashion, the latest trends in tattoos travel quickly around the world.

Originally, Chinese young people took tattoos to show they were cool, but now they are becoming more interested in the designs, often spending a lot of time and effort to create unique tattoos, or to look for the design that best matches their personality, a tattoo artist from Beijing says.

Lower back tattoos are popular among women.

Women with tattoos are held even more in contempt than men with skin art. According to Sofia, women who have tattoos are in China often labeled as "those type of women." Sofia got her own tattoo, a butterfly, abroad, and says she hides it when she is in China. She says the prejudices linked to people who have tattoos cause them to be unjustly singled out at job interviews, for example.

Attitudes are changing, but still, most parents oppose the idea of their offspring covering their body with such noticeable, and sometimes provoking art. According to Chinese philosophy of thought, a person's body is a precious gift from his or her parents and, therefore, should never be abused or blemished with a tattoo. But the freedom to decide what to do with one's body is one of the most inalienable rights human beings possess, which makes tattoos a very effective way of communicating one's likes and convictions to other members of society.

"Tattoos aren't as popular as colored hair in China yet," Sofia says, "but they are getting there, as more and more trend setting celebrities get themselves tattooed."

"I did this is just for fun and I like butterflies very much because of their colors and the way they fly... I had been dreaming about having a tattoo on my arm for a long time. Now I have it, and I feel very happy about it," she says.

The growing popularity of tattoos as a sign of individualism is reflective of the changes sweeping the Chinese society. "I believe that tattoos will become more fashionable in China in the future when individuality and freedom are more respected," Sofia says.

Originally published on 2007-11-28

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